My work is influenced by the work and lineage of John Bowlby. Bowlby’s investigation into the intense distress caused in children when separated from their parents led him to define what he called the attachment behavioral system. Later work by Mary Ainsworth made clear distinctions of attachment categories (known as attachment styles) including secure, avoidant resistant, and avoidant.
Contemporary research shows that these early experiences in childhood repeat themselves in adult relationships by how we interact in and what we expect from our significant other.
I frequently refer to the hallmark work on attachment theory by experts Allan Schore, Dan Siegel, Marion Solomon, David Wallin, Rachel Heller, Amir Levine, Susan Hart, Stan Tatkin, Ellyn Bader, Bessel van der Kolk and Pat Ogden. The current research in this field, including my own, has shown great promise in understanding the emotional and neurobiological origins of attachment styles. This understanding, and the revelations of modern brain science on brain plasticity, gives us the exciting opportunity to change destructive relationship patterns into constructive behaviors that lead to better, more profound, and longer lasting adult relationships.
In the DARe: Adult Attachment Theory training workshops we address four of the core Attachment Styles, their origins, the way they reveal themselves in relationships, and methods for transforming attachment hurt into healing. I use the terms Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized Attachment. Read below for a description.
Secure attachment is the ideal attachment style needed to enjoy healthy boundaries, fluidity of intimacy, individuation, and social engagement. This is developed by the child having caregivers who are positively attuned to the child, provide a safe haven with consistency and “good enough” care, attention and affection. Children who experience this type of holding environment grow to feel safe to explore the world, interact with others with trust, and to have emotional resilience and regulation. As adults, they will tend to have greater confidence, better balance, and choices in relationships, and the ability to both give and receive love.
In the Avoidant attachment style, caregivers’ emotionally unavailable, insensitive, and even hostile responses to a child’s need for connection will form a coping strategy of disconnection in a child. Avoidantly attached people commonly find their greatest struggle to be a lack of emotion. Without intimate nurturance, the limbic system is neurologically starved and does not receive the signals required for building social responses nor the frontal brain stimulation that develops bonding.
This disconnection extends first to the parents and then to all other relationships. Though some of our cultural models extol the virtues of this self-reliant “Lone Wolf” behavior (think X-man, Wolverine, or the quintessential “Desperado” cowboy icon), actually living with such a lack of emotional attunement can be increasingly isolating. When working with Avoidant attachment, the intrepid task of the therapist is to nurture a transition to a fully embodied and participatory existence by creating a welcoming and contactful experience full of compassion “permission for existence.” DARe provide resources for ways Avoidants can cross the tenuous bridge to emotional connection.
Ambivalently attached people have had caregivers who were “on-again, off-again,” inconsistently tending and attuning to the child. Because of the lack of consistency, the child doubts whether their needs will be met and is on the constant lookout for cues and clues to how their behavior may or may not influence the parent’s responses. Over time they find themselves on an emotional see-saw of needs being met and not being met. Their object relation is “I can want, but cannot have.”
You may observe that in Ambivalent attachment styles there is a tendency to be chronically dissatisfied. First, there is a tendency to project their familial history onto their relationship. Secondly, if the other person becomes available, they become unavailable! Unaccustomed to receiving love, having it available doesn’t fit their profile of “still wanting.” Over time, partners of Ambivalent people can be discouraged by their love being dismissed, and the loss of the relationship can be the both the feared and created outcome.
A Disorganized Attachment style results when caregivers present double-binding messages to children. This is sometimes called a “paradoxical injunction.” An example of this is a “Come here, go away. Come here, go away.” message. Parents create situations for the child that are unsolvable and un-winable. For example, a parent may ask a child to do a task such as sweep the floor. When the child begins to do so, the parent criticizes how or when they do it. The child may attempt to do the task again taking the direction but is criticized again. The parent may then deride the child for not doing what the parent has asked them to do and punish them for not doing the job.
When exposed to these impossible-to-resolve situations over-and-over again, the child develops a pattern of not solving problems. When parents set up these interactions that are frightening, disorienting, inherently disorganizing, and which sometimes involve violence, the parents become the source of fear. The disorganized pattern arises in the child when there is a desire to be close to the parent as an object of safety, conflicting with a drive to detach from a dangerous and confusing caregiver. For the adult, this may mean being held hostage emotionally by the conflict of the desire for intimacy and was well as the fear of it.
To figure out your attachment style, I have provided this short adult attachment questionnaire for you and your partner.