Attachment theory Part One

I’d like write something about attachment theory.

This will be familiar to some of you. Perhaps you’ve come across it professionally; or perhaps it has been helpful personally.

I remember when I first came across it. It was like I’d been hit by a big sand bag; my body knew its truth, in a manner my head could not.

It left me with much to consider; and, in a way, exposed wounds that are at the heart of my healing. It’s a journey I’ll be on for the rest of my life.

But more importantly, is there anything here for you?

To ensure the blog is not too long, I’ll be doing this in three parts. This is part one, outlining the basic premise of attachment theory.

Attachment theory, (pioneered by John Bowlby, and developed by Mary Ainsworth) describes four different attachment styles that arise from the relationship between the primary care-giver (usually the mother) and the baby.

These are named as secure, anxious, avoidant or disorganised; and they will form the blue print for relationships throughout the baby’s life.

Attachment is an emotional bond with another person; and when we are young, it’s an evolutionary survival tool, trying to maintain proximity to those we need; creating a safe haven, where we can return to in case of threat; and a secure place for us from which to explore.

Everyone needs these things; but the baby particularly needs them.

As we look at the different sorts of attachment, we’ll probably see/feel one form which best describes each of us.

The roots of all this are buried in our ‘unrememberable but unforgettable’ past. The development of our particular attachment was a transactional process, shaped by real life relationships. Our attachment model grew from our early experience of both attitudes and behaviour.

So what happened when we cried/smiled/held/clung or raged, for instance? We learnt from the responses we got.

So here are the four different attachments. 

Secure attachment This describes children who were able to separate from parents and explore, but also return happily to them. They found comfort from them when frightened, and preferred parents to strangers.

As adults, they’ll tend to have trusting, lasting relationships, comfortable with their feelings and able to share their feelings with friends and partners, with good self-esteem, able to seek social support.

Anxious attachment – As children, they may be wary of strangers, become distressed when parents leave, but do not appear comforted when they reappear. As adults, they may worry their partner does not love them.

They received inconsistent parenting, sometimes switched on, sometimes distant. They were forced to focus on their parent’s state, to maximise the chance of a response.

Emotions are kept close to the surface, bubbling away, so they can make a bid for attention when the chance arises.

Instead of suppressing feelings they may exaggerate them, becoming overly aware of fears and needs. They seek a good response from their carer, who may like and use this neediness.

In adult life, they may cling to others to get more feedback, to help them cope with/interpret their emotions. Those with ambivalent attachment may plunge headlong into expressing strong feelings, without restraint or regard for others’ feelings.

Avoidant attachment As Sue Gerhardt says, if a parent hasn’t learned to handle feelings of hostility and anger comfortably, then they’ll find them very hard to bear in their children.

She’ll push them away/rage at them or demonise: ‘You little devil!’ or, ‘Don’t try that on with me!’

The child will learn to hold back their feelings, either denying they exist or avoiding expressing them, so as not to upset mother. This is a matter of survival. So the child regulates the mother by protecting them from their feelings.

But for themselves, there is no regulatory help for their feelings, which they must try and suppress or switch off completely.

Avoidant children will slam on the emotional breaks when strong feelings start to arise, so they don’t have to deal with feelings they don’t know what to do with.

Disorganised attachment – Arises in families where much is broken, parents overwhelmed by traumatic experiences they have been unable to process. They are unable to provide the child with the most basic needs, like safe space of any sort – physical, psychological or emotional.

When so much is wrong, the child has no coherent defence strategy to pursue, either as a child or an adult. Reactions will be volatile and inconsistent.

Apart from secure attachment, each of these parental responses disturbs the body’s natural rhythms, where cycles need to be played out, as we grow.

We need to be helped into a relationship with our feelings as we grow, rather than avoiding them or being overwhelmed by them.

(Part Two, in which we consider healing paths, will follow.)


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