Attachment Theory in Childhood
As seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza once said, “All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love”. Originally, attachment theory was designed to explain the nature of child-caregiver bonds in infancy. Attachment theorist John Bowlby’s primary assertion was that human survival depended on the ability to form and maintain intimate relationships, most importantly, the relationship with one’s caregiver in infancy.
Attachment theory states that maladaptive interactional patterns are ingrained in childhood with one’s caregiver, become habitual over time, and persist into romantic partnerships in adulthood. Adults often unconsciously seek out relational experiences that are consistent to those that they had with their caregivers; they may also perceive their current significant relationships as similar to those they experienced in childhood.
Attachment Theory in Adults
Attachment theory provides us with a framework to help us understand why adults differ in the way they think, feel, and behave in romantic relationships. When an adult routinely experiences the physical and emotional availability of a loving attachment figure, and his or her needs for support, nurturance, and protection are gratified, this person will typically be classified as having a secure attachment style. Secure individuals see close others as reliable and trustworthy, and see themselves as likeable, good-natured, and worthy of love. However, if the person perceives their attachment figures as unresponsive or absent, the person will develop an insecure attachment style, and will either experience extreme anxiety in which he or she will frantically seek proximity to the caregiver (anxious style), or remain distant and detached from close others (avoidant style). Insecure individuals see others as unavailable and untrustworthy, and see themselves as unworthy of love. Approximately 60-70% of individuals experience stability in their attachment styles over time. However, it is possible for one to progress beyond the dysfunctional, insecure attachment style that he or she held in the past, and acquire a healthier, more secure attachment style; this is called an “earned-secure” attachment status.
How to Become More Securely Attached
An essential first step to becoming more securely attached is for insecure adults to recognize and accept that negative attachment experiences in childhood affect them in present relationships; this seems to be more effective in a person’s transition to security than the denial or idealization of one’s adverse childhood attachment history. This process of self-exploration also requires that insecure individuals gain an understanding of how current relationship perceptions and experiences are linked to their attachment histories. Most importantly, those with insecure attachment styles must reconsider and reconceptualize their current expectations and biases of close relationships that have been ingrained after years of existing in insecure attachment patterns. “Earned-secure” individuals are defined as those who acknowledge that they experienced dysfunctional parenting experiences in childhood, but as adults are able to describe these memories in an accurate, coherent, and contained manner.
Researchers emphasize the importance of direct experience in the attachment change process; specifically, for individuals to learn and practice support-seeking and conflict resolution skills. A psychotherapist can provide a safe environment for insecurely attached individuals to identify and analyze their relationship patterns, to practice effective communication skills, and ultimately, to learn to form and maintain healthier and happier romantic relationships.
If you are interested in learning more about attachment and romantic relationships, please refer to the following books:
“Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
“Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson