Understanding Relationships Using Attachment Theory

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A relationship between a parent and their child is special like no other. A parent’s relationship with their child sets the tone for all other relationships in that child’s life. Romantic relationships, friendships to the way we interact with our teachers and peers. It all connects back to how we were raised and the way in which we connected with our own parents.

Attachment theory, famously researched by Mary Ainsworth identifies 3 types of attachment styles that are observed as early as infancy.

1. Secure Attachment

The securely attached infant sees their caregiver as their safe base. In times of distress, the infant feels confident to trust that they will be safe with their caregiver. These infants know that their caregiver will meet all of their needs and they are easily soothed by their caregiver when upset.

In adulthood we see secure attachment styles in romantic relationships as well. This can look like a couple who communicate well, have trust and are open with each other. An important piece is that both partners allow each other the space to do things separately from the other without the fear of being abandoned. Additionally, couples who are securely attached enjoy the closeness of their partner but also appreciate their time alone. Partners who are securely attached don’t feel a sense of being suffocated by their partner.

2. Anxious/ambivalent attachment

The infant who has an anxious/ambivalent attachment does not see their caregiver as their safe base and does not seek support from them when distressed. Unfortunately, this is usually the result of a caregiver who was not sensitive and rejected meeting their infants’ basic needs. During distress this caregiver was usually not there for their infant, causing their infant to be unable to rely on them for safety.

In romantic relationships, an anxious/ambivalent attachment style may look like a partner who needs a lot of reassurance about commitment and love. These partners may be worried about abandonment because they were very often abandoned of their emotional needs as an infant. Additionally, when these partners feel anxious about their relationship they will frantically try to get attention by calling or texting numerous times or obsessively thinking about their partner.

3. Avoidant attachment

This infant does not seek out emotional support due to constant rejection from their caregiver. Caregivers may have avoided their children’s needs when they were vulnerable, teaching the child to suppress their emotions. This infant tends to be more independent and does not depend on their caregiver for safety. Since this caregiver tends to be inconsistent with their infant, the infant learns to be avoidant towards them.

In adulthood, these partners in romantic relationships generally feel safer keeping their intense emotions to themselves. They believe they are better off dealing with things internally and have difficulty expressing emotional intimacy. This is a defence mechanism that is a result of not having a close emotional connection with a caregiver during childhood. Avoidant attachment styles result in more shallow relationships and a desire to avoid something too serious.

Reflecting on your attachment style with your parents can allow you to understand common behaviours that you may gravitate towards in friendships or romantic relationships. Additionally, for any of my readers who are new parents or thinking of becoming parents, it is important to keep this research in mind when raising your child as their attachment styles form as early as infancy.

References:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 05). Mary ainsworth. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html