Attachment theory describes emotional bonds within relationships. Patterns of attachment grow out of early childhood experiences and tend to endure through the lifespan. How we attach to others influences the kind of connections we create with others. Can we draw close to someone, ask for our needs to be met, give and receive affection, and be a safe, secure haven for someone else? Does loving others or being loved come with a cost or take an emotional toll?
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, early attachment theorists, described the critical role emotional and physical attachment plays in personal development. Our first connection emotionally and physically to our primary caregiver begins an imprinting of attachment style.
We form secure attachments with individuals with whom we feel safe emotionally and physically. In Bowlby’s childhood development studies, children who felt secure with at least one primary caregiver would become more adventurous and willing to try new experiences. Children without a strong attachment security with a primary caregiver need to continually seek stability, often, becoming fearful of new experiences.
Early theories of attachment were not without criticism, in particular, the lack of cultural considerations when looking at parent-child interactions. However, there is strong agreement that individuals tend to respond with a particular attachment style in interpersonal relationships.
Through the early interactions with caregivers, an attachment pattern is established and continues to function within the relationships in adulthood. What might it look like to have a securely attached style? A securely attached child knew their parent was available, present and willing to respond to their needs. The child could leave the safety of the parent and explore their surroundings. The child trusted the parent would be close by if needed. Securely attached children move towards gradual independence.
As adults, secure attachment tends, to be honest, open, and balanced. There is a sharing of comfort in distress and feelings of independence. Securely attached adults in intimate relationships do not fear rejection or control the relationship, out of fear their partner will hurt them or leave them.
Emotional hunger describes the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. AEDP therapist, Karen Pando-Mars, writes “these behaviors are strategies to counter the deeply ingrained fears of abandonment that arise in the wake of inconsistent caregiving.”
The adult partner needs the continual reassurance of the security and safety of their partner inviting their partner to rescue or complete them. An anxious-preoccupied partner can move from clinging to the other or pushing their partner away out of fear and insecurity.
The emotional push and pull serve to exacerbate and validate the threat or fear and leaves the partner feeling desperate. The desperation can drive the partner to make demands toward the other in hopes of reassurance.
Emotional distancing characterizes the dismissive avoidant attachment style. Possibly having learned it necessary to “parent themselves,” the dismissive avoidant styles turn inward and appear to shut down their feelings or appear non-reactive, a defense against the lack of connection or inconsistent behaviour from primary caregivers.
In relationships, individuals erect walls, shut down, withdraw to avoid disappointment. Anxiety is present but concealed, and a partner’s expressed need for connection is met with hostility or dismissed. Better to push away from an invitation for intimacy than lean into it and have to face the disappointment if it disappears.
Both afraid to draw close and afraid of becoming distant, the fearful avoidant style tends to describe those individuals who are unable to manage their feelings. At times they may have experienced parents as frightening or frightened themselves, and parenting behaviour seemed unpredictable.
As adults they may feel mixed up, moody…moving close to others, becoming afraid and then trying to create distance. The fearful avoidant attachment styles are disorganized, and relationships tend to be rocky and dramatic. These individuals have a fear of being rejected and fear of intimacy.
Establishing safety and undoing aloneness is the therapeutic stance of Diana Fosha’s AEDP theory. We may feel stuck in a loop described by an insecure attachment style and find connecting in relationships difficult. Insecure attachment bonds leave us lonely, isolate and afraid. This early mental mapping may be enduring, but it can shift. We can move towards and hope for a greater sense of security within ourselves and among others. The relationship that clients create with therapists can represent the kind of safety needed to learn trust and repair attachment bonds. The therapeutic relationship models an earned security and can be a first step towards knowing how to feel secure and discover security and safety in relationships.
Tracey Dahl, MA, RCC
The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. (2011). S.l.: Norton.
Fosha, D. (2000). The transforming power of affect: a model for accelerated change. New York: Basic Books.