How attachment theory can improve your life!
Have you ever pushed away a person that you really cared for? Did you ever walk away from a lover although they were one of the few people on earth that you could be your true, vulnerable self with?
If you have ever found yourself feeling frustrated by your own contradictory behaviors toward a significant person in your life, you most likely experienced some attachment injuries in childhood. You did not do anything wrong and you have no responsibility for the fact that what your brain established as the template or “default pattern of relating to others,” is the one that was effective in the environment you were raised in. After all, not all of us were brought up in environments that contributed to the development of the regions of our brain which are involved in healthy relationship patterns.
However, if we are not getting the results we want in significant relationships and we crave solid, meaningful, long-lasting, healthy love relationships, there is quite a bit we can learn from understanding our attachment style and using the appropriate strategies to change from any of the insecure attachment styles to a secure attachment style which is where the joy of authentic connection can be found.
I want to share with you a summary of “attachment theory” gleaned from my own personal study of John Bowlby’s original work and his successor’s studies; lectures and workshops I have attended; books I have read; and my participation in emotionally-focused couples’ therapy sessions. I am hoping my review will spark your interest in further exploring how the most widely-accepted theory of development may help you improve your personal life experience.
History of attachment theory
John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, whose passion of connecting the dots of how the environment affects a child’s development and impacts the course of their life, spearheaded the revolutionary research that clearly shows the critical importance for our wellbeing and happiness of the bonds we form with a few special people in our life. Bowlby first became interested in how a child’s environment is internalized and affects his/her development when he worked at a school with maladapted and delinquent children.
John Bowlby highlighted the hardwired need of human beings to form and maintain strong emotional bonds with significant others and initiated the research that six decades later provided ample proof that the quality of the early bonds we form with our primary caregivers impacts every single aspect of our human experience.
Although not widely accepted and even challenged during Bowlby’s time, today, attachment theory is regarded as the most widely-accepted psychological theory of human development and relational ability.
At a time when we are experiencing the worst state of health in human history, attachment theory gives us a well-substantiated body of evidence and a framework that connects many life satisfaction parameters to how we relate to others based on the quality of our first bond— the one with our parents.
What is attachment?
Attachment is the bond formed between two beings that provides safety and security against dangers in their environment. Having people we can depend on is a very powerful way to regulate our nervous system to be able to properly defend against outside threats. The interdependent connection we call attachment allows us to adjust our body’s response to false alarms, while preserving and managing our resources wisely for when a real threat is presented.
Why attachment matters
Our perception of Self, personality, and the ways we relate to others in intimate relationships are all linked to the experiences we had with our primary caregivers during our childhood. If our parents were attuned to us and responsive to our needs, our brain developed with the ability to securely attach to others and to expect the best outcomes when depending on another. Securely attached children have been found to have higher IQ’s; solid school performance; robust physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development; positive relationships; and to enjoy better outcomes in their financial, professional, and marital matters later on as adults.
Throughout our life, healthy, wholesome connections with significant people in our life are associated with robust health benefits and higher life satisfaction. Neuroscience has provided ample evidence that we are neurobiologically wired for connection— a need that starts from the moment we take our very first breath and only ends when we die.
When we have healthy, interdependent relationships, we have a “calmer” nervous system and increased access to the executive functioning part of our brain.
The nervous system of securely attached individuals does not seem to be as aroused by threat-related activities. In fact, in a 2013 study (Sue Johnson et al) when women were asked to endure an electric shock monitored by FMRI while holding the hand of a person they had a secure attachment to, they showed diminished threat-related activation throughout their brain. However, when facing the same threat alone they showed the highest level of threat-related activation. When our brain is threatened we operate under compromised capacity, because we do not have access to our greatest resources, such as the executive functioning part of our brain.
When we get close to another as adults, we remember what it was like to depend on another human being. Depending on how things went in our childhood, we have different reactions. If, for example, depending on our parents was not such a positive experience, our procedural memory, without much conscious awareness, directs our central nervous system in a way that can literally shut down brain circuits governing relational ability.
Although historically it was believed that the way we learned to attach from our parents was fixed throughout our life, thanks to neuroscience advances, and the understanding of our brains ability to change in response to the environment (neuroplasticity) we now know that we can evolve to more secure attachment and we can cultivate the parts of our brain that are associated with connection, intimacy, and empathy. We can also, at will, enhance our experience of connectedness and enjoy the direct and indirect benefits that come with healthy relationships if we are willing to be honest about our default insecure attachment position and be willing to practice relational patterns that do not come naturally to us.
