Attachment theory has gotten a great deal of attention recently. Understanding our attachment patterns not only helps our intimate relationships, but it can also foster further self-awareness and self-compassion. Having this insight into our relational patterns can be empowering and help us start to develop new ways of relating to those with whom we are intimate.
Let’s jump into a few of the basic tenants of attachment including the core functions of attachment and a breakdown of the four attachment styles.
We learn to feel safe and secure in the world - or fail to do so - in an attachment relationship. From an evolutionary perspective, attachment helps keep the young close to their caregiver for not only physical protection, but also for a feeling of security. Through this, the child develops a secure base, a person who feels safe, trustworthy and dependable. This secure base is someone to whom they can return to after branching out momentarily to explore the world around them. In fact, we can consider the life of an intrepid and curious child as a series of excursions from their secure base, as is true for adults who also take risks and pursue their interests.
Having a secure base or emotional anchor promotes the exploration of the outer world, and in addition it promotes the exploration of your inner world; that is, your mind and the mind of others. When we feel safe and secure in our relationships, it promotes our ability to be curious, self-reflective, insightful and empathetic towards ourselves and others. An example of this is therapy. Your relationship with your therapist is a secure, comforting connection that allows you to explore your mind.
Alongside the development of a secure base that promotes exploration and healthy risks, having secure attachments fosters our ability to regulate our physiological arousal. Consider a recent time you felt stressed or anxious and this physiological response was quieted after receiving comfort from another.
Before jumping into the four different attachment styles, it is worthy to note two more points.
Attachment styles are influenced by a variety of factors. Oftentimes we associate attachment solely with a single source - how we were cared for as children. For instance, if our parents are sensitive and responsive then we will develop a secure attachment. Although we are more likely to develop a secure attachment, our caregivers are only one influence. Other variables that can influence our attachment styles include temperament, experiences of trauma and the relationships with other attachment figures.
This pours over into my second point. Attachment styles are not fixed, rather I like to consider them as templates to relating to others. We may have a template of relating that we often find ourselves using, however with insight and new relational experiences, new templates can be created. If a person with a secure attachment is in relationship with someone who is highly avoidant, they may start to develop some anxious tendencies within that relationship. On the flip side, if an individual with a more anxious/avoidant attachment style is in relationship with someone with a more secure style of attachment, it’s more likely they will begin to develop a more secure way of relating to others.
The four patterns of attachment
The individual with a secure attachment template is comfortable with intimacy. That is, they feel confident their attachment figure will be accessible and emotionally responsive, so they feel comfortable to reach out for contact and comfort in times of distress. They also show up reliably and consistently for their partners. They find their relationship to be a source of calm and restoration.
The individual who uses an avoidant template fears losing their independence and thus minimizes closeness to others. In an effort to minimize their need for others, they tend to develop a self-sufficient stance that keeps others at arm’s length distance. Avoidant attachment usually develops in response to having their needs rejected, thus they defend themselves to believe they don’t need closeness.
Someone with an anxious attachment craves intimacy. Within this relational template, people are oftentimes left feeling anxious and in need. Insecurities and fears of abandonment usually surface. This attachment style is partly derived from having inconsistent primary attachments.
In this type of attachment, the child and later the adult learn that the safe haven or secure base is also a source of alarm. This puts the individual in a profound dilemma where they both yearn for closeness and comfort, yet find that the source of comfort is the same source that causes them pain. This relational template can be associated with maltreatment in primary attachments including physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or extreme neglect.
As noted above, attachment is not something that is simply imprinted on us. It undergoes monumental shifts over the course of our lives. For many, relationships have been a source of pain and trauma; thus, having a secure attachment is a primary place to also heal from that trauma. Cultivating such attachment relationships whether with a romantic partner, friend, family member, or therapist can be deeply healing because it is where our sense of safety and security is restored.