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  • Writer's pictureSarah F. O'Brien, LCSW, LCSW-C, CCATP, CTMH

Do you know what kind of Attachment Style you have?

In this article we will discuss attachment styles and how they develop in us. It all starts with our parents! We’ll touch on the four main agreed upon attachment styles briefly at the end and Part 2 of this article will go into more depth about each style next month.

Ever wondered why you want to know what your partner is doing privately? Do you feel anxious if you're unsure about things in relationships? Are you unable to connect with others in the ways you want? Asking ourselves these questions can help increase our #awareness about how we show up and interact in #relationships with other people. Understanding ourselves, and our #attachmentstyles, can pave the way to better relationships. Seriously! Read on.

Does TikTok get it right?

Attachment styles have become a topic of interest among a lot of different kinds of people lately. People are seeing relationship advice on TikTok and other social media outlets. Is what they’re saying on social media accurate? Can you determine your attachment style just by watching those videos? Maybe. However, #selfreflection, processing, and practice to change patterns of behaviors that were first developed early in life, and then perpetuated unknowingly later in intimate relationships as adults, is really the key to moving into a more healthy and secure attachment in your relationships. Attachment styles develop in a person based on the relationship they had with their primary caregivers as children. Usually this is parents, however, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or other adults who cared for you and your needs could also be responsible for your attachment style as an adult. Let's go way back to learn where all this attachment stuff started.

Bowlby and Ainsworth and the Strange Situation

How exactly do you develop an attachment style based on interactions with your caregivers? And how exactly did the proverbial 'they' figure this out? Glad you asked! John Bowlby and his colleague, Mary Ainsworth, are the pioneers in the field of attachment. Through their early work, they systematically determined the four attachment styles we all reference today.

You develop attachment style in childhood, as mentioned. It’s influenced by both genetic factors and the relationships you have with caregivers. According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, one’s bond with their primary caregivers during childhood has an overarching influence on their future social and intimate relationships, and even their relationships at work. (Did you see this tidbit? Early developed attachment style also affects how we show up at work! #work #socialchange). To be clear, this early bond creates a template, or rules, for how you build and interpret relationships as an adult. Bowlby’s work on attachment theory dates back to the 1950s and continues to evolve due to the continuous research based on the subject.

Attachment behaviors, based in #attachmenttheory, conceptually link historical models and understanding of human development to modern concepts about #emotionalregulation. Bowlby recognized that there are individual differences in the way children view the accessibility of the attachment figure (parent or caregiver) and how they regulate their attachment behavior in response to threats (parents leaving room or being out of view). His early research noted that securely attached children did not engage in attachment behaviors like looking around for their parent, calling for their parent, becoming anxious and distressed when they cannot see or find their parent. Those securely attached would behaviorally explore their environment, exhibit curiosity and be social with others. However, those not securely attached do not engage in play, activities or socialization while their parent is out of the room, they often look for or call out for their caregiver and appear anxious or distressed. And if there is prolonged parental absence from the child, despair, depression, being withdrawn, and being “worn down” were noted reactions by Bowlby. Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth, took this research even further and systematically studied early attachment behaviors through development of a technique- a lab experiment basically- called the Strange Situation (Yes, another badass woman helping us all understand relationships with others!). This is where they observed, studied, and noted these observable behaviors in children with different kinds of attachment to their parent or caregiver. This is how we’ve gotten four main types of attachment—results from these early experiments with the Strange Situation.

Why we develop an Attachment Style?

Basically, for survival. Well, initially this is the reason, we, humans, as babies, attach to a parent or other caregiver (i.e. the one taking care of our physical and emotional needs). We look to our caretakers for comfort and support, because as babies and children we are completely dependent on them for soothing our distress and meeting our needs--food, water, waste relief, fun, warmth, interest and connection. If these caregivers offer a warm and caring environment, and are attuned to the child’s physical and emotional needseven when these needs are not clearly expressed–the child becomes securely attached.