Attachment neuroscience 101
Our brain is very much the master conductor (the CEO) in charge of the optimal operation of our largest asset: our body. It strives to maintain homeostasis—the balance of using our resources to keep us at optimal levels—at all times. Protecting us from dangers is one of the most significant job functions of our brain.
With that being said, we have to have respect for our nervous system and the way it operates because regardless of our IQ, our nervous system will perceive things without our cognitive intervention. Perceptions are affected by the state we are in and our state is mostly driven by implicit memories. In fact, the biggest secret to optimal health is how to utilize our nervous system for well-being and growth and to not exhaust it by using it for defense.
Attachment is all about safety, security, and the way bonds with a few special people have the power to soothe our brain to prevent overreacting to threats in the environment. But how does our brain know what is dangerous to us or not?
Our brain determines whether a situation (or a person) is a threat to us from experiences we have had. Our relational templates are formed from implicit memory—the type of memory that we not only acquire unconsciously, but that also impacts our thoughts and behavior unconsciously. For example, you may remember the specific experience that taught you that an open flame burns, but you know from implicit memory to not touch a flame. In the same way, what happened with our primary attachment figures sneaks into our adult relationships without us even realizing it, until we bring the unconscious to consciousness.
If when we were children someone showed up with a blanket when we were cold, we learned to trust. We are not preoccupied with fearful states of how and whether our needs will be met. Optimal development is directly related to the quality of our first attachment bonds. Neuroscience research has shown us that the brain integration that occurs in childhood when a child is responded to is associated with a greater ability to regulate emotions, understand self and others, and experience good health and resilience.
If we look at the opposite extreme, in the case of a child that grows up with a history of trauma or abuse, nurturance and safety data are not parts of their implicit memory. The brains of traumatized children have been sculpted to be hypervigilant to keep them safe. One way that this is accomplished if we were abused as children is through disconnection. However, if we use this same coping strategy that we employed with an unresponsive, mentally-ill parent, or a parent that was unavailable because of substance abuse issues, with a healthy partner who is available and responsive to us, we can shoot ourselves in the foot and experience intimacy and bonding issues.
In other words, if we do not get the reassurance that we matter when we are children, we develop coping strategies that are not conducive to healthy, wholesome connections with others as adults, especially when managing distressful situations.
Our brain has developed in a way to give us the highest survival advantage, so the heightened sensitivity to threats that is hardwired in the brain of a person who experienced insecure attachments as a child, also makes them more prone to fearful states, decreased implicit memories of positive outcomes when they depend on others, and an injured sense of self-worth as adults. When we remain in a fearful state, we don’t have access to both sides of our brain, and important brain regions are “off line.”You could say that we go into temporary cognitive and perceptual impairment.
Attachment styles explained
Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), Bowlby’s student and later colleague, took his pioneering work to the next level through a series of studies that provided evidence for the attachment theory, as well as providing us with a framework for the attachment styles.
Ainsworth identified four attachment styles. One is the secure attachment style. The other three are variations of insecure attachment styles: insecure/anxious; insecure/avoidant; and insecure/disorganized. Although most of us are not aware of what our attachment style is, or whether or not our experiences have primed us for relationship bliss or not, our style will be revealed from the way we tend to behave in important relationships as adults.
At first we may not be eager to identify as someone who is “insecurely attached,” it is important to understand that until we become conscious of our relational patterns most of our actions in relationships will continue to happen without our permission. This means that we will continue to be the only thing standing between us and the love of our life!
Secure attachment style summary
Having access to the relational patterns of secure attachment has been proven to be the best predictor of happiness in a relationship. If we were not securely attached to someone in childhood, growing and changing to a secure attachment style is an essential component for our physical, emotional, and psychological health. The quality of the attachment bonds that shaped our brain from conception through the end of childhood are directly related to our optimal development. If our early years were positive, the neural connections that got hardwired in our brain suggest that depending on another is safe, secure, and that our needs will be met. Consequently, we know that we matter.
