Attachment is a term that feels very psychological. Everyone has heard of it, it seems important, either you have it or you don’t, but if you don’t it is not clear what to do to get it. It is a popular term in the same way that the term “dysfunctional family” is. You hear both terms a lot out in the world, and have a general sense of what they mean, but might not be able to define either one in, say, two sentences. Still, you know it when you see it.
Two psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, first studied attachment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They believed that infants are born with an attachment system already in place, one that motivates them to seek help from others in times of need. Thus, when infants need to be fed or changed they look for help, and usually look to their mothers. If the mother is responsive and provides the food or comfort that is needed, the child is likely to develop a secure sense of attachment. These children will come to see the world as a relatively trustworthy place where their needs tend to be met. Other children, though, who do not find a responsive caregiver in times of need are likely to develop some form of insecure attachment.
Two main types of insecure attachment have been found. Those who develop a sense of anxious attachment typically have difficulty trusting others to respond to their needs, such as providing comfort or emotional support. As a result, they may constantly seek closeness or intimacy and become overly dependent on caregivers or others. Conversely, infants who lacked a caregiver may, instead, develop an avoidant sense of attachment. These infants may cope with the belief that the world is not a trustworthy place by developing a strong sense of independence—they do not believe others will be responsive and so simply stop looking for help.
Already I bet you can image how this research on infants and caregivers came to be applied to adult relationships. Adults with secure attachment tend to see their relationships as having a stable base, where they are comfortable asking for help from their partners and are eager to provide help when needed. They tend to have high self-esteem and think highly of their partners too.
Those with anxious attachment, however, are less certain that romantic partners will meet their needs. They respond by being overly concerned with their partner’s responsiveness, seeking it at all costs. Their partners tend to describe them as clingy or needy. And those with anxious attachment tend to have lower self-esteem, which leads them to think they may not be worthy of having their needs met.
As you might expect, those with avoidant attachment have trouble developing intimacy, and though they may be in a relationship have difficulty becoming close or relying on their partner. Some may become loners, who go from relationship to relationship ending each when they feel the relationship is at a point where intimacy is likely to be expected by their partners. Others with avoidant attachment may desire to be in relationships but feel uncomfortable with intimacy and so have a continuous push-pull experience.
Much research has found that adult attachment style can play a significant role in one’s ability to develop stable, long-term relationships with intimacy and an appropriate sense of (in)dependence. As I pointed out earlier, attachment style begins to develop in infancy and continues throughout adulthood. But early exposure to unresponsive caregivers can have consequences that last well into adulthood. Further, these early experiences can be so powerful that exposure to a romantic partner who is reassuring about his intended responsiveness may not outweigh those early experiences. Partners of those with anxious or avoidant attachment style may think that that their actions should outweigh an early experience with unresponsiveness, but, sadly, it may not.
So, what is the take home point? There are two. One is that talking to a psychologist about attachment issues can be very helpful. Therapists can validate the importance of those early experiences and suggest ways to work on developing a more secure sense of attachment. The second take-home point is that communication about these issues can go a long way in helping turn anxious or avoidant attachment into secure attachment. If partners are aware of issues of attachment style and on the look-out for times when a relationship difficulty may relate back to early experiences with a caregiver, simply talking through the difficulty may go a long way to resolving it. Ultimately, it may be the case that someone with avoidant or anxious attachment may need dozens of experiences where they find their partner to be responsive to overcome those early and powerful experiences. It may seem like work, but it is noble work.
In case you are interested…
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.