Danielle Aubin, LCSW
What Is Attachment and Why Does It Matter
We hear the word attachment bandied around but what does it really mean? In the world of psychology, in the simplest sense, attachment means an emotional bond between people. I would argue that humans can attach to non-human animals as well but that's neither here nor there. Attachment is vital to human survival in many ways. At the beginning of life, attachment is the bond between a caregiver and a baby. The baby needs to attach to the caregiver otherwise they will not get their most basic needs met. A caregiver needs to attach to the baby so that they feel a strong bond to them and will care for them even when it is difficult. Little human babies are not just meant to attach to one caregiver but many. Due to the disintegration of the village and multigenerational households, children have fewer people to attach to nowadays.
Attachment is at play in all relationships even beyond childhood. Many relationship problems are due to attachment issues such as children having competing attachments (e.g. between parents and peers, for more info see Gorden Neufeld's work on attachment) or in romantic partnerships where insecure attachment patterns can cause a range of issues. The field of psychology generally recognizes four different attachment styles in humans. These styles begin early in the life and are difficult (but not impossible) to change once they are set. These four types are:
Here's a video overview of attachment theory:
Let's look at each of these styles in summary:
These are usually people-pleasers who believe that love must be earned, that it is not given away freely. They most likely had parents who had unrealistic expectations and/or were very hard to please. They can come across as clingy and jealous and tend to over attach to others and/or push others away due to fear of abandonment. They can miss red flags in the pursuit of attaching with others at all costs.
People with the avoidant style of attachment tend to avoid any emotional vulnerability. People with this attachment style avoid anxiety through avoiding emotional conversations or arguments. People with this style tend to have grown up with dismissive or unavailable caregivers.
People with a disorganized style of attachment tend to both avoid attachment yet are anxious to attach which results in a lot of push/pull in relationships. Usually people with this attachment style experienced significant abuse and/or neglect. This is definitely the most challenging attachment style because of the conflicting, at times confusing, feelings and needs that the person can have.
This attachment style is characterized by low levels of anxiety and avoidance which makes for an easier time in relationships with others. People who have this attachment style had "good enough" caregivers and received enough care and love to grow into more securely attaching adults.
It is worth noting here that everyone can struggle in relationships. People with the first three attachment styles are already at a disadvantage due to their attachment style which can just make it harder in general to have secure, fulfilling relationships. Regardless of which attachment style best mirrors your own, it is possible to heal your attachment style.
Attachment starts in the womb. We begin to create a relationship with our babies before they are even born. Once they are born, our relationship continues to develop. Our culture would have us believe that we must learn a bunch of parenting techniques and skills to sufficiently manipulate our children in to becoming good humans. That is not really how it works. Everything rests on the relationship foundation and bond that we build with our children. Whether they look to us when they get in trouble or trust us with their secrets all depends on the strength and health of their attachment to us. If we struggle with attachment issues ourselves, this can affect our relationship with our child. We can transfer all the anxiety and insecurity we feel into the relationship with our children and it can cause them to struggle with those same issues.
So how do we help our children have a secure attachment style and also a healthy attachment to us as their caregivers? I want to absolve any guilt here because having an insecure attachment style is not your fault. It doesn't mean you have messed up your kid for life. Healing is always possible, at any age.
The first step toward healing is to take an honest view of our own attachment style. Look through the 4 styles and think about how you feel in relationships with others. Is it easy for you to trust others? Do you generally feel anxious and insecure? Once you take stock your attachment style, if there is room for improvement then it is time to begin the healing process.
Healing your attachment style will look different for every person because we are all unique and have had different experiences. If you experienced a lot of trauma in your life, you may want to work with an experienced therapist to resolve the trauma while you heal your tendency to have disorganized attachment. If your attachment style is negatively impacting your partnership, a marriage therapist may help you heal your attachment style within your relationship. In general, healing your attachment style will require:
1. Increasing your self-awareness
Learning what attachment style you have and how it shows up in your life is imperative. Healing your attachment style will require some awareness of what your needs are, what activates your responses and how to shift your responses into more secure, healthy ways of relating to others.
2. Learning to love and care for yourself
Many of us have insecure attachment styles because we did not receive the care, support and attention we needed as children. As adults, we can provide this care for ourselve and re-parent ourselves through loving-kindness and self-care. You will need to build awareness of your unmet needs so that you can take steps to lovingly meet them. You can provide the loving care you so desperately needed when you were young.
3. Learning how to cope with distress
Being insecurely attached most likely meant that you had to deal with pain and loneliness all by yourself. Without the proper coping skills, these feelings can feel overwhelming and like you are under attack. Learning how to cope with difficult and painful feelings allows us to be vulnerable and show up fully in relationships. If we are constantly trying to avoid painful emotions, we will avoid emotional vulnerability and miss out on true intimacy and attachment with others.
4. Practice new ways to communication
Once you have begun to build awareness around your attachment style, unmet needs and how to cope with distress, you will need a new way to communicate with others. You are probably unaccustomed to communicating about your needs in a healthy way because you didn't grow up with good models for that. It is hard to change the way we communicate because our communication style has become a habit, whether it serves us well or not. I highly recommend working with a therapist or non-violent communication coach to help you shift your communication style.
5. Practice forgiveness and compassion
Ultimately, we must realize that our parents were imperfect, we are imperfect and we all make mistakes. We are all doing our best with the information and wounds that we have. Forgiveness and compassion can radically shift our perspective and allow for healing to take place. Forgiveness and compassion includes self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
It is never too late to begin repairing our attachments and healing our attachment style. We are modeling this way of healing and growing for our children. Healing our own attachment style will, in turn, heal our attachment with our children and help them develop a secure attachment bond with us. Secure attachment is about feeling safe, heard and understood. Secure attachment means that we learn to trust others and rely on them to help us get our needs met. We can be that person for our children while also healing our attachment wounds from decades ago.