What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory is a psychological explanation for how infants bond with parents. Originally proposed by psychologist John Bowlby, this theory has gained increasing attention in the last few years because psychologists have begun to underscore the importance of attachment theory in guiding adult decision-making in selecting romantic relationships.
Although, as with any robust scientific theory, there are context-dependent caveats involved, attachment styles can be broken down into four major groups: secure, avoidant, anxious, and anxious-avoidant.
The four main attachment styles
Secure attachment style: The individual is not prone to avoidant and anxious behavior. S/he is comfortable with two-way intimacy and does not primarily function in response to the fear of abandonment.
Avoidant attachment style: The individual displays avoidant behavior but does not show high anxiety. S/he is uncomfortable being close to others and shows little trust in them. S/he wants to remain independent and prefers to stay away from interdependent bonds.
Anxious attachment style: The individual displays highly anxious behavior and shows low avoidance. S/he demonstrates deep insecurity in relationships and craves emotional closeness to a degree that makes others wary.
Anxious-avoidant attachment style: The individual shows both highly avoidant and highly anxious behavior, often depending on the context. This conduct stems from an aversion to intimacy as a method to avoid getting hurt.
Data supports that attachment styles learned in infancy carry on through adulthood.
Psychologists who study attachment theory consider romantic love to be “an attachment process.” Thus, attachment styles learned in childhood are played out in the bond between lovers.
In a study led by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver at the University of Denver, one of the tested hypotheses was that attachment-style distributions would be similar in infant populations and adult populations.
The hypothesis was supported by the self-report of adults, in which “56% of subjects classified themselves as secure, approximately 24% as avoidant, and approximately 20% as anxious/ambivalent.” In the 1983 study led by Campos, infancy figures were 62%, 23%, and 15% in their respective categories.
While psychologists who led the cited study freely acknowledged that many individual changes are possible between infancy and adult life, it is, if nothing more, a very telling piece of evidence that the numbers found for attachment styles in infants within a population closely mirrored those percentages for adults within a population.
What does this mean for our romantic relationships?
Clearly, a secure attachment style makes for the healthiest type of relationship, but what attachment theory has done is allowed for us to glean insights into why we behave the way we do.
While attachment theory emphasizes that maladaptive attachment styles were learned before we had a say in the matter, we aren’t doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
Romantic relationships are often the spheres in which we play out our past traumas. Thus, we demonstrate our learned attachment from our caregivers in these relationships as well. It is also in these relationships that we have a chance to learn about ourselves and engage differently.
One of the hardest lessons that attachment theory teaches us is that we make relationship decisions in a way that validates our understanding of love and attachment, regardless of the healthiness of our approach.
For example, attachment expert Dr. Lisa Firestone elaborates that a person with an anxious attachment style will be attracted to an avoidant personality in order to validate her or his own beliefs that “in order to get close to someone and have your needs met, you need to be with your partner all the time and get reassurance.”
At first, this might not make sense. If you think about it, however, a securely attached person would provide consistent emotional intimacy to their anxious partner, thus invalidating the anxious partner’s belief that they must constantly work for that intimacy. This wouldn’t fit the anxious partner’s mental model of love and attachment.
If unexamined, the discrepancy could cause the anxious partner to exit the relationship because of a belief that it didn’t feel “right”. Of course, what does feel right in this case, isn’t healthy.
The question then becomes, can we get out of our unhealthy attachment patterns?
Dr. Firestone argues that you can. While attachment theory emphasizes that maladaptive attachment styles were learned before we had a say in the matter, we aren’t doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
After all, attachment styles are, at their core, mental models for seeking and keeping intimacy in our lives. They aren’t hardwired into our brains. Once we become aware of the models we are utilizing, we can analyze them, see where they come from, and work our way to better relationship models through therapy and introspection.
We can learn to behave differently, and, as a result, find more fulfilling relationships.