Attachment theory has helped us to better understand the nature of relationships; that is the relationship we form with our environment (in the first instance our caregivers) and because of those relationships the relationship we form with ourselves.
If you are interested in exploring this topic more thoroughly then beginning with the work of John Bowlby (1958), who was the first behavioural psychologist to establish a working theory around attachment, is a very good place to start.
What Bowlby was able to demonstrate through his research is that attachment is an emotional bond with another person – and the emotional bonds that are formed with one’s caregivers have a tremendous impact throughout one’s life. One of the primary messages of attachment theory is that the relationship with your primary caregiver will determine the bond you create with yourself and the world.
Initial theories around attachment suggested that it was food that led to the forming of attachment behaviour, but Bowlby was able to illustrate that the nurturing provided by those who are responsible for the child’s needs allowed the child to develop a sense of safety and security, which is described as a secure attachment.
The three ‘A’s, attention, affection, and affirmation are the three primary needs/drivers which are critical to the formation of secure attachments; when they are absent insecure attachments are formed.
Secure attachments are categorised as a state where the child experiences their caregivers to be emotionally available and responsive to their needs. It is an environment of certainty, which allows the child to develop a clear sense of self; an environment that allows for adventure and creative expression. Such an environment fosters trust in the child because of the consistent reassurance and comfort provided by the parent.
Those who have enjoyed the benefits of secure attachment confidently express their individuality. They form healthy, trusting and positive relationships. As a result, they are much more likely to be successful in whatever they do and where misfortune does befall them, they have a greater resoluteness and self-belief that enables them to find positive solutions.
There are subtle differences in interpretation with regards to attachment theory, which is inevitable given the different contributors as the theory has developed over the last sixty years or so. However, one of the primary elements where the consensus is unanimous is the description of insecure attachments. There are essentially three types of insecure attachment, and they are: anxious ambivalent, anxious avoidant and anxious disorganised.
The common theme with these three insecure attachments is mixed messages (something we focus on a lot at Reach because so many clients are the victims of this phenomenon, without knowing it). In each case, the child is unable to fully trust its environment. The caregivers to varying degrees are inconsistent with their warmth, attention to the child’s needs, love and affection. As a result, the child is unsure of who s/he is and how to behave. What follows is a summary of the three insecure attachment states…
1. Anxious Ambivalent
The anxious ambivalent (also referred to as ambivalent attachment) is an emotional state created when the child feels anxiety when separated from the primary caregiver. However, when the primary caregiver returns the child does not feel reassured. This is because the parent/caregiver even at times of nurturing is often preoccupied, not truly present and therefore not attuned to the needs of the child, so the child doesn’t feel soothed by their presence.
At other times, the caregiver is insensitive, emotionally unavailable and at other times can be intrusive in ways that obstruct the child’s development. As a result, the child becomes confused and insecure not knowing what kind of response or treatment they will receive – and so they become untrusting and ambivalent. Those who fall into this category continue to carry that ambivalence with them through their life – and nothing seems able to quell that underlying anxiety and the doubt and suspicion they feel.
2. Anxious Avoidant
Those who suffer with anxious avoidant attachment issues (also referred to as avoidant attachment) are those who have come from environments where the primary caregiver is largely emotionally unavailable and did not respond to their core needs. This leaves the child feeling rejected and abandoned – as a result these infants oscillate between being demanding and clingy – and at other times they randomly express anger, which to the observer, seems disproportionate to the situation.
Eventually, such children shut down, avoiding the pain of the rejection and lack of intimacy. As adults this avoidant and withdrawing pattern is carried into the world and underpins their relationships and interactions. These individuals prematurely learn to become independent but in fact their independence is a defence mechanism, a way of protecting themselves from pain.
3. Anxious Disorganised
Anxious disorganised attachment (also referred to as disorganised attachment) stems from the child being regularly exposed to an unpredictable and disruptive environment. The child feels no sense of safety or security because the primary caregiver fluctuates far too much to provide the child with a helpful reference point, an anchor around which to build a sense of self. Those exposed to this kind of unpredictability and culture of uncertainty are likely to develop adult personas that are emotionally unbalanced – their own identity is obscured – and chaos is more likely to be a refuge for them.
As adults these individuals struggle to feel at home in relationships. This is generally because those who have been exposed to this kind of environment are much more likely to be entangled in their subpersonalities and have a false sense of self.
Where Are We Now?
Since the time of Bowlby and his protégée Mary Ainsworth (1970s) there have been numerous studies, which have further underlined the validity of these four categories of attachment, and a host of statistics have also emerged from the plethora of research from the late 1950s up to the present time.
If we are to believe the data, then 50% of the population enjoys a secure attachment. Approximately 20% are anxious avoidant, there is a similar percentage that are anxious disorganised (although this figure is considered by many to be more, especially in cases of neglect and abuse), which leaves approximately 10% who would be described as anxious ambivalent. It should be said for accuracy these figures do vary slightly according to the source of the data.
At Reach, we do not believe that 50% of the population is enjoying the fruits of secure attachment – because if this were the case we would be living in a much better world. Based on our clinical experience as well as the research we’ve undertaken, we think at least two thirds of the population is suffering with one form of insecure attachment or another – and in some cases are evidencing that they are victims of a more complex web of insecurity that doesn’t fall neatly into only one of these categories.
Although some classification around emotional and psychological conditions is useful, we have seen how those very labels can become a problem both for the one wearing the label and those trying to help. It’s easy when seeing a client or patient as a named condition, to stop seeing their humanity, as the clinician and those who are close to the individual focus on what the label says. The client or patient can be further disempowered when they see themselves as that condition. This can lead them to believe there is little they can do to transform their reality because their issues become the lens through which they see themselves – and they are disabled in the process.
When working with those who are suffering with whatever emotional, psychological, or physical distress, we only ever use the label they come with as a point of entry into the process, but we do not get caught up in the story that comes with the label as we have found this often deceives and can take us down paths that are not useful or relevant. We need to be aware of the story but not be defined by it. This applies to both the practitioner and the one suffering.
If we are to understand how we build healthy relationships, then having some idea of how our formative years shape that process will also provide us with some clues about what we need to do to disentangle ourselves from any unwanted patterns and habits.
If you want to immerse yourself more in this subject, then in addition to looking at Bowlby’s work, you may want to look at the work of Mary Ainsworth (Strange Situation study), Harry Harlow (Maternal Deprivation study), Rudolf Schaffer, Peggy Emerson (the Stages of Attachment) and Sue Gerhardt (Why Love Matters).
All these individuals have contributed in some way to the subject and our understanding of how being present, offering love, consistency, attention, affirmation, and affection contribute to creating a sense of safety and security, which in turn enables the child and eventually the adult to move forward confidently in their life.