What Does a Healthy Attachment Look Like?

When you say that someone has “attachment issues,” what are you picturing? You’re probably thinking about someone who has trouble with relationships as an adult. They might be overly clingy, afraid the other person is going to leave them or cheat on them. Or, they might push them away as a way to test their loyalty or to get ahead of the fear that they’ll be left eventually no matter what they do.

Attachment styles are especially reflected in a person’s conflict style. Attachment theory includes the idea that the way that you experienced attachment as a child will affect the way you handle conflict as an adult.

Jenny grew up with an insecure attachment to her primary caregiver – in this case, her mother. She never feels settled and secure in her relationship with her husband. When he is out of town for work, she feels anxious and sometimes even experiences derealization (a feeling of being outside reality) when she is alone in their house. And even when he is home she feels suspicious that he’s not as interested in her as he used to be. She often reaches out to him for reassurance.

Malcolm has had problems in his marriage, too. It’s usually related to the fact that he avoids conflict at all costs. When a disagreement arises, he doesn’t just deflect it; he runs from it—even if it’s an issue that needs to be discussed at some point. If pressed by his wife to communicate, he will become hostile, especially if there seems to be no other choice but to discuss something he doesn’t want to discuss.

It might seem that Jenny and Malcolm have opposite problems, but really, their struggles stem from a similar issue – a lack of secure attachment in their primary relationship.

The History of Attachment Theory

In developmental psychology, John Bowlby is known as the first attachment theorist. In 1946, Bowlby was working with mothers and infants when he developed his theory. In his words, attachment is a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Bowlby’s theory focused on babies who had either strong or weak emotional connections with their mothers.

You may have heard of the Strange Situation, a famous experiment in which a mother leaves her child in an unfamiliar room and researchers observe the child’s reaction to the separation. This research instrument was developed by Bowlsby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth.

According to Bowlsby, a baby’s bond with her mother was not based on feeding, as had been previously assumed, but on a more primal instinct as a response to the mother’s nurturing.

In 1964, researchers Emerson and Schaeffer conducted research on infants and families to study this theory. Mothers recorded their infants’ stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, and social referencing, and based on these and other observations, the researchers observed the attachment develop in specific stages: https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html

Many experts studied attachment theory in the decades following Bowlby’s research. In 1964, Emerson and Schaeffer researched attachment between mothers and infants. Mothers recorded their babies’ levels of stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, and social referencing during the first year of their lives.

The researchers observed: “The most important fact in forming attachments is not who feeds and changes the child but who plays and communicates with him or her. Therefore, responsiveness appeared to be the key to attachment.”

What are the Main Attachment Types?

In attachment theory, there are four main types of attachment. These can apply in childhood and all the way through adulthood. When describing them here, we’ll be showing what they would look like in adulthood, based on the childhood experience.

Secure

A secure attachment means that as an infant, this person trusted his primary caregiver and, as Bowlsby theorized, viewed the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the world.

In adulthood, someone who is securely attached functions the best out of all the attachment styles in relationships. They trust the other person (when merited) and are secure in themselves as well. They have a positive view of both themselves and other people and they have the ability to self-regulate their emotions without dependence on others.

Anxious-Preoccupied

As a baby or a child, this person didn’t feel complete assurance around her caregiver. She tends to see herself negatively while viewing the outside world from a positive perspective. This often means she views other people as superior and herself as inferior.

An anxious-preoccupied person will generally make their intimate relationship a high priority in their life, and will often find themselves becoming overly dependent on their partner.

Dismissive-Avoidant

As an infant or child, a person with this attachment style would have sought to avoid his caregiver for numerous possible reasons. A dismissive-avoidant style tends to mean viewing oneself positively and others negatively, which usually corresponds with defensiveness and problems with getting close to others or being emotionally open.

When a person who is dismissive-avoidant faces real or perceived rejection, they tend to create distance rather than seeking to communicate.

Fearful Avoidant

This style is the most chaotic of the three insecure attachment types. There is a lack of typical attachment behavior. The fearful avoidant style often stems from childhood trauma. The person with this style is negative about both herself and others. She may feel deeply unworthy and lack the ability to trust other people, express affection, or communicate her emotions constructively.

How is Healthy Attachment Developed?

In early psychology, the behaviorist theory of attachment was popular: a baby will become attached to the person who usually feeds him. He will also learn how to behave to get what he wants (i.e. crying gets attention, smiling gets a smile in response, etc.).

Bowlby’s attachment theory suggested that there’s more to it than that. Babies are born with an instinctual drive to attach to their mother or the primary nurturing caregiver. When this bond is secure, they can freely explore, always returning to the person who makes them feel safe.

If this primary bond is not well-developed, as the child grows, she will not thrive to her fullest potential. If the caregiver relationship is negative or abusive, this will have severe consequences for the child’s future development, including how she operates in adult relationships.

Attachment-based therapy takes attachment theory and uses it as a basis for discovering the underlying causes of relationship or mental health issues in adulthood. How does your experience with your caregiver(s) as an infant, child, and adolescent affect your current functioning and ability to have healthy relationships today? How can that knowledge help you grow and flourish now?

If you are seeking counseling for attachment issues as an adult, your counselor can help you explore the possible root causes of your attachment issues and understand how to build a trusting and secure adult relationship.

It’s important to note that a person’s adult attachment style does not always mirror their infant attachment style. There are other experiences between infancy and adulthood that influence how you are able to attach as an adult.

Attachment researchers Hazan and Shaver have found that secure attachment style in adulthood is most closely linked to two factors:

  • How a person perceives her relationship with her parents.
  • The quality of the parents’ relationship with each other.

In other research, Hazan and Shaver discovered that adults report varying beliefs about love, based on their current attachment styles:

  • Adults with avoidant attachment say that love is hard to find and doesn’t last long.
  • Those with ambivalent attachment have more frequent and short-term experiences of falling in love.
  • Adults with secure attachment report that romantic love is meant to last.

But research in this area does indicate that patterns established in childhood have an important impact on later relationships. Hazan and Shaver also found varied beliefs about relationships amongst adults with differing attachment styles. Securely attached adults tend to believe that romantic love is enduring. Ambivalently attached adults report falling in love often, while those with avoidant attachment styles describe love as rare and temporary.

Experts have concluded that “While we cannot say that early attachment styles are identical to adult romantic attachment, research has shown that early attachment styles can help predict patterns of behavior in adulthood.”

Developing a Secure, Healthy Attachment

Whether you have been in counseling for attachment issues yet or not, you may have recognized some familiar themes in the above explanation of attachment styles. If you feel that you don’t have a secure attachment in your adult relationship but would like to develop one, please consider working with an attachment-based therapist or Christian counselor for attachment issues can help you uncover the issues in your past that still affect you today.

Consider the following questions if you are still on the fence with taking a step forward. Do you tend to avoid conflict? Are you insecure and worried that your partner will leave you? Do you feel afraid of expressing your emotions or love, and struggle to trust your partner? Any or all of these issues are valid reasons to seek Christian counseling and work through what’s underneath your struggles.

No matter how you were treated as a child, you can grow and learn to have healthy relationships, and understanding what lies underneath your attachment style can be the first step toward healthy change.

Photos:
“Momma’s Hands”, Courtesy of Alex Pasarelu, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pink Flower”, Courtesy of Saffu, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Grass and Morning Sun”, Courtesy of Jake Givens, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “White Flower Field”, Courtesy of Alexandru Tudorache, Unsplash.com, CC0 License