Melissa M. Gonzalez, Psy.D.
What is Attachment?
Attachment is an innate, primal drive toward seeking out and maintaining connections with significant others; and this drive motivates human behavior across the lifespan. Through the lens of attachment theory, one can neither be entirely independent nor overly-dependent. Instead, individuals demonstrate either effective or ineffective dependency. A secure dependence fosters autonomy and self-confidence which are associated with a more coherent, articulated, and positive sense of self. Healthy attachments provide a secure base from which individuals are free to explore and respond to their environment. Confidence is promoted and individuals begin to venture out and learn in ways that facilitate the ongoing development of their internalized models of self, others, and the world. Additionally, positive attachments create a safe haven, which buffers us against the effects of stress and uncertainty. The presence of attachment figures (e.g. parents or spouses) provides comfort and security, alleviating anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. Conversely, the inaccessibility of an attachment figure generates significant distress. Not surprisingly, secure bonds are built upon emotional accessibility and responsiveness. Emotions are central to attachment theory as they communicate our needs and motivations to both ourselves and others. We must learn to trust that significant others will be there to engage with us emotionally when needed. Strong feelings of fear and uncertainty – which may arise from traumatic events, negative life experiences (e.g. illness), threats to the individual, or by threats to the attachment bond itself – compel us to engage in attachment behaviors such as proximity seeking in an attempt to find comfort and connection. If attachment figures are not emotionally accessible, we experience significant separation distress. Furthermore, if attachment behaviors fail to evoke a comforting response, a process of angry protest, clinging, depression, and despair occurs, eventually resulting in detachment. In other words, the attachment system first becomes hyperactivated; then, when all hope is lost, the system is deactivated. In a system that is deactivated, the individual suppresses attachment needs in a self-protective attempt to avoid distressing attempts at emotional engagement, which the individual believes will be useless.
Trauma & Attachment Theory
Attachment theory posits that the trauma of deprivation, loss, rejection, and abandonment by those who an individual needs most (i.e. attachment figures), has an enormous impact on the individual and on his or her personality development. Furthermore, the individual’s capacity for dealing with other life stressors is also severely impacted by such events.
Attachment theory delineates four basic attachment styles (although names may vary) in both children and adults.
- Secure Attachment Style: This style is characterized by a view of self as worthy of love and care, competent, and confident. These individuals believe that others will be responsive when needed as they view others as dependable and worthy of trust. These working models of self and other shape the expectations they have for relationships throughout the lifespan.
- Anxious, Anxious-Ambivalent, or Preoccupied Attachment Style: In individuals with this insecure attachment style, attachment behaviors are hyperactivated and go into overdrive resulting in anxious clinging, pursuit, and sometimes even aggressive attempts at obtaining a response. As infants, they would become extremely distressed upon separation from the primary attachment figure. When that attachment figure returned, they would cling or express anger. Overall, they were difficult to soothe and they were preoccupied with making contact with the attachment figure. As adults, these individuals tend to become preoccupied with romantic partners, but experience low relationship satisfaction and high breakup rates. While these individuals are more likely to experience passionate love, they also tend to exhibit an obsessive, dependent style. This attachment style has also been found to be related to promiscuous sexuality and less safe sexual practices.
- Avoidant, Dismissing, or Dismissing-Avoidant Attachment Style: Individuals with this insecure attachment style have deactivated their attachment behaviors. As infants, when separated from the primary attachment figure, they showed signs of physiological distress, but showed little emotion when separated or reunited. Instead, they focused on other tasks or activities in the environment. As adults, these individuals are less interested in romantic relationships, especially long-term, committed relationships. Any relationships they choose to enter tend to be characterized by low satisfaction and high breakup rates (much like the Anxious Attachment Style). However, these relationships are also likely to be relatively low in intimacy. Avoidant individuals are less likely to fall in love, they often engage in relational game-playing, they tend to hold more accepting attitudes toward casual sex, and they tend to have more one-night-stands than those with secure or anxious styles. Overall, they have negative expectations for close relationships.
- Fearful, Fearful-Avoidant, Disorganized, or Unresolved Attachment Style: This insecure attachment style is in some ways a combination of the other two insecure styles. These individuals alternate between patterns of hyperactivation and deactivation, seeking closeness, but then responding with fearful avoidance when closeness is offered. This style tends to result from chaotic or traumatizing attachments, often associated with abuse or caregiver alcoholism, where attachment figures are both a source of fear and also the solution to fear. These individuals are emotionally vulnerable as they so strongly desire closeness, but then back away from that closeness due to fear of negative outcomes such as rejection or abuse.
Can attachment styles be changed?
Attachment style is determined by one’s view of self, view of others, and view of relationships, including expectations, which are also known as working models. These working models are first developed in early infancy, typically within the context of the caregiver-child relationship based on the way the child experiences that relationship. Working models are formed, elaborated, maintained, and potentially changed through emotional communication. Changes can occur on many different levels, including within specific contexts, with particular partners, or on a more global level. Within the context of a therapeutic relationship, insight building, processing of emotion, emotional experience, cognitive changes, and behavioral changes may all contribute to the change process. Ultimately, as changes in working models begin to occur, individuals are more likely to take risks and act differently in their relationships outside of the therapist’s office. Subsequently, their new experiences then have the ability to further shape a newly evolving, more secure attachment style.
Johnson, S. (2003). Introduction to Attachment: A Therapist’s Guide to Primary Relationships and Their Renewal. In Susan M. Johnson and Valerie E. Whiffen (Eds.), Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy (pp. 3-17). London and New York: The Guilford Press.
Schachner, D., Shaver, P., and Mikulincer, M. (2003). Adult Attachment Theory, Psychodynamics, and Couple Relationships: An Overviewl. In Susan M. Johnson and Valerie E. Whiffen (Eds.), Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy (pp. 3-17). London and New York: The Guilford Press