What is Attachment?
Human infants are pre-programmed to bond with at least one significant parent caregiver, usually the mother. The emotional attachment arising between the infant and the parent is the first interactive relationship based mainly on nonverbal communication. This first bonding experience becomes the foundation for all future close relationships. Children who experienced confusing, frightening or fragmented communications during their infancy often grow into adults with poor insight into their own emotions and other people’s feelings. This lack of insight limits their ability to build or sustain successful relationships. Further, brain development studies show that the quality of attachment plays a role in shaping the brain.
There are two main attachment styles, secure and insecure styles. In turn, insecure attachment manifests in various ways.
The secure attachment style results when both mother and infant can sense each other’s feelings and emotions. An infant feels safe and comfortable when the mother responds to the child’s cries reliably and accurately interprets the infant’s changing needs, not necessarily all the time but the majority of the time.
As an adult, the person will be able to create meaningful relationships, be empathetic and set appropriate boundaries. This person is deemed to have a secure attachment style. Secure adults offer support when their partners are distressed and they are able to go to their partners for comfort and be comforted. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal with both partners feeling independent, yet deeply connected to each other.
When the attachment bond fails to provide the child with a secure structure, understanding and safety, insecurity sets in. There are several kinds of insecure attachment.
Dismissive avoidant attachment style
When the parent is unavailable or self-absorbed, children get lost in their internal worlds, avoiding any close, emotional connections. As adults, these persons are physically and emotionally distant. People with a dismissive avoidant attachment have the tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partners. They have the ability to shut down emotionally.
Fearful avoidant attachment style
When the parent is inconsistent or intrusive, the child learns to become anxious and fearful, never knowing what to expect. As adults, they are ambivalent, available one moment, rejecting the next. They are afraid of being too close or too distant from others. They seem to know that you need to go towards others to get your needs met but if you get too close to others, you can expect to be hurt. In other words, the person who is the safe one is also the scary one. As adults, these individuals tend to be in emotionally dramatic and rocky relationships. They are afraid of being abandoned but also struggle to be intimate.
Anxious preoccupied attachment style
Adults with an anxious attachment style often look to their partners to rescue them. Although they are seeking for a sense of safety and security, their behaviour pushes their partners away. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding or possessive toward their partner. They may also interpret independent actions by their partner as affirmation of their fears.
Can attachment styles change and can a psychologist help?
Yes, the attachment style you developed as a child does not have to define the way you relate to your partner. A psychologist can help you discover your attachment style and help you work towards forming an “earned secure attachment style”. By becoming aware of your attachment style, both you and your partner can challenge the insecurities and fears arising from your age-old ways and develop new styles of attachment for sustaining a satisfying, loving relationship. Over time, you will behave in more securely attached ways and the reward from being in a nurturing relationship will become your preferred way of being.