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Image borrowed from Applied Social Psychology’s website.

Top of the morning to ye, lassies and laddies.

(I couldn’t help myself. I just finished reading Outlander and my mind is filled with such things…).

So, after my last post mentioned I would do some future posts on the topic of attachment, I got a few comments mentioning interest in that topic. As such, I will begin there. I aim to please, you know.

But I quickly realized that attachment is a big topic, too big to cover in one post if one wants to cover it properly. So this will the the first in a series of articles on attachment styles and why they matter.


What is Attachment Style?

In a nutshell, attachment theory studies how we develop close relations with others. This field of study has been around for decades and has resurfaced and made its way from dusty scientific journals to mainstream use by dating and relationship gurus. The idea behind attachment theory is that our ability to bond to others, particularly romantic partners, is based on our bonding with our parents/primary caregivers. This kind of bonding is established right off the bat during those early years, and what we learn during that time can greatly influence our relationships decades later.

I know, more stuff about childhood and our parents, blah blah, right? But it makes sense. Our parents represent the first people we bond to, the people who teach us what it is to love to another human being. Whatever they taught you, whatever they showed you, it was programmed into your understanding of life at a very early age. And the younger we learn something, the more embedded and unconscious it is.

Everyone has different parents. Some were very cuddly, some more distant. Some were emotionally stable and available for you, some were suffering from mental illness or were otherwise unable to provide as much closeness. Whatever it is, that blueprint influenced how you attach to others.


Three Basic Attachment Styles

One of the classic methods researchers and experts have used to study attachment is to observe young children (~ 2 years) with their parent (the primary caregiver, which in many cases was the mother) in what is called the “Strange Situation” (Ainsworth, 1969). The child/mother are put alone in a room that has toys or other interesting things; the child goes to explore and the mother hangs out. Soon, a stranger enters the room and talks with the mother, then the mother quietly leaves. Mom returns, comforts her child, then leaves again. The stranger leaves as well, then returns and interacts with the child. Finally, Mom returns and greets her child.

What happens next, and how the child responds to all this, is the interesting part.

Some children explore the toys and room when Mom is present. They may experience distress (including crying) when Mom goes, but show happiness when she returns and go to her for comfort. These children show signs of secure attachment.

Other children may not explore as much. They show less emotion when Mom leaves, no obvious preference for her over the stranger, and, when Mom returns, they avoid or ignore her. These children show signs of avoidant attachment.

Still other children don’t explore much either, but unlike the previous example, these kids are wary of the stranger and grow very distressed when Mom leaves. When she returns, these children may want to be comforted by Mom and even act clingy, but may also show signs of anger or resentment for the temporary abandonment, and prove difficult to soothe. These children show signs of anxious attachment.

This is a fourth style, a disorganized attachment style where the child can show signs of various styles, but for simplicity we’ll skip that one.

Like all theories, Attachment Theory isn’t perfect. But it does provide a way to understand how we do relationships as adults. We all favor one of these attachment styles and they have a big influence on who we choose to be with, what we expect in that relationship, what makes us feel secure and insecure in the relationship, and why some of our former partners drove us nuts.

In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about the 3 attachment styles and what they look like in adults.