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  • Writer's pictureJill Arndt

How Does Adult Attachment Style Impact Relationships and Personal Growth?





What is attachment? 

Attachment is a term used to describe a deep emotional relationship bond. The beginnings of attachment are evident from birth, when as babies we cry out with the expectation that someone (anyone!) will respond to our cry. By the time infants reach around 6 months old, we’re able to demonstrate preference for our caregivers and express our upset when our attachment people (usually caregivers) go away1

The existence of attachment goes back millennia, and yet we’ve only recently (in Western cultures) begun to put a name to it, study it, and incorporate it into our view of mental health. Our understanding of attachment, therefore, is still in flux. The rest of this post summarizes some of what we currently know about attachment. 


Why Attachment?

To understand why humans attach to one another, we first need to understand the reproductive cycles of reptiles (yes, that’s right). One of the key distinguishing factors between mammals and reptiles is how they reproduce. Parenting duties of reptiles mainly consist of finding a good spot to lay their eggs, laying the eggs, and then going about their day. The eggs then hatch and little reptile babies come out, ready to take on the world (picture baby turtles scuttling down the beach to the shoreline, braving birds of prey with no help from mom or dad). Attachment isn’t necessary for them because when they emerge from their eggs, mom and dad are long-gone anyway! There’s no one to attach to. They are independent creatures.


Mammals tend to have more involved parenting responsibilities. Mammal babies stick around their parents for a while in order to grow and develop physically, emotionally, and socially (picture baby puppies who require weeks of nursing and parenting before they’re allowed to be adopted as pets). This time spent together for parent and baby leads to a profound emotional bond between them - what we call “attachment.” In fact, we believe that emotional centers evolved in mammal brains in order to foster this parent-child attachment. This emotion-based attachment allows fairly helpless mammal babies time to develop into maturity with the safety net of strong relationships2


As far as mammals go, humans need a massive amount of time with their caregivers in order to develop properly - not days, not weeks, but years. This long-term attachment is so crucial that infants who don’t get enough emotional connection to form an attachment are more likely to pass away, even if all of their physical needs are met3. Attachment is a survival mechanism, not an option. Human babies cannot clean, feed, or soothe themselves without others. As the founder of Emotionally-Focused Therapy Sue Johnson put it, “splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”4 The deep, emotion-based, attachment bond is nature’s way of making sure that helpless human babies are not left defenseless, without the attachment figures (usually parents/caregivers) that they need to survive.


Attachment Styles

So what happens when a baby is born without a consistent caregiver? Well, since the caregiver - infant relationship is life-or-death, babies and toddlers learn how to get our attachment needs met pretty quickly. While humans are very flexible in this way, we’re also fairly predictable when it comes to attachment. Researchers have found over time that there are really three different ways we try to get our attachment needs met from an inconsistent caregiver5.


  1. We shut down

One strategy that humans try when we experience an inconsistent or neglectful caregiver is to act like we don’t care. We shut down, disconnect, try to figure out how to do it on our own in order to not be pushed away even more by our caregiver. This is called having an avoidant attachment style.


Couple with their backs to each other

  1. We get loud

Another strategy humans try is getting loud, reactive, and clingy to keep our caregiver close. We let them know loud and clear that we don’t want them to go away, and we let them know how upset we are when they do come back. This is called having an anxious attachment style.



Couple in clingy embrace

  1. A mix of both

A third strategy that humans tend to try is a combination of both - sometimes disconnecting and trying to be independent while at other times expressing our upset and clinging harder (“go away - please don’t let go”). This is called an anxious-avoidant attachment style.


Couple on Couch


However, if all goes well and we have a responsive caregiver, babies develop a secure attachment style. We are able to play and explore the world knowing that our attachment person is close by, ready to respond with love and support when we return from our adventures.


Couple on bikes


Adult vs Child Attachment

Any of these four attachment lessons (avoid, get anxious, avoid and get anxious, or feel secure) become patterns or “attachment styles” - consistent ways we respond to relationship distress. 


For example, children who grew up developing an avoidant attachment style might find that as adults they get overwhelmed by intimacy quickly, shut down when conflict arises, and hide parts of themselves to avoid the rejection they’ve come to anticipate. Another example is that children who grew up developing an anxious attachment style might be on high alert for rejection and therefore can be quick to get upset at the first whiff of abandonment, becoming clingy and demanding. 


So if attachment evolved as a survival mechanism for babies - why do adults still experience attachment? 


After hours of research trying to find the answer to this question, the best science-based answer I can offer you is “because we’re human.” 


Attachment isn’t just a philosophical idea or a cultural phenomenon, it’s deeply wired into our brains and bodies. To have such a significant part of our emotional and attachment-focused baby brain just dissolve when we become adults would basically make adults different species from infants. We attach because we are human. We attach because it is hard-wired into our big, emotional, human, mammal brains to do so. Adults aren’t so different from the little babies we all once were.


What Can I Do About My Attachment Style?

The good news about attachment styles is that they are not our identities! They are simply strategies that we have learned over time to help us get our attachment needs met. There’s no shame in needing attachments in our adult life, and there’s no shame in having developed a particular attachment style. Research shows that an insecurely attached child can grow up to have a securely attached partnership, and vice versa6. That flexibility gives all of us reason to have hope for our future and current relationships.


The disclaimer is that shifting our attachment strategies takes a tremendous amount of courage and risk - after all, to change our attachment strategy means to connect with others in a way that our brain and bodies have learned could literally mean death! Despite this, most folks find that it is a worthwhile endeavor (of course - we’re built to connect!). 


The journey of shifting our attachment styles is also a journey that’s best not done alone. Many individuals are able to achieve these shifts through a combination of caring personal relationships as well as the support of a trained mental health professional. While some people try to change their attachment style through reading and studying self-help books or blog posts, (like this one) they find they can't get far. The reason why reading, studying, and thinking fail to shift our attachment styles is because attachment is emotion-driven. Therefore, we need to have new experiences with our relationships and with our emotions in order to shift our attachment styles. 


If you’re ready to shift your attachment style and develop safer, deeper relationships with others, reach out to an attachment-focused therapist like myself to find help on your journey. You are not alone.



CITATIONS

  1. Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MD, Waters E, Wall S. Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale: Erlbaum; 1978.

  2. Lewis, T. (2007, December 17). The Neuroscience of Empathy. Youtube. 

  3. Ardiel, E. L., & Rankin, C. H. (2010). The importance of touch in development. Paediatrics & child health, 15(3), 153–156. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/15.3.153

  4. Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. Hachette UK.

  5. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Strange Situation Procedure (SSP) [Database record]. APA PsycTests.

  6. Chris Fraley, R. (2002). Attachment stability from infancy to adulthood: Meta-analysis and dynamic modeling of developmental mechanisms. Personality and social psychology review, 6(2), 123-151.

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