Understanding Attachment Styles
Have you ever wondered why some people act a certain way in relationships; jealous, paranoid, insecure, needy, or assertive? We have all known someone whose relationships are always full of drama. Why is this? It could be that they are finding themselves attracted to people who simply have a different attachment style, which can cause friction in a relationship if not worked through as a couple.
Attachment theory is a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans. The idea was first introduced by British psychologist, Dr. John Bowlby, who believed that children are born with a biological tendency to seek and remain close to parental figures. This innate need for comfort and nurturance aids in the child’s survival, ensuring that the child’s needs are met, and that he or she is protected from the dangers in the environment.
Initially, researchers thought that this attachment bond was developed between the child and caregiver because he or she provided the child with the basic necessities, such as food and water. However, it was Dr. Harry Harlow who challenged that idea by isolating infant monkeys from their biological mothers in the hours after their birth. There isolated monkeys were then raised by two “surrogate mothers” who were made of heavy wire mesh or of wood covered with cloth. The wire monkey would provide the infant monkey with food and water, while the mother made of wood and soft cloth would provide nothing but comfort. What he found was that the infant monkey would spend the majority of its time with the soft comforting mother and would even cling to her when he sought protection from potential danger. He only visited the wire mother when needing food or drink. This showed that attachment was in fact not developed through need for necessity, but through comfort and safety.
So what does this mean? Children develop an attachment style during the critical first months of their life and this style can affect the way they behave socially as adults, including the way they respond in romantic relationships.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed an experiment which tested a child’s secure base called, “The Strange Situation.” This experiment tests how babies or young children respond to the temporary absence of their mother. The child and their mother are placed in a room filled with toys and activities. After the child begins to play, the mother leaves the room and a stranger comes in to stay with the child. They watch and measure the child’s response when she leaves, whether or not they return to their previous activity while she is away, and how easily they are comforted at their mother’s return.
Based upon the responses the researchers observed, Ainsworth labeled three major styles of attachment; secure, ambivalent (or anxious), and avoidant. A child with secure attachment will be moderately upset when the mother leaves, they will welcome comfort from her when she returns, and then easily resume to exploring and playing. A child with a secure attachment has developed a trust with his mother or caregiver and understands that he can depend on her under stress. He has also learned that the world is safe to explore.
A child with an ambivalent or anxious style will be more distraught than the secure child when their mother leaves and is resistant to her when she returns. When the mother tries to reestablish close proximity, the child is often angry and resentful toward her for leaving. The child typically will cling to the mother and does not continue to play or explore due to their inability to be consoled.
A child with an avoidant style doesn’t tend to explore or play much, nor does he show much emotion when his mother leaves the room. When the stranger enters, he shows no preference for his mother over the complete stranger. And when his mother returns, he tends to avoid or ignore her.
What happens to children who do not form secure attachments? Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behavior in later childhood and throughout the life. Children diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which could develop from early abuse, neglect, or trauma.
On Monday, May 9th, Jewish Family Service invited Dr. Amir Levine, a board certified in adult psychiatry and is a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Society for Neuroscience, to speak about his book Attached. Attached dives into how these attachment styles affect adult relationships and offers a road map starting from the first date, for building stronger, more fulfilling connections with the people they love.
During his presentation, Dr. Levine discussed ways a person’s attachment style can affect their romantic relationships. For example, it is not uncommon for a person who has an anxious attachment style to crave intimacy and rush into relationship, yet they are fearful of their partner’s ability to love them back. An avoidant person tends to keep people at an arm’s length, not allowing true intimacy to grow. They often equate intimacy with loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness. It is estimated that nearly half of all people have a secure attachment style, while a quarter of all people have either an avoidant, or anxious attachment style.
“The good news is that a person’s attachment style can evolve over time,” says Dr. Levine. “The best way to develop a secure attachment style is to have a partner with a secure attachment style.”
“People with a secure attachment style should be considered super mates,” says Dr. Levine. “They are often considered boring because of their predictability and consistency. However, they provide their partner with stability. Stability is a quality someone with an anxious or avoidant style needs.”
It is reassuring to know that simply because someone has an insecure attachment style there is still the possibility to change and become secure. Science has even proved that being in a long-term secure relationship creates psychological as well as physiological, health benefits. People who are in healthy secure relationships tend to live longer, have less stress, less physical aches and pains, better overall mental health, and tend to have healthier hearts.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.