However, caregivers might not be aware of their own attachment issues and inconsistencies in meeting the needs of children--this is why it's really important that #parentstoday take responsibility to #dotheirownwork before starting a family and raising children. Misattunement on behalf of caregivers towards their child’s physical and emotional needs is likely to lead to #insecureattachment. Caregiver #misattunement may not be intentional, but the child still perceives them as not meeting their needs, or not meeting their needs consistently and in predictable ways for the child. This leads to confusion, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and ultimately, nervous system activation in the child. The child becomes upset, angry, afraid that 1) their needs aren't being met now (and remember, babies and children cannot meet their own needs and, therefore, are dependent on their caregivers early in life for survival. This includes meeting their own emotional needs, children ARE NOT equipped to do this and REQUIRE caregivers to both show/give emotional regulation to the child, as well as, attune to the child emotionally-- if you don't understand this or the distinction here, reach out to me! I'm happy to further educate and coach individuals in this material and applying it to your life and relationships-- and 2) their needs won't be met in the future, so of course the child is distressed, afraid, and dysregulated.

Let's take a pause, and consider this. If you were a dependent adult, let's say you have an illness or injury that prohibits you from functioning in all the ways you would like or need for yourself, and you require assistance from others to meet some of your basic needs (maybe preparing meals, help with  bathing, help with communicating your feelings or needs etc.) and the people around you who are supposed to help you, who said they would help you, who clearly identified themselves as the person or persons who would CARE FOR YOU because you are unable to do so for yourself, and they just don't, or don't do things consistently, or sometimes can be really sweet and caring, and other times angry and annoyed that you need something. Can you imagine that? How would it feel if YOU were the one who needed the assistance? 

Now, how do you think a CHILD feels and processes this same information when they need assistance (for survival, by the way, let's not forget that, because we're mostly talking about babies or very young children with such limited capacity to be independent in any way)? To be blunt: it's confusing AF! The child cannot meet their own needs, yet the person or persons caring for them also 1) don't meet their needs 2) can't meet their needs 3) meets their needs haphazardly or inconsistently and/or 4) becomes irritable or angry when the child has an expressed need. This seems like an impossible situation for a little dependent human to be in. 

According to trauma theories and #traumainformedcare, this nervous system activation will occur every time the child's needs go unmet. Growing up with inconsistent or incapable caretakers likely is the cause for so many relational issues that people face today. And this shows itself by the nervous system activation an adult has when their intimate or romantic partner does not meet a need, or does so inconsistently without predictability. Essentially they become #triggered (although we use 'nervous system activation' now--#traumainformedcommunication coming at you!) in either expressing a need or not getting a need met in their relationships with others and this can lead to conflict or argument between partners, one or both partners shutting down and shutting off (and this kind of shutting down due to relational upset can lead to substance use disorders or other addictions as means of escaping the pain and difficulty of interacting in relationships), and often emotional dysregulation for both people. If we never learned how to soothe ourselves, by verbal teaching or modeling by caregivers, then this emotional dysregulation due to attachment styles and unmet needs will just occur over and over again. Until the person learns techniques on how to return their nervous system to baseline after an activation, an activation that might be caused by an attachment issue getting kicked up, then emotional reactivity is likely when needs and expectations are not addressed.

Relational trauma and anxious attachment go hand in hand. Anxious attachment is a result of ongoing invalidation of needs by parents/caregivers and living in this type of environment can leave the mark of trauma on a person as they move through life. The mark of trauma IS nervous system activation (a.k.a emotional and physiological dysregulation) in the wake of something happening today that reminded your mind or body of something in the past.

So we can see how strong relationships, and maintaining them, has both survival and reproductive advantages. Really, our survival is rooted in attachment to others. Even though we don't have the same dependent needs as babies or children, as adults we still have some needs that we really can't meet for ourselves, and we all need other people, sometimes. For this reason, Bowlby’s work focused on the human desire to seek contact, love, support, and comfort in and from others–the innate “need to belong” and how it is one of the main driving forces behind an individuals’ actions. We often determine, or interpret, belonging as feeling seen, heard, understood, and accepted as we are.

