Updated: Nov 25, 2020
What is Attachment Theory and Why Does it Matter?
Jessica del Rosso, MSW, RSW
I remember reading about Attachment Theory in undergrad and not fully understanding how it connected to adult relationships. Now, as a Trauma Therapist, when relationship difficulties for a client form a pattern, it is the theory I refer to. Often times, being aware of our attachment style can bring forth clarity into why we may be struggling with the same relationship patterns repeatedly and what we need in order to form healthy relationships.
What is the Attachment Theory?
Attachment Theory was established by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. The theory suggests that the environment children grow up in and the responses they receive from their parents, develop into a main attachment style (or a combination) between child and caregiver. Attachment style patterns are often also seen in other forms of relationships outside of caregivers, such as friendships or romantic partners. The four main attachment styles are;
Secure (positive view of self and others) Van Buren, A.; Cooley, E.L. (Dec 2002): Secure attachment is what many survivors of trauma strive for in their relationships with others. Those with secure attachment are comfortable relying on others, they trust others and have a positive sense of self. They do not worry about what others think of them and are able to be self-sufficient without lacking confidence in their skills. They inherently believe that the world is a safe place.
Those who have secure attachment, most likely came from an abuse-free childhood where their emotional, spiritual and physical needs were met lovingly and unconditionally by their caregivers. Secure attachment can be reached over time with trauma healing, healthy relationships and self-awareness.
Anxious-Preoccupied or Preoccupied (Positive self of others, negative sense of self. "I'm the problem".) Van Buren, A.; Cooley, E.L. (Dec 2002): Those with anxious-preoccupied attachment style tend to be concerned about what others think of them. They desire intimacy but are worried that their desire for connection their needs to be met will not be fulfilled by the other person/s. Individuals with preoccupied attachment tend to be hyper-focused on their attachment figure/s or romantic partners. When the needs are not met, the feeling of anxiety is overwhelming and often leads to self-fulfilling prophesies of feared rejection and blaming of self (Clementine Morrigan, 2020).
Those with anxious-preoccupied attachment will often have an internal desire to be saved or rescued by their partner and experience big emotions. When they feel unsafe or insecure in their relationship they may resort to jealousy or possessiveness. General actions by partners can become false confirmation of their projected fears (Firestone, 2013).
Individuals with anxious-preoccupied attachment often experience shame and blame as children by their caregivers. They are made to feel that they are unlovable and to second guess the decisions they make. Their caregivers often display unpredictable behaviour and rejection is often experienced by the child when they express their needs to their caregiver. Often times, individuals with preoccupied attachment were put in the consistent role of comforting their caregivers, parenting their caregivers or being the problem solver in order to have their needs met, or to avoid abuse or harm. Due to the fact that sometimes the childs needs were met by their caregiver/s and sometimes they were not, it is common that when feeling vulnerable, the child will increase their needs to a point where they can no longer be ignored (eg. self harm, suicidal ideation etc.). This learned coping strategy then is seen in their adult relationships.
Dismissive-Avoidant or Avoidant (Positive view of self, negative view of others) Van Buren, A.; Cooley, E.L. (Dec 2002): Individuals with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style feel uncomfortable relying on others. Self-sufficiency and independence are high priorities in order to decrease the chance of needing to rely on others for help. These individuals struggle with intimacy and prefer to distance themselves. They often come off as defensive and do not like sharing their thoughts or emotions.
Often times, individuals with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style parent themselves and can come off as focused on meeting their needs only. They are inclined to distance themselves from others and often shut down their emotions and the emotions of others (Firestone, 2013).
From a trauma perspective, dismissive-avoidant attachment style can be viewed as a defense mechanism or response from the nervous system. Attachment to others has been deemed unsafe and these individuals often times come from childhoods where they had to care for themselves from a very young age. They often did not have their needs met, were ignored, treated as a burden or neglected by their caregiver. It is therefore interpreted by the child that self-reliance is safest.
Fearful/avoidant or Disorganized (Unstable views of self and others) Van Buren, A.; Cooley, E.L. (Dec 2002): Often times, trauma survivors will find themselves identifying with this attachment style most. They desire and want close relationships, but ultimately fear being rejected or let down by others. They are often uncomfortable or unsure of how to connect with or rely on others. This stems from abuse taking place by a trusted individual and the inner conflict of both needing and fearing their caregiver/s as a child (Clementine Morrigan, 2020). Fearful/avoidant attachment is also more common to develop if the child abuse and trauma was ongoing, chronic or throughout several developmental stages of the childs life.
The deepest desire of those with fearful/avoidant attachment is connection to others, the deepest fear is that same connection. These individuals may want to cling to their partner to have their need for intimacy and safety met, however when their partner responds to that need, the individual will pull away due to fear of being hurt (Firestone, 2013). It feels like a confusing game of tug of war with one’s own needs and desires.
Because abuse and trauma are a break in trust and connection with others, the emotions and thoughts experienced by the survivor surrounding their abuse can be confusing. Fearful-avoidant attachment reflects this inner conflict.
Developing Secure Attachment
Understanding your attachment style can help identify what you need in a relationship. It can be helpful to share this understanding with a partner or someone you trust. The more you understand your attachment style, the more you can put into place to support development of secure attachment.
In order to reach secure attachment, certain qualities need to be present in relationships with others. These include but are not limited to;
- Unconditional love
- Healthy relationships outside of romantic relationship
- Healthy boundaries
Developing secure attachment is not an overnight process. You are also not “broken” if you do not have secure attachment. Secure attachment for survivors of trauma is possible. Trauma is caused through relationship and healed through relationship (Gabor Mate).
To learn more about your attachment style you can visit https://yourpersonality.net/attachment/index.php .