This time of year brings up ALL kinds of emotions. I see it with my clients and I feel it deep inside myself. Most of us want nothing more than to feel understood, to be close to our family, and to feel a sense of belonging. Isn’t that why we get together for these holiday gatherings? No matter what our background, our living situation or our family of origin; we long for safe secure relationships. Understanding our own attachment styles can positively impact and deepen all of our relationships. I am going to briefly talk about attachment theory, discuss the four attachment styles and introduce an important skill to build more secure attachments with our family and friends regardless of our current attachment style.
You may be familiar with John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1969). There are two points that I think are absolutely fascinating. First, these early relationships with our caregivers are so critical that we actually form a blueprint (or an internal working model) for how relationships work and how we view ourselves. This impacts the rest of our lives! Second, when we are infants we are born into families that we have no say in and we have no ability to escape. We can’t just crawl out of the house and move in with the neighbor. So in an attempt to survive what is sometimes a very difficult caregiver, we develop strategies to improve our chances of survival. These strategies are also called attachment styles. It turns out that there are four different attachment styles: secure; anxious preoccupied; avoidant or dismissive; and fearful avoidant or disorganized (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991).
The strategy we wish we all had is secure. This group makes up about 56% of the population. When the caregiver is responsible and reliable and the child feels protected, worthy and seen the child develops a secure attachment (Ainsworth, 1978). The child develops a blueprint for relationships that represent others as capable and willing to respond and one’s own self as worthy of a response. This internal working model, “I am worthy and the world is likely to meet my needs” enables the child to seek proximity and help from a caregiver in times of need and thus builds trust. This trust allows the child to experience the caregiver as a secure base from which they feel confident to go out and explore the world. A person with a secure style can feel their feelings while relating to others. This person believes their needs matter, can verbalize their needs and reach out to their partner or trusted other to let them know what they need. They know how to send clear emotional signals.
The second attachment style is the anxious preoccupied style. When a caregiver is inconsistent most of the time and depends on the child to meet their needs; the child can develop an anxious attachment style. This group makes up about 20% of the population. The child develops a negative view of self; “I’m not capable” and a positive view of the world. This internal model of viewing the self as not lovable but viewing the world as positive creates a sense of appreciating others but also being highly dependent on others. This person learns how to feel better about themselves by gaining the acceptance of others. Individuals with anxious attachment styles tend to experience high levels of anxiety that are driven by unrelenting thoughts. This person can experience high anxiety during a family gathering and can find themselves talking incessantly in order to cope.
The third attachment style is dismissive avoidant. This group makes up about 23% of the population. When the caregiver isn’t meeting the basic needs and/or the emotional needs of their child the child feel insignificant and unworthy. The child learns that the best way to get their needs met is to act as if they don’t have any needs or figure out how to meet their own needs. This child rarely opens up and mainly relies on themselves. They protect themselves from disappointment by avoiding close relationships and maintaining a sense of independence and invulnerability. The internal working model developed is “I am worthy but the world is not likely to meet my needs”. It’s difficult for this person to know how to feel close to others in their family. This can be a problem in relationships. Sometimes family members get the impression that they are aloof and uninterested when really they are longing for connection but so fearful of rejection and disappointment.
The fourth attachment style is the fearful avoidant or disorganized. This group makes up about 1% of the population. When the caregiver has a chronic mental health condition or a drug or alcohol addiction or a history of abuse that remains unresolved the child feels unsafe and doesn’t know what or who to trust. The caregiver is unpredictable; one moment they may be laughing and rewarding a behavior and another moment they may explode in anger regarding the same behavior. The child feels confused and has no organizing way to get his/her needs met. The one person that should be protecting the child from harm is actually frightening to their child. The child pairs love with fear and this becomes very confusing for the child. Over time the child moves into a style that includes both anxious and avoidant characteristics. This person develops an internal working model of “I am not worthy and the world is not likely to meet my needs”. This person has a difficult time developing relationships and feeling safe enough to get close. They are fearful of intimacy and may be socially avoidant. During a family gathering this person may engage in behavior that in confusing and/or extreme.
Think about the family that you grew up in and what attachment style you formed as a result of your primary caregiver. How does this style impact your relationships today? We used to believe that attachment was important only for young children and we now know that having secure relationships are crucial from the day we are born to the day we die (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). In adulthood we transition from the attachment figure being the caregiver to the attachment figure being the partner. Adult love relationships typically mirror past relationships with parents. More than likely we brought the early attachment style with our caregiver into our adult love relationships. The good news is that regardless of the type of childhood we had (neglectful, abusive, or inadequate) or the type of attachment style we developed we can learn to create the emotional security we missed and form good relationships with our own partners, our children and those that matter most to us. Thankfully we don’t have to be perfect partners or parents to create secure relationships. If an individual is not fortunate enough to have experienced sensitive parenting during childhood, various skills can be learned to move toward a secure attachment style.
One of the skills that can be developed is to learn to send clear emotional signals. For example, if we have a dismissive avoidant attachment style (avoiding intimacy to manage anticipated disappointment) we may be sending confusing emotional cues (I can’t count on you or you’re never there for me) to our partner. In order to create a relationship where each partner feels a sense of security and comfort to face the fears and anxiety’s of today, we have to send the right emotional cues. The first step in sending the right emotional cues is to tune into your own body and understand what you are feeling. Just check in with yourself. What are you feeling right now as you are reading this article? Feeling excited to share this with your partner? Feeling afraid that you may not get your needs met? Whatever you are feeling is ok, just notice it. The second step is to put words to what you are feeling. That might look like this: I’m afraid to tell you what I need; or I’m feeling sad that I don’t know you better; or I’d like to feel closer to you and I’m not sure how to do that. When we slow down and check in with ourselves and get clear about what’s happening inside, and we put words to these experiences, we help to calm our nervous system. The third step is to share this with our partner or family member; coming from THIS place. When we speak from this place inside of ourselves we are more likely to send the emotional cues that are clear and in alignment with how we feel. For example: you are important to me; you matter to me; I am here for you or we can get through this together. Learning how to send clear emotional cues involves new ways of interacting with a partner or a family member. We can’t change the way we were raised but we can learn how to build secure relationships at any point in our lives. When we can understand our own attachment style, move toward more secure attachment strategies and create the emotional security we longed for with our own families it has the power to transform generations. If you would like more information on understanding attachment styles or learning more about how you can create healthy relationships please contact me at DrLeeLeGrice@gmail.com or DrLeeLeGrice.com
- Ainsworth, M. (1978). Patterns of attachment: a psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. NY: Basic Books.
- Bartholomew, K. & Horowitz, L. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), pp. 226-244.
- Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.