Attachment for Grown-Ups: Unlocking the Secrets of Our Close Relationships

In my last post, we delved into the fascinating world of attachment bonds and took a look at how babies and preverbal toddlers form attachment bonds with primary caregivers – usually parents. I suggested that those earliest attachment bonds can affect our close relationships for years, even decades later. This raises one pretty big question…

How does that work?

We’ll return to that question in a bit. First, let’s look at the different ways we make sense of attachment bonds, both in childhood and adulthood.

Words and Actions: The Building Blocks of Attachment

Infant attachment is typically studied through direct observation of a child’s behavior with their parents, while adult attachment is rooted in how we express our feelings and experiences in close and romantic relationships. In essence, adult attachment is about the words we use to describe our connections with others.

So, how do you find the words that will reveal an adult’s attachment style? The most common way is through self-report questionnaires. These brief quiz-like instruments ask people how they have experienced close relationships over the years. Researchers who have created the most scientifically valid attachment questionnaires have identified 4 broad categories of adult attachment by contrasting how people identify along 2 dimensions of attachment:

Dimension 1: Anxiety

People with low attachment anxiety identify with statements such as…

“I am confident that my partner loves me.”

“I do not often worry about being abandoned.”

People with high attachment anxiety identify with statements such as…

“I worry that my partner will leave me.”

“I worry about being alone.”

Dimension 2: Avoidance

People with low attachment avoidance identity with statements such as…

“I turn to my partner when I need support.”

“I find it easy to get close to my partner.”

People with high attachment avoidance identify with statements such as…

“I don’t like depending on other people.”

“I prefer not to show how I feel deep down.”

Not everyone trends in the same direction on these different dimensions. Some people are high in attachment anxiety and low in attachment avoidance, for example. So, based on their responses to the questionnaire, people will fall into one of 4 attachment categories:

Secure Attachment = low anxiety + low avoidance

Dismissing-Avoidant Attachment = low anxiety + high avoidance

Preoccupied Attachment = high anxiety + low avoidance

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment = high anxiety + high avoidance

You can see how these attachment styles reflect commonly-used labels to describe our relationships. Someone who is highly anxious, with low avoidance, would fall into the preoccupied attachment category – he might be called “needy,” or “clingy.” The dismissive attachment style – low on anxiety, high on avoidance – is the classic “commitment-phobe.” Someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style might come across as “guarded” or “playing hard-to-get.”

Attachment Styles Are Not Set in Stone

It’s important to remember that attachment styles are not rigid boxes, nor are they permanent. They are general categories that represent a range of traits and behaviors. Furthermore, they can evolve over time as a result of positive or negative experiences in relationships. One of the key ideas is we are not confined to a single attachment style for life.

If you’re curious about your own attachment style, there are various online questionnaires available to help you identify it. One particularly valuable tool is the “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised (ECR-R).” This instrument not only identifies your attachment style in romantic relationships but also examines how you attach to other important figures in your life, such as friends and family members.

Back to the Cradle

Now, let’s revisit the fundamental question: How do our early experiences with caregivers as babies and toddlers shape our adult attachment bonds?

Research suggests that there is indeed a connection between early-life experiences with caregivers and adult attachment. However, adult attachment styles, as revealed by self-report questionnaires, are based on an individual’s conscious evaluation of their relationship experiences and preferences. The patterns of attachment between young children and caregivers are established by the child’s deeply ingrained beliefs about themselves (“am I worthy of love and care?”) and others (“can others be relied on to provide love and care?”). Importantly, these beliefs form before the child comprehends language and persist in daily life beyond their conscious awareness as they grow.

To truly understand the roots of attachment patterns, adults need a way to delve beneath conscious awareness and explore the dynamics of their primal attachment bonds. The “Adult Attachment Interview (AAI)” is a powerful tool designed for this purpose.

Diving into Your Past with the AAI

While attachment style questionnaires are straightforward and quickly scored, the AAI is a complex but captivating journey into your history. It involves a detailed interview that delves into your earliest memories. Through a thorough analysis of the interview transcript, you can gain key insights into your attachment with your parents, how your early life experiences continue to influence your thoughts and emotions today, and even how these patterns may pass from one generation to the next.

Understanding attachment is like deciphering the intricate puzzle of our relationships. It’s a journey that offers valuable insights into our emotions, behaviors, and connections with others. Whether you explore your attachment style through questionnaires or take the deeper dive with the Adult Attachment Interview, this self-discovery can lead to greater self-awareness and healthier, more fulfilling, and happy relationships.


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