People with different attachment styles behave and interact differently in relationships. Early attachment styles revolve around the interaction between parents and children.
The term attachment style describes patterns of attachment in romantic relationships in adulthood. A lot of attachment research and theory developed in the 1960s and 1970s led to the concept of attachment styles. The four most common attachment styles are typically recognized by psychologists today.
What is Attachment?
Attachment is defined as a specially formed emotional bond involving comfort, care, and pleasure. While attachment theory is usually credited to a researcher other than Freud, its roots can be traced to his theories of love.
Among Bowlby’s many contributions to attachment theory was his definition of attachment as “a lasting psychological connection between humans.”1 Bowlby shared the psychoanalytic belief that early experiences in childhood influence behavior and development in the future.
Our attachment styles are shaped by the infant-caregiver relationship when we are young. Moreover, Bowlby believed attachments played an important role in evolutionary survival. “The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature,” he explained.
1. Characteristics of Attachment
According to Bowlby, attachment has four distinctive features:
- Proximity maintenance: Our desire to be close to the people we care about.
- Safe haven: When faced with fear or threat, turning to an attachment figure for comfort and safety.
- Secure base: Attachment figures serve as bases of security for exploring the environment around them.
- Separation distress: Anxiety that occurs when an attachment figure is absent.
Attachment theory has also been described by Bowlby in three ways. First of all, he indicated that children with the confidence that they will have a primary caregiver are less likely to experience fear than those who are never assured of this.
Secondly, he believed that the forming of such a sense of self occurs during what is known as a critical period of development, during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. People tend to maintain their expectations formed during that time for much of their lives.
Finally, he said that expectations arose from experiences. Essentially, children develop an expectation that their caregivers will respond to their needs, based on their past experiences with their caregivers.
Check: Personality Disorders
2. Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Assessment
Mary Ainsworth further developed Bowlby’s groundbreaking research with her now-famous “Strange Situation” study. In this study, children between the ages of 12 and 18 months were systematically left alone for a short period of time before being reunited with their mothers. The list of strange situations that Ainsworth outlined was as follows:
- A parent and child sit in a room alone.
- Parental supervision allows the child to explore the room.
- The stranger approaches the child and speaks to the parent.
- A parent quietly leaves the room.
- Parent comforts child upon return.
According to Ainsworth, there were three major types of attachment: secure attachments, ambivalent-insecure attachments, and avoidant-insecure attachments.
Several studies have shown that Ainsworth’s conclusions are valid, and there has also been research demonstrating these early attachment styles predict later behaviors.
3. Attachment Through Life
If you are blaming your parents for relationship troubles, you should know that the attachment styles formed in early childhood may not be the same as romantic attachments in adulthood. The intervening years between infancy and adulthood also have a large bearing on adult attachment styles.
Childhood attachment patterns that were ambivalent or avoidant can become secure as adults, while childhood attachment patterns that were secure can become insecure as adults. It is also believed that basic temperament plays a role in attachment.
Is it possible that factors such as divorce or parental discord contribute to the formation of attachment styles? According to Hazan and Shaver, parental divorce and attachment styles seem unrelated.
They found that the most significant predictor of adult attachment style is how people perceive their relationship with their parents and how their parents relate to each other.
The research on this subject does suggest, however, that relationships forged in childhood have a profound impact on subsequent relationships. In addition, Hazan and Shaver found that adults with different attachment styles have different beliefs about relationships.
Couples with a secure attachment tend to view romantic love as enduring. Adults who exhibit ambivalent attachment styles admit to falling in love frequently, while those with avoidant attachment styles say it is rare and temporary.
The early attachment style cannot be compared directly with adult romantic attachment, but research shows that early attachment style can predict future behavior.
Check: Psychotic Disorders
4. Secure Attachment Characteristics
When their parents leave, children who are securely attached usually become visibly upset, but once their parents return, they are usually happy as well. Frightened children will seek comfort from their parents or caregivers.
Securely attached children welcome the return of parents and are readily accepting of contact initiated by their parents. The vast majority of these children prefer to be with their parents over strangers in the absence of a parent or caregiver, although other people can comfort them to an extent.
Play is a common activity among secure attachment parents. Additionally, they respond to their children more quickly and are generally more responsive to them than parents with insecurely attached children.
Researchers have shown that secure attachment-styled children exhibit greater empathy as they age. Secure attachment-styled children are also described as less disruptive, less aggressive, and more mature than their ambivalent or avoidant counterparts.