This is why we need safe supportive COMMUNITIES for people to garner that feeling of belonging in and amongst other people. It is quite difficult to address attachment issues when you do not feel safe to attach to others. In other words, safe to open up and be vulnerable with others. #community #communitybuilding #communityengagement

This is not just safety to express one's emotions and thoughts, although that's part of it. This is safety to ask for food, shelter, medical care, a ride, a babysitter, a pet sitter, a jacket, a donation on the street corner and on and on. People simply will not reach out to others to ask for help, or for needs to be met, if they do not feel safe with people. Or if they feel people will not meet their need. Or if they feel people will hold it against them that they have a need. Or if they feel people are judging them for having a need. Or if people ignore them when they ask for what they need. Or if people inconsistently show up for them without communicating as such to meet stated needs. Or if people become annoyed, irritated or angry when they ask for a need to be met. If folks have anything but a secure attachment style, then engaging in healthy relationships, feeling secure in those relationships, and confidently asking for what they need in relationships is nearly impossible--UNLESS they choose to understand their attachment style, where it comes from in their lived history, and work to address attachment behaviors that, no doubt, have been perpetuated throughout their lifetime in other relationships.

Good news! We can change our Attachment Style. We can work to become more securely attached to others, and learn how to meet some of our own needs when others cannot or fail to show up for us in the ways we expect or need from them.

The four mean...four attachment styles

Chances are that many of us don’t fully identify with the traits of secure attachment. Even if we think we have stable relationships, there might be patterns in our behavior that keep bothering us or making us stressed or unhappy. Unfortunately, some of us will recognize ourselves in the traits of one of the three insecure attachment types. That’s okay! It isn’t your fault that you have developed an insecure attachment of some kind. We JUST learned in this article that it’s something out of our control and begins to take shape within us before we even have language to describe it. We don’t get to determine what attachment style we end up with, we only get to determine what we are going to do about it once we’ve figured it out.

Based on attachment theory, 4 attachment styles were identified. Remember, these styles were developed in childhood and replicated in adulthood.

Secure Attachment (56% of adults): they feel confident that their partners will be there for them when needed, and open to depending on others and having others depend on them; able to trust others and be trusted; do not become panicked when their partner needs space from them.

Anxious-Insecure Attachment (19% of adults): they worry that others may not love them completely, and become easily frustrated or angered when their attachment needs go unmet; worrying that their partner will leave them and often seeking external validation and reassurance; intense fear of abandonment.

Anxious-Avoidant Attachment (25% of adults): they may appear not to care too much about close relationships, and may prefer not to be too dependent upon other people or to have others be too dependent upon them; have trouble getting close to others or trusting others in relationships, because they ultimately don't believe their needs can get met in a relationship; avoidant people typically maintain some distance from their partners or are largely emotionally unavailable; intense fear of intimacy.

Disorganized or Fearful-Avoidant Attachment (rare/not well researched): combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles; both desperately crave affection and want to avoid it at all costs; attachment behaviors can seem inconsistent and oscillate between the extremes of avoidance and anxiousness; significant risks with this attachment include difficulty regulating emotions, heightened sexual behavior, and increased risk for violence in their relationships.

Stay Tuned! Next month we will have Part 2, the differences in attachment styles and how that shows up in adult relationships, just before the holidays! Understanding your attachment style likely will shed light on how (and why) you interact with family, friends, and in-laws the way that you, which can be extremely helpful before walking into holiday gatherings. The more you understand yourself, the better you can show up in the world as yourself, without the need to please others, avoid others, or seek validation from others.

Do you know what your early life was like? Who were your caretakers? Can you identify which attachment style sounds like you?

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"The 4 Attachment Styles In Relationships + How To Find Yours. Kelly Gonsalves. Mind Body Green.

"Adult Attachment Theory and Research: A Brief Overview." R. Chris Fraley.

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