What is Attachment Theory?

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As we make our way through our grown-up lives, we don’t always consider how the first few years of childhood might still be affecting us. Yet according to attachment theory, our earliest experiences — most notably, our earliest relationships — have a profound and lasting effect on all aspects of our lives, in terms of our personalities, mental health struggles, and adult relationships.

What Is Attachment Theory?

Psychologists have long believed that our primary relationships (usually with a parent, but anyone who cared for us in our earliest days would qualify) shape us in powerful ways. Attachment theory looks specifically at the kind of attachment we formed with these caretakers, and whether or not these attachments were secure.

So, for example, when you cried as a baby or toddler, how did your parent or caregiver respond? Was there a sense in your childhood that you were allowed to express your needs and your fears? Did you feel bonded to your caregivers? Did you feel secure in these relationships?

Attachment theory was first introduced by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the late 1960s. They studied the effects of separation anxiety and insecure attachment on children and how these shaped their adult personalities and relationships. In essence, children who had secure attachments to their primary caregivers were also able to form secure and stable relationships later in life. They were also able to better self-regulate, and had lower instances of mental health disorders.

Four Childhood Attachment Styles and Their Impact on Future Relationships

The theory is that the kind of attachment — or lack thereof — that we experienced in early childhood gets transferred to our future intimate relationships. Psychologists have named four kinds of childhood attachments, and have theorized how these attachment styles inform our adult relationships.

1. Secure Attachment

If you experienced secure attachment as a child, you may have been upset when you were separated from your caregiver, but you trusted they would return. Your caregiver was a “secure base” from which you would safely explore the world. As an adult, you are able to form secure relationships, express vulnerable feelings, and offer comfort when others reach out for help. Your relationships tend to be long-lasting and built on a foundation of trust.

2. Anxious Preoccupied Attachment

Insecure attachment as a child may have shaped you into the kind of person who constantly feels the need to prove the worth of a particular relationship. You may feel anxious, clingy, and untrusting in a relationship. You may feel possessive or be described as “pushy” — and many times this pushiness only pushes the other person away.

3. Avoidant Attachment

Other instances of insecure attachment may cause you to detach in your intimate relationships. You may constantly feel the need to distance yourself in a relationship, though you may unconsciously fear rejection. You may also often act defensive and feel angry towards others. You may crave independence in a relationship while the other person wants more intimacy.

4. Fearful Avoidant Attachment

If you experience both anxiety and avoidance in relationships, you might be described as “fearful avoidant.” Maybe you try to push people away, but you also are constantly looking for reassurance. You may be constantly overwhelmed by your feelings but afraid to express them. Or, you may express your feelings constantly — maybe too much for some people — yet continue to have trouble bonding with others.

Attachment and Adult Mental Health

Besides relationship woes, psychologists believe that insecure attachment during early childhood may also be a contributing factor to several different mental health disturbances — everything from behavioral problems among children to depression and anxiety in adults.

There is also a relationship between attachment in early life and resilience. A fascinating report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child found that having a strong bond with at least one adult in the early years of life had an intensive effect on a person’s ability to rebound from stressful situations, self-regulate, and may even affect how our brains and immune systems react to stress.

Healing From Attachment Disorders

One of the important facts gleaned from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child report was that any adult in a child’s life — a parent, a guardian, but even a teacher or mentor — can offer that secure attachment. Most importantly, the researchers believe that resilience is something that is born not only from secure attachments, but from positive experiences, and that resilience and attachment can be built over time.

Therapy and support groups

Of course, rebounding from attachment issues as an adult means understanding the origins of your issues, and being willing and able to work through these painful memories. Working with a compassionate therapist can help as you begin this journey — many therapists have a background in attachment theory and can gently help you tackle these issues. You may even consider trying attachment-based family therapy (ABFT), a kind of group therapy aimed at healing broken attachments and rebuilding relationships.

It can be really intense to examine how our earliest attachments continue to affect our lives now, especially if we see patterns of insecure attachments, hurt, and pain. Be kind to yourself as you explore these things, and remember that love and security are out there for you: it’s never too late to receive them.

Published by

Wendy Wisner

Contributor