What is Attachment Theory and Why Does it Matter?

What is Attachment Theory and Why Does it Matter?

Jessica del Rosso, MSW, RSW


I remember reading about Attachment Theory in undergrad and not really understanding how it all connected. Now, as a Trauma Therapist, when relationship difficulties for a client begin to form a pattern, it is usually a theory I refer to. Often times, knowledge of our attachment style can bring forth clarity into what we need in our relationships with others and why we may be struggling.

What is the Attachment Theory?

Simply put, it is a theory that was created by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. The basis being that the environment children grew up in and the responses they received from parents as children, would develop into a main attachment style (or a combination). These attachment styles were divided into four main labels.

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.

Those who have secure attachment, most likely came from a childhood where their emotional and physical needs were met unconditionally by their caregivers. Secure attachment can be reached over time with trauma healing, healthy relationships and self-awareness.

Anxious-Preoccupied (Positive self of others, negative sense of self) 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 will not be met by the other persons. They often are overly attached to their partners and if their partners do not meet their emotional needs, they often blame themselves.

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 that they should second guess the decisions they make.

Dismissive-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 even from a very young age. They often did not have their needs met as a child or were ignored. It has been learned that self-reliance is safest.

Fearful/avoidant (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. Fearful/avoidant attachment is also more common to develop if the child abuse was ongoing or chronic.

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;

- Validation

- Unconditional love

- Stability

- Non-violence

- Trust

- Non-control

- Reassurance

- Healthy relationships outside of romantic relationship

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 .


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