- Separated from the parent
- Comforts parents when frightened
- Parents are greeted with positive emotions upon their return
- Parents are preferred over strangers
- Build trusting, lasting relationships
- Self-esteem tends to be high
- Feelings should be shared with partners and friends
- Take advantage of social support
Even though it is normal and expected for caregivers to develop a secure attachment with their patients, Hazan and Shaver point out that it is not always possible. Several factors have been identified as contributing to the development of secure attachment (or its absence), including a mother’s responsiveness to her infant’s needs during the first year of life.
Babies who are poorly supported by their mothers or who are interfered with often cling to them and are anxious. Generally, children who have their mothers consistently reject or ignore their infants try to avoid contact with them as they grow.
Adults who have a secure attachment tend to have long-term, trusting relationships. Securely attached individuals also have high self-esteem, enjoy intimate relationships, seek out social support, and can express their emotions.
Researchers found that women who describe themselves as secure in their attachment style expressed more positive feelings about their adult romantic relationships than others who considered themselves insecure.
Do you consider yourself to be securely attached? Five-six percent of respondents in a classic study by Hazan and Shaver had an accurate assessment of their security, while twenty-five percent identified themselves as avoidant, and 19 percent as ambivalent/anxious.
Read: What are Emotions
5. Ambivalent Attachment Characteristics
Children who have an ambivalent attachment are likely to be suspicious of strangers. It is obvious that these children are distressed when separated from a parent or caregiver, but they appear unreassured or comforted by the return of the parent. Some children may passively reject their parents by refusing comfort, or they may openly show aggression toward them.
Only 7 to 15 percent of US infants exhibit ambivalent attachment, Cassidy and Berlin found.8 In a review of the empirical research on ambivalent attachment, Cassidy and Berlin also found that low maternal availability is associated with ambivalent attachment insecurity. Children who exhibit these traits are described by teachers as being clingy and overly dependent as they get older.
- Be cautious around strangers
- When parents leave, they become greatly distressed
- When parents return, don’t appear comforted
- Relationships with others are difficult
- Feel they are not loved by their partner
- Become very upset when relationships end
Those with ambivalent attachment styles often feel hesitant about becoming close to others and worry that they will not be reciprocated. The result is frequent breakups, often due to a feeling of coldness and distance between the partners.
These people are particularly affected by the breakup of a relationship. The pathological pattern of ambivalent attachments between adults and children as a source of security was described by Cassidy and Berlin.
6. Avoidant Attachment Characteristics
The avoidant attachment style is characterized by children avoiding their parents and caregivers. When one has been absent, this avoidance is often more prominent.
Children with these traits may not reject attention, but they also may not seek comfort or contact from a parent. An avoidant attachment child does not prefer their parents to a stranger.
- May avoid parents
- Parents should not provide much comfort or contact to you
- Do not show a preference for parents over strangers
- Intimacy issues may occur
- Engage in social and romantic relationships with little emotion
- Incapable of sharing feelings or thoughts with others
Those with avoidant attachments often have trouble establishing close relationships as adults. In these people, relationships are not an emotional investment and relationships end with little distress.
Often, they will use excuses (such as long working hours) to avoid intimacy or fantasize about other people during sex. Researchers have also found that adults who have an avoidant attachment style tend to engage in casual sex more often. The partner is also unable to share feelings, thoughts, or emotions with the partner, which is another characteristic common among couples.
7. Disorganized Attachment Characteristics
Attachment behaviors are unclear in children with an organized-insecure attachment style. They often react to caregivers in a range of ways, including avoiding or resisting them. Children with this disorder display confused or apprehensive behavior when they are in the presence of a caregiver.
At Age 1
- Display an avoidant and resistant attitude
- May seem confused, dazed, or apprehensive
- Takes on a parental role
- Children may act as caregivers for their parents
This style of attachment may be explained by inconsistent parenting behavior on behalf of parents. A disorganized attachment style is a result of parents who act as both fearful and reassuring figures to a child. Main and Hesse argue this in their later research. Due to the confusion caused by the child’s conflicting feelings, the parent comforts and frightens the child.
The early relationships with caregivers play a key role in our development, regardless of whether the attachments we have as adults accurately reflect those we have as children. When you gain a greater appreciation of the impact of attachment on adult relationships, you may be better equipped to understand how the earliest attachments in your life may influence them.