How Do You Attach?

Do any of these sound familiar?

He is so insecure

She just can’t commit

Needy, needy, needy

I’m sure you’ve heard them – punchy labels, like the ones above, that define relationship dysfunction. You may have used these labels yourself. The labels themselves can be unhelpful or even downright hurtful. But understanding the dynamics these labels describe can improve your relationships. Attachment theory offers a roadmap for navigating relationship dynamics.

Attachment theory is based on research by developmental psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It’s based on the idea that, in early childhood, we make sense of the world by developing deep-seated core beliefs called schemas. Attachment theory suggests that schemas that we form in our earliest years about ourselves and other people set a pattern for how we form close, meaningful relationships. Here’s how it works.

It All Starts in a Baby’s Brain

A human baby is born with 100 billion brain cells. Over the course of the first years of life those cells will form trillions of connections, creating neural networks that take shape as the child perceives and explores the world. Two factors most influence the brain’s development – genetics and the environment.

We know from studying identical twins that genetics contributes a lot to a baby’s temperament – innate personality traits like being easy and flexible, active or feisty, or cautious and slow to warm. While our genes lay the foundation, it’s our interactions with the environment that really shape who we will become. And what are most often the biggest, most influential things in a young child’s environment? That’s right – parents.

The Two Big Questions

Our deepest-held beliefs about who we are and what we can expect from other people are shaped, in large part, by the bonds we form with parents and other caregivers as babies and toddlers. Those beliefs reflect how we subconsciously answer two big questions:

Am I worthy of being loved and cared for?

Can others be relied on to care for me and love me?

If a young child has her needs consistently met and she is quickly comforted when upset, the answers to those questions will likely be “yes.” If the child doesn’t experience stable relationships or, even worse, experiences neglect and abuse, the answers could be “no.” These beliefs – which reside beneath our conscious awareness – color our relationships down through years. They also cause us to react to other important people in our lives in predictable ways, known as patterns of attachment.

Patterns of Attachment

Attachment researchers who focus on the bonds between primary caregivers and young children identify four basic patterns of attachment in infants and toddlers. Here they are, along with the core beliefs underlying each:

Secure – “I am worthy of love and care. Others can be relied on to consistently provide love and care.” Children with secure attachment will readily seek comfort and reassurance from caregivers when upset. They feel secure exploring their environment, knowing that their caregiver is a safe base to return to. They have confidence that their needs for love and care will be consistently met by their caregivers.

Avoidant – “I am worthy of love and care. Others do not see this and may punish me if I ask for love and care.” Children with an avoidant pattern of attachment tend to be self-reliant and may avoid seeking closeness or comfort when distressed. They minimize their emotional needs to avoid potential rejection or punishment from caregivers. They may hesitate to express vulnerability or ask for love and care directly.

Resistant – “I am not worthy of love and care, but I need it. Sometimes others will provide me with love and care, sometimes they will not, so I need to demand it.” Children with a resistant pattern of attachment often cling to their caregivers, seeking constant reassurance and closeness. They may display fluctuating behaviors, switching between seeking and resisting comfort. They frequently demand attention and affection, even when not in distress, due to uncertainty about when it will be provided.

Disorganized – “I do not know if I am worthy of love and care. I do not know how others will respond if I ask for it.” Children with disorganized attachment exhibit unpredictable and disorganized behaviors when seeking comfort. They display confusion and mixed emotions in response to caregivers’ behaviors and they are uncertain about how caregivers will respond to their needs. This can lead to chaotic and sometimes contradictory actions.

Although I’ve put the attachment schemas into words, that is not how a baby or preverbal toddler will experience them. An avoidant, resistant, or disorganized child can’t put his attachment schemas into words, but the beliefs feel true because they are so deeply imprinted in the child’s mind. The good news is, these beliefs can evolve over time.

In my next post, we’ll examine how secure, avoidant, resistant, and disorganized patterns of attachment play out in adult relationships, including romantic relationships. We’ll also consider why it may be helpful to dig deeply into your past for clues about your earliest attachments in childhood.

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