How Attachment Theory Plays a Role in Your Relationships
Updated: Aug 17
I remember the sweet moment of skin-to-skin contact when in his few first breaths of life, my son was placed on my chest. While the bond itself was not new, this little person I had been connected to for the past 9 months was finally here, in the flesh. Even at the age of 12 minutes, his tiny brain was already forming an understanding of human connection.
If you're even slightly familiar with the concept of attachment, you probably associate the theory with the bonding in infancy between parent and child. We are all driven by this very basic need to be close to others, seek affection and find belonging and acceptance. We question if and when our needs will be met, look around at who can be trusted, and wonder if we are loved, safe, and valued. All the things that make us human.
John Bowlby is the one credited for his assertions about the role of attachment, along with Mary Ainsworth, in the 1950's. They concluded that a relationally secure bond between child and caregiver supported future brain development, impacted personality, and laid the foundation for all future relationships. No big deal...
If you didn't have a present parental figure during your early days or maybe suffer from other attachment wounds, take heart and keep reading. This is a broken world full of broken people and if you have deep hurts from a fractured or non-existent relationship with a parent, that is not your fault. Nor does it mean you're trapped in your insecurities forever. First, let's review the four basic attachment styles. The Attachment Project lends some great descriptions of how these four styles present characteristically in relationships:
Anxious-ambivalent attachment is marked by a fear of abandonment, a need for approval from others, low self-esteem, obsessive concern about rejection, and "clinginess" in relationships.
Anxious attachment can also be described as "preoccupied." While this is not always the case, anxious attachment can be developed in children raised with chronic inconsistent parenting. Sometimes needs are met, other times they aren't. Parents have their own stuff because again, we're human. But when the caregiver is a giant question mark of unpredictability, it creates turmoil for young children who are now confused about the mixed signals he or she is receiving.
One teenage client I saw had some self-esteem struggles amongst normal adolescent woes. She was in and out of relationships and engaging in risky behavior, fearful of rejection. A pattern emerged when talking about her parents, both of which were very inconsistent. Dad walked in and out of her life, sometimes leaving the country without notice. Mom had a new boyfriend every few months and was often gone for huge chunks of time while her kids were with a sitter. It now made sense why this girl was mistrustful of authority and latching on to new middle school boyfriends, doing anything to gain loyalty and a sense of security. She had a deep fear of abandonment.
People in this category may be seen as confident and self-sufficient, but really Avoidants are often emotionally unavailable, avoid conversations about feelings, and struggle with physical intimacy or maintaining long-term relationships.
As you would expect, avoidant attachment was probably modeled early on. Parents who avoid conversations about feelings, conflict, or showing affection are going to- probably unintentionally- instill this in their children. It can be seen as a positive thing, considering independence and high self-esteem are praiseworthy qualities. But in reality true avoidant attachment is extremely limiting. It dulls the vibrance and dampens the joy of emotional closeness and intimacy. It can be devastating to a marriage when one partner is closed off or possibly completely unable to know their spouse in a deeper way.
My personal theory is that more men than women may be classified as having avoidant attachment. Each generation turns a new corner but in regard to stigma, the "toughen up" mentality has been instilled in the American male for decades. Men were not to delve into a deeper emotional realm. Heaven forbid they seek help or allow a stray tear to express concealed feelings. Thankfully, our culture is becoming more receptive to the expression of feelings for both men and women and exploring how emotional connection- and communication- is an essential part of a healthy relationship.
Combine both anxious and avoidant attachments and you create a disorganized one. This one breaks my heart as it is mostly characterized by fear. A romantic relationship might be desired, but this individual has no idea how to acquire or maintain one.
Trauma, especially when involving physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of a caregiver, is often the catalyst for this development. What should signify safety is instead a betrayal, the ultimate incongruence in our understanding of human relationships. As a result, there is fear of closeness and intimacy, despite there being a desire. The Attachment Project quotes, "These adults expect and are waiting for the rejection, disappointment, and hurt to come. In their perception, it is inevitable."
Unfortunately, before so many are able to receive actual help to start the healing process and begin forming healthy relationships, there is sometimes substance abuse, crime, heartache, and mental health decline. The most battered and bruised people I've interacted with come from the most unpredictable and unforgiving environments- and if I interviewed their parents I would likely discover a generational pattern. This is why it is so imperative to seek help for unresolved trauma or loss. Though it's not an easy step by any means, you are breaking one trend and beginning a new legacy that brings healing not only to yourself but generations to come.
Securely attached people are able to connect with others and form long-lasting and meaningful relationships. They can access emotions and express feelings. While bad days are unavoidable sometimes, for the most part secure attachment means positive self-concept, warmth, and socialization.
The good news is this- research shows that the majority of us are in this category. So even if some of the previously mentioned tendencies of the other attachment styles are hitting a little too close to home, these don't define you. It also doesn't mean that if you don't identify yourself as securely attached today you can't continue to heal and grow to become so.
You're not going to be 100% secure all the time. That's just not realistic. Again, need I say we're human? In my own marriage, I tend exhibit some of the anxious attachment characteristics while my husband leans more toward avoidant. Ultimately, we are secure in who we are both in marriage and as individuals. But when we're in conflict or just not operating at our best, that's usually when fear of rejection crops up and emotional doors slam shut.
A group of researchers found that childhood attachment patterns are strikingly similar to adult ones. Meaning, how we try to connect with our loved ones now and meet our needs hasn’t changed much since when we were just wee babes. We still seek safety with our partners, play off each other's emotions, and feel rising insecurity when it feels like someone we trust and depend on is unavailable.
It's all an ever-evolving learning and growing process, like most things, but here are a few signals of what secure attachment looks like in a marriage. The Attachment Project notes several key indicators of secure attachment in a romantic relationships:
Back to the skin-to-skin contact with your sweet newborn. You are absolutely going to make mistakes. Already I've had a few groan-worthy parenting fails and we're just getting started. But even if you carry wounds from your own family or relationship background, new life is a fresh start. We are already given the formula for raising children with secure attachment.
Create a safe environment, which includes raising up warriors to face the world with strength and courage (Joshua 1:9.) Teach them about their value and worth (Psalm 139), upholding the message that they are precious treasures from the Lord. On that same token, discipline and correct in love (Ephesians 6:4). Give them room to explore, discover, and act in God-given autonomy as they spread wings and begin their own families (Genesis 2:24.)
Learning about Attachment Theory has not only helped me to better understand myself but enhance precious relationships in my life. And while this post is anything but an exhaustive spread on the subject, there are now tons of resources at our fingertips.You can check out Attachments: Why You Love Feel, and Act the Way You Do on Amazon to learn more or explore The Attachment Theory Workbook for additional tools. We are absolutely made to crave close, intimate connection with others. This is all part of living well. Stay tuned for more on nurturing secure attachment and stability in healthy relationships!