Attachment theory can improve your life!
Have you ever pushed away a person that you loved? Did you ever walk away from a lover, although they seemed to appreciate your true, vulnerable self?
If you have ever found yourself feeling frustrated by your 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 “default relationship pattern” your brain established as the best for you based on what happened in your past.
After all, we may haven’t grown up in environments that sculpted our brains in ways conducive to healthy relationships.
However, we can change our brains and our relationships for the better!
By understanding our attachment style and using the appropriate strategies to change our attachment style, we can find the joy of authentic connection.
I want to summarize “attachment theory” (from my review of the scientific literature and personal experiences).
I hope 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, who was passionate about connecting the dots of how the environment affects a child’s development and impacts their life. Bowlby 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 internalized environment affected their 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. He 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 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.
Suppose you’re seeking ways to improve your relationships, your wellbeing, and your happiness.
In that case, attachment theory offers you a well-substantiated framework to break the spell of how your early relationships (with your parents) impact the quality of your relationships as an adult.
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 compelling way to regulate our nervous system to defend against outside threats properly. 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 present.
Why attachment matters
Our perception of self, personality, and the ways we relate to others in intimate relationships are linked to our experiences with our primary caregivers during our childhood. If our parents were responsive to our needs, our brain developed the ability to securely attach to others (and expect the best outcomes when depending on others). Securely attached children have higher IQs, solid school performance, robust physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, positive relationships, and enjoy better outcomes in their financial, professional, and marital matters later on as adults.
Healthy, wholesome connections with significant people in our lives are associated with robust health benefits and higher life satisfaction throughout our lives. Neuroscience has provided ample evidence that we’re 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 endured 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 addresses a danger, 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 shut down brain circuits governing relational ability.
Although historically, we thought we were stuck with the brain we inherited from childhood, neuroscience has proven this old wrong.
The most significant neuroscience discovery of the last 150 years, neuroplasticity, has proved that our brain can change in response to the environment!
We can replace insecure to secure attachment and cultivate the parts of our brain associated with connection, intimacy, and empathy.
Attachment neuroscience 101
Our brain is the master conductor (the CEO) in charge of the optimal operation of our most significant 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.
However, we have to respect 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 implicit memories primarily drive our form. The biggest secret to optimal health is utilizing our nervous system for wellbeing and growth and not exhausting 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 developed from implicit memory—the type of memory that we 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 not to touch a love from implicit memory. In the same way, what happened with our primary attachment figures sneaks into our adult relationships without realizing it until we bring the unconscious to consciousness.
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 others will meet our needs. Optimal development is directly related to the quality of our first attachment bonds. Neuroscience research has shown us that brain integration in childhood when parents are responsive to a child is associated with an increased 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 are sculpted to be hypervigilant to keep them safe. For example, abused children may use disconnection as a survival strategy. However, suppose 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. In that case, 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 that gives us the highest survival advantage.
But that means heightened sensitivity to threats resulting from an insecure attachment style can predispose us to fearful states 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 essential brain regions are “offline.” 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 a framework for the attachment styles.
Ainsworth identified four attachment styles. One is the secure attachment style, and the other three are variations of insecure attachment styles: insecure/anxious, insecure/avoidant, and insecure/disorganized. Most of us are not aware of our attachment style, but we can uncover our attachment style from the way we tend to behave in meaningful relationships as adults.
At first, we may not be eager to identify as someone who is “insecurely attached,” it is essential 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 essential for our physical, emotional, and psychological health. The quality of the attachment bonds that shape our brain from conception through the end of childhood is 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 others will meet our needs. 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 have done work as an adult to transition to a secure attachment style, you can tell because you are in your love relationships: predictable, reliable, consistent, responsive to your partner, and present. You can access your emotions quickly and express them. You are comfortable speaking your needs, and you have healthy boundary functioning. You are 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 can be analytical and 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 a secure attachment style?
You likely had a relationship with primary caregivers who met 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 essential to navigating the ups and downs of relationships throughout one’s life. It is also possible that you learned secure functioning through a primary adult relationship with a secure functioning partner.
If we could look inside a person with a secure attachment style
Securely attached individuals have a more profound 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, and they fear neither abandonment nor engulfment. They have a lower “allostatic load” (the cumulative adverse 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 active participants in helping to regulate their loved one’s nervous system and consequently impact not just their 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 associated with secure functioning. Grey matter increases in the brain regions related to 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 dissociation in the case of trauma.
Further, adults with unresolved trauma from childhood can experience a constant over-activation of their sympathetic nervous system, 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 offline 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 not emotionally available 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 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 say that you have no “needs.” However, 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 an 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 an insecure/avoidant attachment style
They like to think of themselves as loners or free spirits, but they long for intimacy and emotional connection deep down. 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 a harrowing 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 have difficulty leaving relationships even when they have become hurtful and toxic. You are suspicious and have difficulty trusting. You tend to become clingy when you feel distressed, but if someone comes close, 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. Still, you have a hard time switching your attachment system off (interwoven in your nervous system) and soothing yourself once triggered.
How did you end up with an insecure/anxious attachment style?
You may have been 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 nurturing ability, and your mirror neurons incorporated that anxiety into your brain architecture. Your primary caregivers loved 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 an insecure/anxious attachment style
Persons with an insecure/anxious attachment style go through life with more than an average sense of self-doubt. They seek approval and reassurance from outside sources, not realizing that this will never fill the void of the approval 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 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 dysregulation” (difficulty managing emotions, characterized by: high sensitivity to emotional stimuli, intense emotional responses, and a slow return to baseline), which scares you, and you tend to pull away almost immediately.
How did you end up with an insecure/disorganized 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, the chances are that you experienced some abuse and 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. Studies show that 80% of abused children experience disorganized attachment styles to their parents.
If we could look inside a person with an insecure/disorganized attachment style
They have a fragile sense of self, 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 can make authentic connections. They may bounce between clingy and distancing deactivating strategies because they learned that depending on someone is one of the most dangerous things they could experience. They do not feel optimistic about trusting anyone (including themselves), and they do not anticipate anyone meeting their needs.
Although research shows that less than 50% of us develop secure attachment in childhood, we all have a universal need for love and belonging. 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 our brain will keep messing with us until we decide to intervene. 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 but a fight against our fears and history.
Evidence shows that it takes approximately two to four years of practicing secure relational functioning with a responsive partner 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 way, what awaits us on the other side is worth it!
Because when we upgrade our attachment style, we get what we all want:
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 fantastic self.