The Science Behind Attachment Styles

The Science Behind Attachment Styles

Learn what attachment styles are and where they come from.

Attachment styles can be described as the way in which we relate to others (Levy et al., 2011). They are the template for what we can expect from the world around us. An attachment style includes the basis of our self-concept, how willing we are to trust others, and the strategies we use to manage our emotions. The confluence of all of these factors drives how we feel and behave in relationships with others. For example, if we have learned that people are unreliable and that we aren’t worthy of love, these beliefs may be expressed in our relationships with others as anxiety.

Attachment Styles Theory

The theory of attachment styles was first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1960s and was further developed into our present understanding by Mary Ainsworth (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013). This theory states that, in addition to our basic needs such as food, water, and clothing, we have an inherent need for connection to a caregiver. This caregiver acts as our source of safety and comfort as we make our way through a new and sometimes scary world.

John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Attachment theory was first proposed by John Bowlby who studied how babies reacted to their mother leaving them alone in a room and then returning to the room. He described babies who were distressed by their mother leaving and soothed by their mother returning as ‘securely attached’. Babies who were distressed by their mother leaving the room but were not soothed by their mother returning were considered insecurely attached.

The hypothesis is basically that children who are more comforted by their mother’s return are better able to think of their mother as a secure base because their mother has consistently provided a sense of security. However, babies who are less easily comforted by their mothers likely have experienced inconsistencies in whether or not she will provide them with a sense of security.

The babies’ response to the situation is measured and used to determine their attachment style. Using this experimental design, Ainsworth identified 3 attachment styles: Secure, ambivalent, and avoidant.

Babies who felt distressed when their mother left the room, were unable to be comforted by the stranger, and were soothed by their mother’s return were considered securely attached.

Babies who felt distressed when their mother left the room, were unable to be comforted by the stranger, and were not soothed by their mother’s return were considered to have an ambivalent attachment style.

Finally, babies who did not feel distressed when their mother left the room, happily played with the stranger, and were unaffected by their mother’s return were considered to have an avoidant attachment style.

“You only lose what you cling to.”
― Guatama Buddha

Attachment Styles: Secure

A secure attachment style comes from having your needs consistently met as a child. Loving and generous parents or caregivers teach children that they are loveable, their needs are important, and relationships are safe and dependable. This general sense of security with themselves and others makes setting and maintaining boundaries easier.

A securely attached person might agree with statements like:

● I find it easy to be affectionate.

● I feel comfortable depending on others.

● I believe most people are essentially honest and dependable.

● It is important to me to honor agreements with my partner.

● I am good at keeping secrets and respecting boundaries.

● I am comfortable being affectionate with my partner.

Attachment Styles: Anxious

An anxious attachment style is characterized by insecurity, fear of rejection or abandonment, and codependent tendencies. This type of attachment style develops when your needs are met inconsistently as a child. For example, if your parents fluctuated between being crushingly attentive and detached, prioritized their needs at the expense of yours, pushed you away as punishment, or made you feel responsible for their volatile feelings, you would likely develop an anxious attachment style.

People with an anxious attachment style might agree with statements like:

● I think a lot about my relationships.

● I am very sensitive to my partner’s moods.

● I worry that I won’t measure up to other people.

● It is difficult for me to set realistic boundaries.

● I always second-guess myself.

● When I give more than I get, I often resent it and hold a grudge.

Attachment Styles: Avoidant

An avoidant attachment style generally manifests as difficulty in building and maintaining long-term relationships due to the fear of letting others get too close. This attachment style usually develops when caregivers are absent or emotionally indifferent. People with an avoidant attachment style often experienced being left to fend for themselves, being criticized for their dependence on their caregiver, and being rejected when expressing their needs or feelings.

People with an avoidant attachment style might agree with statements like:

● I find it difficult to provide emotional support.

● I value my independence more than relationships.

● I find it difficult to depend on others.

● I sometimes minimize the importance of my close relationships.

● I tend to prefer relationships with animals over people.

● I have difficulty reaching out and asking for help.

Attachment Styles: Disorganized

The disorganized attachment style category came from research using the Strange Situation paradigm that was described earlier. Experimenters found that some babies did not fit into any of the other categories and noticed that many of these babies showed behaviors that appeared conflicted, fearful, or disoriented when the parent returned to the room (Granqvist et al., 2017). They decided to create a new category, disorganized attachment, to describe the behaviors of these infants.

A disorganized attachment style is thought to develop when an infant experiences their primary caregiver as a source of fear. This creates a conflict because the baby’s source of safety is also the source of their fear (Granqvist et al., 2017). As an adult, a disorganized attachment style can manifest as erratic and conflicting feelings and behaviors, difficulty with emotional regulation and anxiety.

Someone with a disorganized attachment style might agree with statements like:

● I struggle to feel safe with my partner.

● I often disconnect, dissociate, and get confused.

● I have a hard time remembering my previous relationships.

● I often feel like problems have no resolution.

● I tend to expect the worst to happen.

● I want closeness but am also afraid of getting close to someone.

In Sum

Attachment styles are an important part of our lives, from childhood to adulthood. They are how we view the world and relate to others. Learning more about our attachment style can help us better understand ourselves and our relationships with other people.

References

● Bowlby, J., & Ainsworth, M. (2013). The origins of attachment theory. Attachment theory: Social, developmental, and clinical perspectives, 45(28), 759-775

● Levy, K. N., Ellison, W. D., Scott, L. N., & Bernecker, S. L. (2011). Attachment style. Journal of clinical psychology, 67(2), 193-203.

● Granqvist, P., Sroufe, L. A., Dozier, M., Hesse, E., Steele, M., van Ijzendoorn, M., … & Duschinsky, R. (2017). Disorganized attachment in infancy: A review of the phenomenon and its implications for clinicians and policy-makers. Attachment & human development, 19(6), 534-558