As babies, we attach to our primary caregivers, which can be parents, guardians, carers, siblings, extended family members and so on. It is the person or people who had the responsibility for taking care of your practical and emotional needs. This first attachment forms the basis of what we learn about relationships. This includes how we trust, what makes us feel safe and secure, our perception of the world and the people in it and how we react or behave in certain situations.
It influences what we internalise about the world and ourselves. And this internal model determines how we view the world, whether we see it as safe or unsafe. It also impacts our levels of self-esteem and self-worth, as we internalise what value we have, based on how the early attachment figures have responded to our physical, mental and emotional needs.
Recognition for deeper understanding
If our initial early relationships were often unpredictable, unstable or unsafe, this affects the way that we interact with other key people later in our lives. These early relationships form the blueprint for our future relationships. Although we can change these patterns, it is important to recognise that our interactions with our primary caregivers as a child set the tone for the attachment patterns in significant relationships throughout our lives. On an unconscious level, we may seek relationships that recreate familiar patterns. This isn’t about logic; it is about our primitive survival instinct. Yet it has the potential to lead us into relationships that may be unhealthy, or harmful to our emotional, mental or physical wellbeing.
It is important to state here that we are all individual and this does not necessarily apply to everyone who has experienced unpredictable or unsafe early attachments. Yet these individuals may find themselves impacted in different ways, for example being less trusting, wary of others or less likely to emotionally invest in relationships, depending on the coping mechanisms that they employed as children, which they may also utilise as adults.
What are the different attachment styles?
In general terms, attachment is the foundation for how you relate to others, a blueprint for life that is established in our early relationships. We learn about ourselves, others and the world based on how our caregiver(s) related to us as babies and throughout our childhood. This determines how we relate to friends, family and romantic relationships in adulthood. Once you identify your attachment style, you can begin to consciously make changes (if you would like to).
Attachment theory was developed through the work of John Bowlby in the 1950s and Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. Bowlby worked with children and parents to explore the parent–child relationship. He studied parents’ responses to their child, looking at whether their relating was appropriate and sensitive, effective, safe, secure and loving. Today, there are four main widely accepted parent–child attachment styles which came out of the work of Ainsworth et all, 1978 and Main and Solomon, 1986.
The child was responded to appropriately by their main caregiver(s) and their emotional needs were met. In adulthood, they are generally trusting of others and relationships feel relatively safe emotionally.
Insecure: Anxious avoidant.
This can develop when the main caregiver(s) were emotionally or physically absent. It can create an internal narrative of ‘I am on my own’ or a sense of the child feeling rejected. Children with this experience usually learn to become independent and can avoid their caregivers as a source of comfort. As adults, these children may not ask for help, avoid situations that make them anxious (so don’t take many risks) and might find it difficult to trust others.
Insecure: Anxious ambivalent.
This can be described as a ‘push and pull’ dynamic where the child oscillates from being clingy to pushing caregiver(s) away. They may not have felt comforted by their caregiver(s) or may have rejected them. As adults, these children may fear rejection, have a fear of abandonment, feel overly jealous or not easily trust others.
Insecure: Anxious disorganised.
This attachment style can develop when there was an ongoing lack of consistency in the actions and behaviours of the caregiver(s), leading to confusion. These children show a lack of clear attachment behaviour and their responses to their caregivers are constantly changing e.g., avoidance or resistance. As adults, they can find it hard to understand and regulate their emotions – at times, they may feel cut off from their emotions and at other times overwhelmed by them. Relationships might feel emotionally unsafe or confusing to navigate.