Attachment theory is an important idea explored in connection to relationships. But what is attachment theory, and why is understanding it important for our relationships with others? 

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory originated with John Bowlby in the 1960s. Together with Mary Ainsworth, he looked at infants reuniting with their mothers after being separated. From this, they were able to formulate 4 main attachment styles. These aim to examine how people’s attachment styles influence them to interact in their relationships.

What are the 4 theories of attachment?

Bowlby theorised that the 4 types of attachment are:

  • Secure
  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant

Bowlby argued that humans are innately wired for connection. First and foremost, we are a social, relational and bonding species. He defined attachment as ‘a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’. Attachment is concerned with emotion and the regulation of emotion.

Secure attachment

Ideally, with loving and attuned caregiving, we grow up to be securely attached. This means we’re able to attend to or stay engaged with distressing emotions without fear of losing control or being overwhelmed. We don’t need to alter, block or deny those emotions and so can use them to orient our world. Securely attached people recover faster from negative feelings and have more empathic responsiveness. Amongst other things, they have a reduced susceptibility to anxiety and depression.

Anxious attachment

If someone perceives others as inaccessible, unresponsive or even threatening, they may adopt secondary models and strategies. These can take the form of vigilant, hyper-activated, anxious ways of engaging with others. They can also take the form of avoidant, dismissing and deactivated strategies. Hyper-activated behaviour can include being pushy, demanding or angry. Deactivated behaviour can include numbing and withdrawal.

We all use fight or flight as a survival instinct. It can become a problem when it becomes habitual. This ends in constraining a person’s awareness and choices and limiting his or her ability to engage constructively with others.

Anxious attachment is characterised by sensitivity to any negative messages coming from significant figures. ‘Fight’ responses are designed to protest distance and get an attachment figure to provide attention and/or reassurance. Anxiously attached are generally preoccupied with others and their relationship. They can also be preoccupied with managing their own distress and they offer care that does not fit the needs of the other. They are desperate to feel loved and wanted. This can look clingy, possessive or paranoid when they fear attachment loss.

Avoidant attachment

Avoidant, deactivating strategies are flight responses. These are designed to minimise frustration and distress through distancing oneself from loved ones seen as hostile, dangerous or uncaring.

Attachment needs are then minimised and compulsive self reliance becomes the order of the day. Vulnerability in the self or perceived vulnerability in others then triggers distancing behaviours. Avoidant attachers take pride in their independence and see attachment as weakness. They tend to pull away when they need help most. They are not as attentive as their partners because they worry they will become too codependent, and this will take away their independence. They also can shut down emotionally during arguments or close themselves off from feelings.

Fearful-avoidant or ‘disorganised’ attachment

A third type of behaviour arises when a person has been traumatised by an attachment figure. He or she is then in a paradoxical situation in which loved ones are both the source of and the solution to fear. Under these circumstances this person often vacillates between longing and fear, demanding connection and then distancing and even attacking when connection is offered.

Why is attachment theory important?

It’s important to recognise that these adaptive strategies of flight, flight freeze in the face of attachment loss are protective strategies and therefore make complete sense. It’s not that a person is defective. It’s also important to recognise that around 50% of the population are insecurely attached, adopting either an anxious or avoidant strategy of managing their relationships.

Lastly, the most important part to understanding attachment theory is that it’s not set in stone. With some help, we can move towards secure attachment, or more transparent signalling of our distress. One which would invite a caregiving validating response to our vulnerability.

How do you move toward secure attachment?

Love was once impossible to define and was generally thought of as a strange mixture of sex and sentiment. We’re now able to apply the revolutionary science of attachment to understanding love and couple relationships. However, attachment style is not deterministic. Working models of attachment can change. Models of ‘self’ and ‘other’ can change. Using attachment theory, therapists see clients as stuck in self-limiting ways of perceiving and responding, rather than defective.

We understand that what keeps people stuck is not what happened in the past. It’s their way of dealing with it now that causes past messages and triggers to be confirmed all the time. The way we deal with it in the present is keeping the relevance, confirming and maintaining the centrality of traumatic experience.

Bowlby didn’t have enough time in his life to translate his work into a theory of intervention. But, he believed that if therapy can be successful, the change process can culminate in a more effective dependency. The client’s working model of self and other would be clarified. This makes it more coherent and adaptive. Then, their potential for positive relationships with others can be enhanced.

For a well-encapsulated visual of why attachment style matters and how understanding it can help us, have a look at this video.

Couples’ therapy is one of the many services we offer at The Therapy Clinic and we offer both short and long term models of therapy. To see how we can help you, please book a free initial consultation.