Secure attachment style details
Textbook behaviors that give away that your attachment style is secure
Whether you were securely attached in childhood, or you have done work as an adult to transition to a secure attachment style, you can tell because in your love relationships you are: predictable, reliable, consistent, responsive to your partner, and present. You can access your emotions easily and express them. You are comfortable expressing your needs and you have healthy boundary functioning. You are very comfortable with intimacy and depending on your significant other, as you expect the same goodwill from your partner as you contribute to your relationship. You take pride in taking responsibility for your actions and you view mistakes as lessons in mastery. You have great integration between your left and right brain; therefore you are able to be analytical but can also use your creativity. You don’t play games and you never feel the need to lie, cheat, or steal. You find no need, space, or time for these behaviors. If something is not working for you or rubs you the wrong way, you use direct communication to express your feelings and needs and are open to doing the same for your loved one.
How did you end up with secure attachment style?
You likely had a relationship with primary caregivers who were attuned to your needs. Although they were far from perfect, your parents helped you establish the belief that it is possible to be human, make mistakes, and still be capable and worthy of love. Your parents acknowledged and repaired moments when they were more disconnected than was ideal. Research has provided compelling evidence that repairing moments of disconnection is just as critical as attunement because repair builds resilience which is critical in navigating the ups and downs of relationships throughout the course of one’s life. It is also possible that you learned secure functioning as an adult through a primary adult relationship with a secure functioning partner.
If we could look inside a person with secure attachment style
Securely attached individuals have a deeper sense of safety than those who are insecurely attached. They anticipate that when things do not go well, support will be available. They experience positive feelings when depending on another. They have no issues transitioning between being alone and being connected to a significant other. They fear neither abandonment, nor being engulfed. They have lower “allostatic load” (the cumulative negative effects on the body from being forced to adapt to various psychosocial challenges and adverse environments), because they don’t sweat the small stuff. Securely attached individuals take pride in their ability to be an active participant in helping to regulate their loved ones’ nervous system and consequently impact not just their own health and the health of their relationship positively, but also the health of their family and community.
Insecure attachment styles summary (avoidant, anxious, and disorganized)
If in our early years we experienced challenges with our caregivers—from simple lack of attention by our caregivers to neglect, abuse, or trauma—our brain gets
“pruned” to be less developed in the parts that are associated with secure functioning and grey matter increases in the parts of the brain that are associated with overall fearful states and increased sensitivity to threats.
In the absence of a secure attachment bond, we defend ourselves from the dangers of the outside world by clinging to another or by distancing ourselves from others.
Insecurely attached individuals struggle with emotional competence and many experience depression, and in the case of trauma, dissociation.
Further, adults with unresolved trauma from childhood can experience a constant over-activation of their sympathetic nervous system, which is accompanied by states like anxiety, anger, absent-mindedness, or irritability. Steve Porge’s “Polyvagal theory” actually points to the fact that if we stay in these states for too long, essential functions start going off-line with further negative consequences.
Insecure/avoidant attachment style details
Textbook behaviors that give away that your attachment style is insecure/avoidant
You look down on dependency and think very highly of self-sufficiency. You have difficulty trusting others and are emotionally checked out most of the time. You spend a lot of time alone and when you do get close to another, you tend to be secretive and lost in your own mind. You have difficulty giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, especially if they are courageous enough to express their needs which makes you view them as “needy.” You outwardly express that you have no needs, although several studies reflect that you need closeness and intimacy just as much as any other attachment style and that your “pseudo-independence” is merely a defensive stance. Because you experience a great degree of interpersonal stress when depending on another, you use deactivating strategies to push loved ones away including: giving them the silent treatment, engaging in contradictory behaviors, or projecting repressed painful feelings and needs to a partner.
How did you end up with insecure/avoidant attachment style?
You probably had dismissive, non-responsive parent(s) who deprived their children of the relational pattern of having someone responding to them and meeting their needs. Insecure/avoidant attachment style also results if you were left alone too long as a child or because of the mental illness of parent(s), disturbing childhood experiences, abuse, or neglect. The brain of children with this style has stored data that says that depending on someone is not safe.
If we could look inside a person with insecure/avoidant attachment style
They like to think of themselves as loners, or free spirits, but deep down they long for intimacy and emotional connection. They have a fragile sense of self, with decreased ability to recognize affect signals. They also have difficulty recognizing their own emotions. Attaching to anybody has been an extremely painful experience in their past. They have trouble learning from past experiences and an inability to assess consequences.
