Understanding our attachments to others

Without exception, we all have people we are attached to in our lives. Some people we love, some we like, some we dislike and some we hate. Some people are very secure in our attachments while some others might constantly question if their relationships will last. The way we view ourselves in relationships and our behavior in relationships can be partially explained by a fascinating psychological concept known as ‘Attachment theory’.

What is Attachment?

The term ‘Attachment’ refers to a lasting emotional bond between two or more individuals. Therefore, it can refer to a bond between parent and child, between friends, between spouses etc. Attachment theory was a theory originally proposed by a psychoanalyst called John Bowlby. Bowlby said that the attachments an individual forms in infancy will have a lasting psychological and emotional impact on the rest of his/her life. A key aspect of his theory is that a young child needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally, generally between 6 months to two years of age. A child’s primary caregivers will most frequently be the mother and father, though it can be grandparents or other relatives who spend the most time with the child in the early stages of life. Between a child and a caregiver these bonds are based on the child’s need for safety, security and protection, which are most important in infancy and childhood. Attachment theory proposes that children attach to caregivers instinctively, for the purpose of survival and, ultimately, genetic replication.

Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

  • Proximity maintenance – The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
  • Safe Haven – Our caregiver/attachment figure is a safe haven for us to whom we return for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
  • Secure Base – The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
  • Separation Distress – Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist, expanded on Bowlby’s theory to include specific attachment patterns in infants. She said that there are two main types:

1. Secure Attachment-A securely attached child shows a clear preference for his/her caregiver and goes to him/her for comfort and uses them as a secure base for exploration.

2. Insecure attachment – Insecure attachment styles develop in infants who have not received consistent caregiving. The caregivers might sometimes choose to respond to their cries and at other times ignore them. The types of insecure attachment are
– avoidant attachment,
– anxious/ ambivalent attachment and
-disorganized attachment.

An avoidant insecure child shows little interest in the caregiver and continues his activities with/without the caregiver. Such caregivers also show little interest in responding to the child’s needs. An ambivalent child is preoccupied with the caregiver’s availability, seeking contact but resisting angrily when it is achieved. Such caregivers tend to be inconsistent in their response to the child. Disorganized children show stereotypical behaviors like freezing or rocking and display contradictory, disoriented attachment behavior. This could be the result of maltreatment and confusing behavior of the caregivers.

Attachment styles do not just affect our behavior in infancy but undergo transition to affect our adult lives. Kerns (1994) proposed that the attachment style at one developmental stage (stages of growth of human beings) helps to influence the resultant attachment styles at the next developmental stage.  Her analysis of attachment theory and friendship suggests that working models of attachment ( whatever pattern of attachment the individual is currently using) are continued more or less the same from early childhood through to early adulthood by maintaining expectations derived during childhood of the attachment figure’s behavior and one’s capacity in social situations. This means that a certain type of caregiving the individual has received in infancy influences his/her expectations in all future attachment bonds. It also influences the way the individual thinks about his/her own abiliy to interact with others in social situations. Therefore, we might attach ourselves in our adult relationships the same way that we attached ourselves in infancy.

However, there are several important similarities and differences between the attachments that occur in childhood and adulthood.  Shaver and Hazan (1989) point out six similarities between childhood and adult (and adolescent) attachments.  Some of the similarities are –first, the quality of the attachment is dependent upon the reciprocation, sensitivity and responsiveness of the attachment figure/ caregiver.  Second, securely attached individuals (infants/adults) are generally happier and more adaptive than insecurely attached individuals.  Third, the attachment mechanism of maintaining proximity or staying close to the attachment figure is displayed in both adult and infant attachments.  Fourth, separation from an attachment figure causes extreme distress (separation distress)in both infants and adults and they try to regain contact with the attachment figure.  Fifth, in both adults and infants, there is an “intense sensitivity” when displaying discoveries and achievements to the attachment figure for approval. The attachment figure’s approval is very important.  And lastly, both attachments entail a certain degree of baby talk or motherese type communication using endearments and shortened words.

Feeney et al. (1999) observed that there are two important differences between childhood attachment and adult attachment.  The first is that childhood attachments are asymmetrical, meaning that the relationship is usually complimentary than reciprocal, i.e, the caregiver is not dependent on the child for all his/her needs like the child is on the caregiver.  Second, there is almost always a sexual component involved in adult attachments.

An individual’s attachment style affects his/her relationships, their perception of others’ feelings towards them and an insecure attachment style can often result in a pattern of dysfunctional relationships throughout their lives. Adults with insecure attachment styles may have difficulty maintaining long-term, healthy attachments. They might move on from one partner to another, have frequent conflicts and experience insecurity about their attachment figure’s affection for them. They might either become too dependent on their attachment figure or be unable to be emotionally open with that person.

If you are interested in the topic of Attachment theory and want to learn more or if you are struggling with unhealthy attachment patterns in your life and want help to change, you can contact us at TalkItOver.

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.