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Attached - Exploring How and Why We Relate to Others Like We Do (with Quiz!)

While completing my master's degree I was introduced to so many interesting concepts and theories about human beings and relationships and often I found myself thinking "People need to know about this!" This was my thought when I first read about attachment theory: I want everyone to know about it. So, gentle reader, in case you aren’t already aware, I bring attachment theory to you. But first I’ll explain why you should care about it.

Historical Context

It can be easy to lose awareness of where we are in time, geography and history so let’s just remind ourselves with a little overall and general context. (Please know that this is a very brief historical perspective and background that is not meant to capture everything you smart people, or I, know about this topic and the last 200 years.)

The industrial revolution created a lot of change in general, including a dramatic impact on the family system. Americans’ central focus was shifted away from family and toward industry and business. Before this families, generally, worked together as little businesses and relied on each other to make money and hopefully thrive. Children worked in the home. The elderly cared for them and taught them. Women’s work in the home was part of the business and therefore housework often had greater importance during this time. After the industrial revolution, everyone’s roles within the family appreciably changed. Wage labor pulled family members away from the home and each other. Families started to become a group of independent people slicing their way through the world. This shift in the alliance away from the family has massively impacted our culture and the way we interact with each other. It continues to affect the way we are raised and raise our children and has negatively impacted how bonded we are to our families. A 2014 Princeton study of 14,000 children showed that 40% of those children have insecure attachments with their caregivers.

American’s high praise of independence and individuality has continued to deepen. Unless you interact with other cultures regularly it can be easy to forget that people outside of our western and American worlds interact differently. Other cultures such as many in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have a more collectivist bent: they find it acceptable to rely on others and work as groups. This extends to primary caregivers and their relationships with their children. For example, Japanese mothers rarely spend time apart from their infants. But American caregivers expect their babies to be more and more self-reliant, even before they are developmentally able.

Attachment Theory

Psychologist John Bowlby noticed that different babies show varying degrees of distress when separated from their primary caregiver. He and others began studying the mother-child bond. In the early 1950s, he developed the idea of attachment theory, which notes that a child’s foundational sense of security comes from an emotional bond to their mother (or primary caregiver). Before this time most psychologists thought that the babies were just after our food!

Mary Ainsworth further developed attachment theory, starting in the 1960s through to the 1990s, seeking to describe and categorize types of attachments. And here, my sweet, sweet readers is what you were promised at the start of this article. Ainsworth describes three different kinds of attachment: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-ambivalent. In 1986 a fourth major category was added by Mary Main called insecure-disorganized. When you read about these, you’ll likely notice some version of yourself or someone you know. Here we go:

Secure attachment

Babies who show secure attachment have the ability to be soothed by their mother and see her as a reliable base to which they can return, when needed, as they explore the world. Securely attached babies are confident explorers and capable learners. Mothers support these babies to have a full range of feelings – both "positive" and "negative" – and so they tend to have more a balanced relationship with their emotions. Generally, securely attached babies go on to have well-bonded relationships later on in life. Although, all attachment styles can change over the course of one's life.

Insecure avoidant attachment

Babies who have an insecure avoidant attachment usually display very independent behaviors. When their mother leaves they may show little sign of distress and when she returns they may seem not to notice her. However, this is not usually a sign of a laid-back bebe but one who is hiding emotions as a defense mechanism. In studies children with this behavior had the same physiological markers of stress (example: higher heart rate) but would display an outward calm. Insecure avoidant babies tend to have mothers that are described as angry and who may actively reject them. It is thought that the baby’s outward calm is a way of keeping their mother involved with them since they have noticed that their demands can be met with hostility. Preschoolers who have this style of attachment tend to sulk when they are upset and will display more hostile behaviors.

Insecure ambivalent attachment

Babies with an insecure ambivalent attachment learn to watch their caregivers closely to monitor their behaviors and moods. When they are separated from their mother they show extreme distress but when she returns they are not usually able to be soothed by her. Parents of babies with an insecure ambivalent attachment tend to respond to their child’s needs inconsistently so the child is unsure if their needs will be met. Children with insecure ambivalent attachments are noted as being preoccupied by others at the expense of exploration and learning. Preschoolers in this group are said to be passive and lack assertiveness.

Insecure disorganized attachment

Babies who have insecure disorganized attachments display dissociative behaviors and can seem to go into trances at times. They will also sometimes display contradictory behavior such as walking toward their caregiver but keeping their head down or looking away. Caregivers of insecure disorganized babies tend to have experienced abuse and/or be abusive themselves. They will respond to their babies either by being frightened or by frightening their children. Disorganized babies may be afraid of their caregiver and have internal conflicts about being comforted by them due to the extreme passivity or aggression of how their caregiver will react. In preschool these children tend to lack academic ability, and either be aggressive with their peers or take care of others’ needs while ignoring their own. Conclusion

And there it is, a tiny taste of attachment theory. There is much more detail and nuance than the above descriptions show. Keep in mind that there are ways to heal from attachment wounds: object relations therapy has been shown to be effective in treating issues around attachment trauma. Also, know that attachments change over time and so the attachment you had as a child may have shifted. Attachment wounds are healed through close and positive relationships in which trust is established and maintained.

At the end of this article, there is a link to a quiz to find out your current attachment style. There is a plethora of great research on attachment theory for adults and couples too. I could go on and on about attachment theory. I find it fascinating, heartbreaking, and hopeful. I hope that the more people know about it the more likely they will be to spend quality time noticing and caring for their children and relationships so that the future can be full of more sweet and well-adjusted people. Stay soft.

References: The information from this article can be found in Child Development 3rd ed. by Douglas Davies; Being a Brainwise Therapist by Bonnie Badenoch; and The Life Span 4th ed by Patricia Broderick and Pamela Blewitt. The 2014 Princeton Study can be downloaded via pdf at this address: children

This was originally published in 2019 by Shock of the Femme. Some changes have been made to update it.

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