Insecure/anxious attachment style details
Textbook behaviors that give away that your attachment style is insecure/anxious
You are preoccupied with fears of abandonment, often play the martyr, and you have difficulty leaving relationships even when they have become hurtful and toxic. You are suspicious and have difficulty trusting. You tend to become really clingy when you feel distress, but if someone comes close, then you get worried that they will not stay. You can overwhelm the people who love you by your constant need for reassurance and you doubt them even if they give you no reason to. You are hypervigilant and hypersensitive in identifying threats, but you have a hard time switching your attachment system off, (interwoven in your nervous system) and soothing yourself once you are triggered.
How did you end up with an insecure/anxious attachment style?
You were probably what they would describe as a “colicky baby” because you were not responded to when you cried, and your cry signal lost its’ ability to switch off. Your primary caregiver probably experienced some anxiety about their ability to nurture, and your mirror neurons incorporated that anxiety into your brain architecture. Your primary caregivers were loving toward you, but they lacked consistency. Therefore, you developed a sense of anticipatory anxiety, not knowing if and when your loved ones would respond to you and be emotionally available and there for you.
If we could look inside a person with insecure/anxious attachment style
Persons with an insecure/anxious attachment style go through life with more than an average sense of self-doubt. They tend to seek approval and reassurance from outside sources, not realizing that this will never fill the void of the approval that they do not give themselves. They seldom anticipate that a loved one will meet their needs, but even when someone does, or tries to, their internal fears make them sabotage the relationship. They tend to have positive views of others and can display great relational patterns, but deep down they rarely give themselves the benefit of the doubt. They feel angry at their partner when their perception tells them that the partner doesn’t appreciate them, even if they do.
Insecure/disorganized attachment style details
Textbook behaviors that give away that your attachment style is insecure/disorganized
You are unpredictable and you contradict yourself very often. You say one thing with your words and you do another with your actions. You seem detached from the present moment and people find you very hard to read. You have a hard time developing and maintaining healthy friendships. You tend to maintain superficial relationships that don’t last very long or get too deep. When in a love relationship, you tend to be over-controlling, although it is not uncommon for you to oscillate between being a “control freak” and a “door-mat.” You have a hard time keeping up with commitments you make. When you get close to another, you experience “emotional dys-regulation” (difficulty managing emotions, characterized by: high sensitivity to emotional stimuli, intense emotional responses, and a slow return to baseline) which really scares you and you tend to pull away almost immediately.
How did you end up with secure attachment style?
Your parent(s) were both someone you depended on for safety and someone you were scared of at the same time. Most commonly, if your style is disorganized, chances are that you experienced some type of abuse and/or trauma in childhood. Your primary caregivers more than likely experienced trauma in their lives and did not resolve it, which led to very disorienting behaviors with you. In fact, studies show that 80% of children that have been abused experience disorganized attachment styles to their parents.
If we could look inside a person with insecure/disorganized attachment style
Their sense of self is shattered and deep down they do not believe that they are worthy of love and approval. They may be very meticulous about external appearances as they are fearful of anyone looking in. They do not believe they are capable of authentic connection and may bounce between clingy and distancing de-activating strategies, because they learned that depending on someone is one of the most dangerous things they could possibly experience. They do not feel positive at all about trusting anyone (including themselves) and they do not anticipate anyone meeting their needs.
Although research shows that a little less than 50% of us were securely attached in childhood, we all have a universal need for love and belonging and we are all capable of transitioning to secure functioning. Self-love and compassion are the first steps of this process, along with the awareness that until we decide to intervene our brain will keep messing with us. Nobody wants the pain that results from insecure attachment styles. Our behavior is driven by what we have already experienced, so we need to practice secure relational functioning with another so that we can re-wire our brains with this new way of being. A secure attachment style then becomes our new default way of functioning. We need to remember that every moment of distress we experience with our beloved is nothing other than a fight against our own fears and our history.
Evidence shows that it takes approximately two to four years of practicing secure relational functioning with a partner who is responsive to us for this secure attachment style to become our new “automatic” reality.
Although there is a great degree of humility and vulnerability in admitting how we may very well be the only thing that stands in our own way, what awaits us on the other side is totally worth it: A conscious way of being with another, holding each others’ hand against the ups and downs of life. And as science has clearly shown us, that is the most potent antidote to the toxicity of the modern era that we live in and one of the most powerful ways to be free to be our best and most amazing self.