By Dr. Perry, PhD
“What’s love got to do with it?” ~Tina Turner
Humans are born helpless. Unlike other life forms such as insects that are born with fully developed brains and must immediately fend for themselves, we are born totally defenseless. We are unable to walk, talk or feed ourselves. Our cognitive functions are limited and some studies suggest that full brain development does not occur until we are 25 years of age. Further studies suggest some development continues into our thirties. For the very first years of our lives, our survival depends on the bond we create with our primary caretakers.
John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a British psychoanalyst regarded as the father of Attachment theory. Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, became interested in children’s responses to loss and began studying the realms of attachment and bonding between children and their caretakers. Attachment theory is considered one of the most influential theories of the 20th century. Bowlby theorized that we are hardwired to form attachments in order to secure our survival. Childhood behaviors such as crying, smiling and crawling promote contact and evoke attachment behaviors in the parents. By exhibiting these behaviors the child keeps the caregiver nearby and promotes their survival rate.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth further expanded Bowlby’s attachment theory by conducting some of the most extensive field research into mother-infant interaction. Ainsworth formulated an observational study known as the Strange Situation Technique (SSC). Children were observed and assessed to see how they would respond to the temporary absence of their mothers in order to investigate the nature and different styles of attachment behaviors. A child and caregiver were placed in a playroom with numerous toys and a stranger. At a certain point, the caregiver would leave and the child would be left in the room with the toys and the stranger. As a result of this experiment, Ainsworth defined the following four types of childhood attachment, one secure and three insecure.
Securely attached children explored the playroom environment from the secure base of the mother. If the mother left the room the child would object but once she returned they would re-establish a positive interaction with her. Upon her return, the child would acknowledge their mother by smiling or climbing onto her lap. The child would then resume their play in the presence of their mother who provided the secure base.
Children who were insecurely attached/avoidant would not be upset when their caregiver left the room and would not make contact upon her return. They usually looked or leaned away when the mother tried to make contact.
Insecurely attached/resistant children would cling to their caregivers and then fight contact. In the strange situation, they anxiously clung to the caregiver, would not explore the playroom and cried loudly when the mother left the room. They would then push the caregiver away upon their return.
Insecurely attached, disorganized
A 4th classification, insecurely attached, disorganized was later identified by Mary Main. These children displayed extreme fear and or confusion, avoidance or resistance in the strange situation.
In the 1980s, the theory was extended to attachment in adults. Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver noticed the similarities between the way children behave with caregivers and the way adults in romantic relationships interact. By comparing how couples interact when in each other’s presence to when separated, they were able to identify behaviors exhibited by children when separated from caregivers.
It appears that our childhood attachment styles have a major impact on the dynamics of our adult romantic relationships. Three main styles of attachment were identified in adults. It is important to note that one may self-identify with one attachment style but this should not be seen as set in stone. We may exhibit more than one attachment style throughout our lives and whatever attachment style we identify with should be viewed without negative implications or stigma.
Adults will feel comforted and happy when the focus of their attachment is present and anxious or lonely when they are absent. How we respond to our anxious feelings when the subject of our attachment is away will dictate the type of attachment style we exhibit in our adult relationships.
The romantic attachment styles are:
An adult with a secure attachment style is like the child who sees the presence of their caregiver as a secure base from which to explore a new playroom. You believe in your romantic partner and with this belief, fully engage in life. You enjoy the intimacy of a relationship without being overly preoccupied with your relationship. Your relationship offers a secure base from which to conquer the world. You truly believe that your partner is dependable and a place of safety. You do not get easily upset about relationship matters and are able to effectively communicate your needs and feelings to your partner. Having this security allows one to have the courage to explore life’s playground knowing that they have someone securely behind them. Research shows that when individuals feel their goals are supported by their significant other they have an increase in self-esteem and report a higher likelihood of achieving their goals.
You crave intimacy and your romantic relationship consumes most of your emotional energy. You want to be as close as possible to your loved one and are often worried that the feeling is not reciprocated. You are very sensitive to your partner’s moods and take any changes in behavior personally. You are easily upset and tend to act out when you feel disconnected from your romantic partner. You require a lot of security and reassurance in order to feel secure in the relationship.
You feel a relationship will make you lose your independence and you prefer autonomy in a relationship. You need to maintain your independence in a relationship and too much closeness makes you uncomfortable. You prefer to keep your romantic partner at a distance and are not very open to them. They would describe you as being emotionally distant. You are vigilant and respond assertively when you feel someone is getting too close.
By identifying our attachment style and learning what traits we exhibit in a close relationship we can learn to cope with triggering events in a healthier manner. It is important to note that being dependent on a loved one for emotional support should not be seen as a negative thing. This is not to be equated with pathological co-dependency which can be controlling, destructive and abusive.
I hope you found this article informative and helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts and insight on this topic in the comments below. Please note, this article is meant for educational purposes only. If you would like to schedule a free initial consultation to work with me on your mental health please click here.
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