What is Your Attachment Style?
By Debi Gilmore LMFT CEFT
What is attachment and why is it important?
Attachment refers the particular way in which you relate to other people. We each have a certain style of attachment that was influenced and developed at the very beginning of life. The most important years of attachment development occur during your first two years of life, and is influenced by your most consistent caregiver or mother-figure. Once established, your attachment style remains in place and directly influences how you relate in intimate relationships and in how you parent your children. It is important to identify and understand your style of attachment and how you felt and developed in your childhood because it offers you insight into your present relationship patterns. It also clarifies ways that you are emotionally limited as an adult and what you need to change to improve your close relationships and your relationship with your own children.
Early Attachment Patterns
From the early hours of life and through the early years of childhood, infants need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver in order for their social and emotional development to occur normally. Without this consistency in interaction, secure attachment is negatively impacted, and children can suffer serious psychological and social impairment. During the first two years, how the parents or consistent caregivers respond to their infants, particularly during times of distress, establishes the types of patterns of attachment their children form. These patterns will go on to guide the child’s feelings, thoughts and expectations as an adult in future relationships.
Ideally, when an infant cries out, their caregiver responds consistently. The baby begins to formulate confidence in the idea that when they have a need, someone will be there for them. This is essential during the first year of life and must be consistent during the first two years of age. As a result of this consistency, they form an emotional attachment to an adult who is attuned to them, that is, who is sensitive and responsive in their interactions with them. It is vital that this attachment figure remain a consistent caregiver throughout this period in a child’s life. During the second year, children begin to consider and use the adult as a secure base from which to explore the world and become more independent. A child in this type of relationship is more likely to become securely attached. In order for a child to feel securely attached to their parents or care-givers, the child must feel safe, consistently recognized, and soothed.
Some adults are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. They seem to have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Emotions are seen as being negative and a sign of weakness. Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They are likely to develop an avoidant attachment with a misattuned parent.
Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time they act clingy and desperate. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.
When a parent or caregiver is abusive to a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behavior as being life-threatening. This child is caught in a terrible dilemma: her survival instincts are telling her to flee to safety but safety is the very person who is terrifying her. The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and what they are experiencing is blocked from their consciousness. Children in this conflicted state have disorganized attachments with their fearsome parental figures.
Adult Attachment Styles
People who formed secure attachments in childhood have secure attachment patterns in adulthood. They have a strong sense of self-worth and they naturally desire close relationships with others. They basically have a positive view of themselves, their partners and their relationships. Their lives are balanced: they are both secure in their independence and in their close relationships.
Those who had avoidant attachments in childhood most likely have dismissive attachment patterns as adults. These people tend to be loners; they regard relationships and emotions as being relatively unimportant. They are cerebral and suppress their feelings. Their typical response to conflict and stressful situations is to avoid them by distancing themselves. These people’s lives are not balanced: they are inward and isolated, and emotionally removed from themselves and others.
Children who have an ambivalent/anxious attachment often grow up to have preoccupied attachment patterns. As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt. In their relationships, deep-seated feelings that they are going to be rejected make them worried and not trusting. This drives them to act clingy and overly dependent with their partner. These people’s lives are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in their relationships.
People who grew up with disorganized attachments often develop fearful-avoidant patterns of attachment. Since, as children, they detached from their feelings during times of trauma, as adults, they continue to be somewhat detached from themselves. They desire relationships and are comfortable in them until they develop emotionally close. At this point, the feelings that were repressed in childhood begin to resurface and, with no awareness of them being from the past, they are experienced in the present. The person is no longer in life today but rather, is suddenly re-living an old trauma. These people’s lives are not balanced: they do not have a coherent sense of themselves nor do they have a clear connection with others.
It's Never Too Late!
There is good news—it is never too late to develop a secure attachment. The negative effects of not having an ideal attachment experience early in life are absolutely reversible. Even though your patterns of attachment were formed in infancy and can follow you throughout your life, it is possible to shift your attachment style into a healthier one. The first step is to become aware of your present style of attachment.
Research on attachment demonstrates that awareness of your present attachment style and making sense of childhood experiences is actually the best predictor of future security in relationships. Research also shows that by forming an attachment with someone with a secure attachment style can influence our own sense of security in the relationship.
It may be helpful to meet with a therapist who is an expert in attachment theory. The therapist can help make sense of the insecurities and offer steps to shift and change the attachment patterns that have become barriers to healthy attachment. This process helps us to get to know ourselves through understanding our past experiences. This process takes time and varying levels of courage. However, in doing this, we strengthen our ability to navigate through the world with a more grounded sense of security that helps us better withstand the challenges and trials of life.
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