Exploring Human Connection: A Look at Attachment Theory
Our approaches to emotional connections with others largely depend upon childhood experiences of attachment with our caregivers. Early interactions with our parents shape how we navigate interpersonal relationships and intimacy throughout our lives. Let’s look at the insights into these childhood bonds that attachment theory provides.
Also Read: Basics of Child Psychology
Attachment Theory is a theory in developmental Psychology that says that humans are born with an inherent need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver. If the caregiver of an infant is appropriately responsive to its needs, such a bond develops during the first six months of the child’s life. This theory was developed by British psychologist John Bowlby. It was further expanded by Mary Ainsworth.
Attachment is the bond that forms between an infant and their primary caregiver. Bowlby claimed that an infant not only needs their caregiver (mother, in most cases) for food and nourishment but also has an innate need for the emotional connection that develops between them. He claimed that a child’s emotional problems do not merely arise from their internal processes, but are also affected by their interactions with their environment while growing up. Thus, he was interested in finding out what happens to children when this primary need for a bond is not met.
Psychologists have proposed that there are different kinds of attachment patterns in children and adults. These orientations reflect their different ways of regulating emotional reactions, especially when faced with stressful, threatening, or challenging situations. Individual differences in attachment patterns of children (between the ages of 12 to 18 months) were first documented by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues using the ‘Strange Situation’. The Strange Situation was a study designed by Ainsworth. It was designed to look at children’s attachment with their caregiver, and how it related to their exploration of the environment. It involved a series of separations and reunions of infants with their mothers, sometimes involving a stranger too.
Also Read: Impact of Hostile Parenting on Children
Attachment Patterns in Early Life
Based on the research and experimentation of Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and other colleagues, psychologists have arrived at the following attachment patterns:
- Secure Attachment: Children with a secure attachment to their caregiver are distressed upon separation, but they use their caregivers as a ‘secure base’ and warmly welcome them back upon reunion. They then resume other activities fairly quickly.
- Anxious-Resistant Attachment: This pattern describes children who are afraid of separation, and continue to be anxious and distressed even after reunion with them, displaying behaviours such as anger and resentment towards the caregiver.
- Anxious-Avoidant Attachment: this pattern describes children who do not show overt signs of distress when separated from caregivers, and appear calm. But, studies have found that they have other unobservable signs of distress such as elevated heart rates. Upon reunion, they remain detached and distant from the caregiver.
- Disorganised Attachment: This pattern describes children who have a haphazard reaction to separation and reunion with the caregiver. They may be dismissive and avoidant at times, and resistant at others. Psychologists have speculated that this pattern may be a consequence of childhood trauma.
Studies have shown that most children display a secure pattern of attachment, but some display insecure attachment patterns (the last three kinds described above). The attachment pattern of a child depends majorly on parenting. A child who receives responsive and sensitive caregiving develops a secure attachment.
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Lack of sensitive parenting, insufficient care, abuse, repeated change of primary caregivers, or neglect of the child’s basic needs of emotional bonds can result in them developing ‘reactive Attachment Disorder’ (RAD). According to the DSM-5, children with RAD exhibit a consistent pattern of emotionally withdrawn behaviour, very minimal emotional responsiveness to others, and unexplained instances of irritability, sadness, and fear.
This disorder can cause irreparable damage to a person’s ability to form and maintain intimate relationships and friendships in the future. Therefore, responsive caregiving is vital for a child’s proper development.
Attachment Styles in Adults
Psychologists have expanded the attachment theory to arrive at certain attachment styles in adults. These styles depend on their attachment histories and thus mirror attachment patterns of childhood. A person’s attachment style dictates the experience of their romantic relationships, and how they respond when they are faced with attachment-related threats and problems.
However, no one person has exactly one attachment style. It is better described as dimensional, where a person rates high, low or moderate levels of attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. The following are the descriptions of attachment styles in adults.
Secure individuals, from their past experiences, have learned that distress should be acknowledged. Distressing situations motivate them to approach their attachment figures (usually relationship partners) and see them as sources of comfort and support. In the face of potential attachment-related threats, they remain confident that their partners will be available to meet their needs and help them lower their stress and anxiety. They use problem-focused coping strategies and are more likely to be able to solve their problems.
The general characteristics of people with a secure attachment style are that they trust others easily. They are in touch with their own emotions, and can easily attune to others’ emotions as well and are comfortable with intimacy and generally face no problems in communicating their needs and feelings. They tend to handle conflict calmly.
Anxious (or Preoccupied) individuals have learned from childhood, to direct their attention towards the possible source of distress. They tend to keep ruminating about it and worry that their partners will not be able to meet their needs for comfort and support. They have an emotion-focused approach to problems, which keeps them overthinking about relationship loss and worst-case scenarios when there is an attachment-related threat.
General characteristics of highly anxious people are that they are hypervigilant about things going wrong, have extreme emotional reactions, and severely fear being abandoned by their loved ones. They usually hold a positive image of others but a negative image of themselves and are self-sacrificial in their relationships. They have immense difficulty in dealing with rejection, criticism, or judgement from others.
Avoidant (or dismissive) have learned from past experiences to acknowledge threat or conflict in a very limited manner. They try to inhibit and control any negative emotional reactions and use avoidant coping mechanisms to deal with threats. They dismiss or downplay their emotions completely. Avoidant-dismissive people tend to be highly self-reliant and independent.
They fear vulnerability and have a hard time opening up to others. They also face difficulties in seeking help when they need it. In contrast with anxious people, they maintain a positive view of themselves but are critical of others. They tend to distance themselves when they think that they are starting to grow close to someone and have problems with intimacy.
People with a disorganised attachment style, also known as fearful-avoidant, have inconsistent behaviours towards their attachment figures. They have a hard time trusting others. They demonstrate behaviours characteristic of both avoidant and anxious styles, oscillating between the two arbitrarily. As mentioned before, this style is usually a result of childhood trauma and experiences of neglect by the caregiver.
Attachment styles are the latest social media buzzword, with multiple quizzes and online tests popping up to help you determine your attachment style. Everybody is interested in discovering their attachment pattern and determining if their relationship will stand the test of time. However, such quizzes are not reliable, and it is not possible to determine your attachment style based on superficial questions and limited information. The assessment of such an important aspect of your personality is best left to professionals, who can do a deep dive into your childhood experiences and behavioural patterns to find out your attachment style. Even if you let curiosity get the best of you and have fun with attachment-style quizzes online, don’t believe the results to be an accurate depiction of your personality. In any case, attachment styles are not set in stone, and can be changed over time depending on adulthood experiences too!