Attachment Theory and Healthy Relationships

As humans, we are social beings. Our comparatively big, sophisticated brains evolved to solve social problems and help us to exist safely and comfortably in complex social hierarchies. No matter how much we may have learned to be independent, we are social creatures, and we do most things in groups.

Western culture teaches us that we are individuals, and that as adults, we don't need to depend on others to meet our own needs. But how true is this? How many humans live happily as hermits, without contact with others? Are you able to do everything you need to do to make and prepare you own food, without any help from others? When you are injured or unwell, do you rely on the assistance of specialists to get you better? When you are angry or sad, do you talk it through with somebody, find someone to laugh with, play sports with or give you a hug?

Interdependence is natural to humans – we are individuals, but we thrive in communities, with social contact with other people. Loving relationships are a basic need for all human beings. Learning to have healthy relationships with friends, colleagues and family is an important part of your mental and physical wellbeing.

What Is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby to explain human infants' tendency to form a close emotional bond with one or more caregivers, in order to ensure their safety and social development, and to help them regulate emotions. Infants seek out their caregivers when they feel unwell, frightened or upset, and the caregiver assists them to settle and feel better. The quality of the infant-caregiver relationship- that is, how in-tune the caregiver is with the infant's needs, has an important influence on the infant's attachment style, which may endure into adulthood.

Research into attachment reveals two dimensions of attachment: Anxiety and Avoidance.

  • High Attachment Anxiety is characterised by worry about the availability of caregivers. People with high attachment anxiety have hyperactivation of the attachment system, which means they have a tendency to rely on others for security and emotion regulation.
  • High Attachment Avoidance is characterised by a discomfort with intimacy, deactivation of the attachment system, and excessive self-reliance to regulate emotions.

The Strange Situation

Infant attachment is usually classified using the Strange Situation, an experiment developed by Mary Ainsworth. A caregiver takes an infant between 12 and 20 months of age, and plays with them in a room full of interesting toys, and a stranger. The caregiver then leaves the infant alone with the stranger, returns, then leaves the infant completely alone in the room, and then returns. The infant's response to the return of the caregiver determines the quality of their attachment, and falls into 4 categories:

Secure attachment; the infant, distressed by being separated from its caregiver, goes to the caregiver and seeks reassurance, and is soothed by the caregiver. The infant then feels confident again, and explores the room once more. The securely attached infant goes to the caregiver to help to regulate emotions, and then treats the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the world.

Insecure attachment; infants can exhibit 3 styles of insecure attachment:

  • Preoccupied (also called Ambivalent or Anxious); the infant hyperactivates their attachment system, returns distressed to the caregiver, but is not soothed by the caregiver, and exhibits frustration at the caregiver and increased distress.
  • Dismissing (also called Avoidant);the infant deactivates their attachment system, and avoids the caregiver when they return, and does not accept attempts at soothing.
  • Disorganised (also called Fearful or Disoriented); the infant is conflicted between hyperactivating and deactivating their attachment system, and exhibits a range of behaviour towards the caregiver, including shifting between seeking comfort, avoidance, and states in which the infant appears overwhelmed and detached from their environment. This attachment style is associated with dissociative disorders in adulthood, and may indicate neglect and/or abuse.
Attachment theory and healthy relationships

These early relationship patterns, established before language has fully developed, may have a long term effect on the schemas a person develops about loving and protective relationships. These schemas about the self and others are referred to as Internal Working Models in attachment theory.

Research has established that securely attached children have greater empathy, self-esteem, better relationships with others, and are better at handling their feelings than insecurely attached children. These childhood attachment styles may endure into adulthood, which may have consequences on the quality of relationships and emotional coping throughout life.

What is the Circle of Security?

An early intervention program was designed to help parents of young children to improve the quality of their attachment to their children. The intervention helps parents to become more attuned to their children's needs and how to respond to them. The Circle of Security describes to a 2-handed approach to attending to a child's needs; on the one hand, the adult provides a secure base to support the child's exploration of the world, and on the other hand, the adult provides a safe haven to return to, to delight in the child, comfort them, and help them organise their feelings. When possible, the adult follows the child's need, when necessary, the adult takes charge. The adult is encouraged to adopt a gentle, responsive way of helping their children to develop, and one of the key messages of the circle of security is that adults are bigger, stronger and wiser than their children, and need to be kind to them.

How can I Help Myself Develop Healthier Attachments as an Adult?

The first step is to do what you're doing right now: learn about attachment, and think about your own attachment style. Are you frequently anxious about abandonment in your relationships? Do you avoid close relationships? Do you feel confused and disorganised in your approach to close relationships? Notice what you're like in your relationships, and whether you feel comfortable and supported or not. Think about your close relationships, and what attachment styles your loved ones may have.

If you feel distressed in your relationships, then seeking therapy with someone with expertise in attachment may help you. Establishing a securely attached relationship with a therapist can provide you with a secure base from which you can go on to explore and experiment with other relationships in the world.

Attachment Style and Therapy Choice

Your attachment style, if you are insecurely attached, may have influence on the type of therapy that you choose, and the types of therapy that may be best suited to resolve your difficulties.

  • Preoccupied: If you have a preoccupied attachment style, then therapies that focus on relationships and your own behaviour in relationships, such as mentalisation based therapy or a schema therapy may help you to develop more healthy relationships.
  • Dismissing: If you have a dismissing attachment style, there is some evidence that you may prefer therapies with a more cognitive focus, like cognitive behaviour therapy rather than a therapy style that focuses on relationships, although it may be of value to work on the relationships as well.
  • Disorganised: if you have a disorganised attachment style, then seeking therapy with someone with expertise with dissociation is important; learning to resolve the push and pull between hyperactivating and deactivating your attachment system may help you to establish more internal harmony.

For More Information

Academic References

Ainsworth, MDS, Blehar, M, Waters, E & Wall, S (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Dell, P F & O’Neil, J A., Eds. (2009) Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders: DSM-V and Beyond. London: Routledge.

Obegi, J H & Berant, E, Eds. (2009) Attachment Theory and Research in Clinical Work with Adults. New York: The Guidlford Press.