Attachment Theory

The Contribution of Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory is near the top of the list of concepts acknowledged to have real value by counselors and researchers far and wide.  It is my belief that any counselor worth their salt uses at least some attachment theory in their practice.  This is for two reasons, first, the research behind attachment theory is strong, and second, the findings of attachment theory do not require you to take on any pathology about yourself.

As part of the short list of psychology research experiments you remember from high school or college you may recall Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test.[1]  In 1969 Ainsworth had mothers with young children enter a novel situation, typically a playroom neither had ever seen.  She left them there for a few minutes, then had a stranger enter and had the mother leave.  She observed how the child reacted, then brought the mother back and again observed the child’s reaction.  She found that kids react to this experience in three main ways:

Secure

Some kids leave their mother’s side and go explore the new space.  They interact with the stranger when the mother is present.  They become upset when their mothers leave, but quickly calm down when their mothers return and begin to explore the space again.

Anxious

Some kids cling to their mothers and do not explore much.  They are wary of the stranger even when their mothers are present.  They become very upset when their mothers leave, and take a long time to calm down when their mothers return.

Avoidant

Some kids mainly ignore their mothers when brought into the new space.  They also tend to ignore the stranger.  Sometimes they explore a bit, but mainly they seem caught in a holding pattern.  They do not get upset when their mothers leave and mainly ignore her when she returns.

What Ainsworth and many others found through further study was that kids with parents who consistently respond to their needs with warmth and structure developed a Secure attachment style.  These kids express themselves and feel free to explore their environment.  They are able to take emotional risks and tolerate change because they have internalized that they have support in the background.  More recently this research had been continued and applied to adults.  Levine and Heller (2010) found that adults with a Secure attachment style are able to form close bonds with others, they are not easily upset, they communicate directly about their needs, they tend to reach out to others when they need support, they are capable of long-term relationships, and they have the emotional resilience to work through problems that come up with others.

When parents send mixed signals, when they are available at times and critical, cold, or absent at others, kids develop an Anxious attachment style.  These kids don’t know what to expect, they don’t know to what degree they need to rely on themselves and to what degree they can rely on others.  They don’t know when they will have support.  As a result they are uncomfortable taking risks and branching out into new environments.  They get upset easily and tend to cling to support when it’s available.  Adults with an Anxious attachment style long for closeness but fear that their partners will not be available for it.  They tend to be highly sensitive to changes in the emotional environment.  When they need support they want to reach out to others but often feel conflicted about it, fearing that support will not be forthcoming.  When under stress, adults with this style sometimes communicate indirectly about their needs.  They have an approach/withdraw conflict based on the inconsistent support they received in the past.  Sometimes they will resort to excessive attempts to reestablish contact, texting and calling, other times they may act hostile, or try to flip the balance of power by being unavailable or making their partner feel jealous.

When parents send consistent messages of non-support kids develop an Avoidant attachment style.  These kids have learned that support from their caretakers will not be forthcoming and that they must rely on themselves.  As a result they are largely unreactive to their caretakers and learn to look inward for comfort at an early age.  Adults with an Avoidant attachment style tend to fear emotional intimacy and distance themselves in response to relational stress.  When confronted with difficulties they tend to look internally and are less likely to look to others for support.  Their need is for space.  Ghosting, shutting down, and criticizing and withdrawing are the primary protest behaviors of people with this style.

It is important to note that none of these styles is bad.  One of the real contributions of attachment theory is that it shows so clearly that each style began as an adaptive reaction to the environment the child was in at the time.  If your parent is not providing the comfort and support you need, it is highly adaptive to look inward to meet that need.  If the support is available part-time, it is adaptive to use it part-time.  When kids encounter an obstacle in their environment their growth doesn’t cease, they simply grow around the obstacle.  The different attachment styles are evidence of that adaptive growth.  The problems you face as an adult are not a result of adaptations you made as a kid, they are a result of you unconsciously bringing those adaptations forward into environments where they are no longer required.

If your reaction to attachment theory is, “Oh great, another label I can apply to myself,” you’re missing the point.  Attachment theory allows us to be thoughtful about the deficits in the parenting we received as kids.  Awareness of these deficits is a critically important step in identifying your defenses, your worn-out adaptations.  Ultimately this awareness allows you to practice new behaviors and heal from your past by reclaiming the parts of you that got buried in the service of keeping you safe.  Your attachment style is not evidence that your parents are bad people or that you lack value as a person.  It is an indicator of the conditions you had to overcome in childhood.  Be real with yourself about how you typically cope with stress, how you communicate your needs, and how you bond with others.  That openness will point you in the direction of growth and will facilitate you to build the life you want.

Equally important to note, attachment styles are continuous, not categorical, meaning that your attachment style changes over time depending on your day-to-day experience.  Hanging out with people who treat you consistently and kindly?  You’ll grow more secure in your interactions.  Have a distant partner or one who blows hot and cold?  You may grow more anxious or more avoidant.

I personally believe that each style has some strengths to offer, and some challenges.  Those with a Secure style do seem to have it better when it comes to forming and keeping social bonds.  But their experience with consistent relational support does not always make them the most resilient in the face of adversity when support from others is not available.  Neither are they always the best at reading a mixed room, their secure expectation that “everybody’s fine” is not always accurate.  Those with an Anxious style have a high level of sensitivity that can prove valuable in the long run.  Integrated sensitivity, in other words sensitivity that has been owned rather than rejected (“I’m sensitive, and that’s…ok!”) leads to accurate observations and predictions.  Nobody reads a room like someone with an anxious (or formerly anxious) style.  Those with an Avoidant style can exhibit tremendous internal resources that allow them to generate ideas, make decisions, and produce high-quality work independent of input from others, and in the face of adversity.

I also believe that there is much to be gained in the personal growth many of us experience as we transition from an anxious or avoidant style toward a secure one.  If you are coming from a place where you already have high skills in independence or sensitivity, increasing your ability to forge deep connections with others will feel like icing on the cake.  In the end we want it all, sensitivity, independence, and connection.  No matter where you start you can develop all three, with awareness and a commitment to personal growth.

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Footnotes

[1] If you’re like many people, you recall exactly five tidbits of psychological information from school, in this order:  Milgram’s Shock Test to measure compliance with authority, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, The Cocaine Rats who Pressed a Button for Drugs, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test.