The attachments we form with our primary caregivers are the most important relationships we will ever make. They give us the foundation for all future relationships and teach us how to handle everyday events in our lives. When our experiences cause us to form improper attachments, this can lead to emotional dysregulation and unhealthy relationships with others. Attachment theory states that there are four different types of attachment: Secure, Insecure-Avoidant, Insecure-Ambivalent/Resistant, and Insecure-Disorganized/Disoriented. Secure attachments result in the best psychological development. In this post, we will explore each type of attachment style.

Secure Attachment Style

As infants, those of us with secure attachment styles will become upset when our caregiver leaves the room. They will be sad and worried that their caregiver is not with them. When the caregiver returns to the room, the infant will become easily soothed and behaviour returns to normal. As children, our caregivers are a “secure base.” We use this base to slowly explore further and further away, to examine our environments and “test the waters” so to speak. When our exploring becomes scary, or we need comforting, we know our caregiver is there to provide support and help. In addition, when we become upset or scared, in healthy relationships our caregivers (typically our parents) are there to soothe us when we need it. We eventually over time learn to rely on them less and less until we are able to “self-soothe.”

As adults, we are able to soothe ourselves and we are confident in our abilities and relationships. They feel safe developing relationships that are close to others. We help others, and are not afraid to let others help us in return. We can trust others and have healthy friendships and romantic relationships. However, they also feel safe when they are alone. Ideally, this is the most healthy type of attachment one can form.

Insecure/Avoidant Attachment Style

This is sometimes also called the Anxious/Avoidant or Fearful/Avoidant Attachment Style. As infants, those of us with this insecure/avoidant type of attachment seem to not care that our caregivers exist. These infants willappear upset when their caregiver leaves, but once the caregiver is gone they seem to not care. They will look as if they are playing have a great time. Once their caregiver returns, and picks the infant, the infant will often try to push themselves away from the caregiver, they will turn their backs and avoid them; hence the term “Insecure/Avoidant.” Often, this style forms as a result of abuse. When the child needs soothing and comfort, their caregiver/parent has most likely responded with coldness, anger, physical/verbal/sexual abuse, etc. The child has learned that they cannot trust anyone, because when they seek closeness, they become hurt instead. They feel the only person in the world they can rely on is themselves.

As adults, this person does not feel comfortable with close relationships and prefers to be alone. They strongly value their independence and feel personally threatened when their independence is threatened. They do not share or admit to having feelings (especially in extreme cases). They will brush their feelings under the rug, and stuff them down.

Insecure-Ambivalent/Resistant

This is sometimes also called the Anxious-Resistant attachment style. As infants, this child is often horribly distressed when their caregiver leaves. At times they may even seem inconsolable. Upon return, they will request being comforted by their caregiver, but upon receiving it will seem angry and sometimes attempt to hit their parent as if they are punishing them. They will seem to request, but avoid being comforted at the same time. This often occurs if the caregiver is not consistent with their ability to respond to the child’s distress. Sometimes the child will show distress and the caregiver will come comfort them and soothe them. Other times, the caregiver will completely ignore the child or shun them. This is seen often when the caregiver is experience addiction (they respond when sober, and ignore the child when high). It can sometimes also be seen if an extreme loss occurred to the caregiver and is grieving, or if they are experiencing depression and cannot find the strength to provide appropriate care giving to their child alone.

As adults, those who are ambivalently attached often scared of entering into close relationships. Once in close relationships, they worry about if their partner feels the same way they do. They may ruminate over the situation, and come to the conclusion their partner no longer loves them and just breaks up with them. When the relationships are over, they are often extremely distraught about again being alone. In relationships, they may also attempt to control the other person in an attempt to control the relationship. In addition, these adults often end up sabotaging their own relationships.

Insecure-Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment Style

Children and infants with a disorganized attachment style often do not show any sort of consistent attachment style. This is typically seen in situations in which the child’s “safe haven” is also a frightening thing – like in situations of abuse. They want to be cared for and soothed, but at the same time are frightened of the caregiver. When I say frightened, what I mean is that child feels terror. This could occur when an extreme trauma occurs in the family, maybe the child is neglected and left somewhere – they feel terror and anger that their parent left them in a scary situation, but at the same time want their parent to soothe them by taking them out of the situation.

In adults, their relationships are just as chaotic. They respond the same way to their partners… extreme hot and cold. They often display symptoms that are characteristic of borderline personality disorder.

In sum…

Are attachment styles pretty stable over life? Yes. However, that being said… it is possible to go into treatment if you feel you have an insecure attachment style. You can learn ways to change the way you view relationships and handle them. You will learn to reprocess past troubling events, and learn new life and relationship skills. It’s never too late to try to change your life for the better…

As Alfred Adler once said… “Meanings are not determined by situations. We determine OURSELVES by the meanings we ascribe to situations.” It is possible to change the meanings we ascribe to situations. Our brains get stuck in the habit of ascribing these “schemas” of past history to current situations, we can learn to live in the now.

Additional Reading

PsyBlog: The “Strange Situation”: Window on a Child’s Past and Future

HelpGuide.Org: Attachment and Adult Relationships

PsychCentral: Attachment Disorder, Name Thyself! Working with the Love/Romance Addict, Sexual Anorexic, Trauma Survivor and Intimacy Avoidant

PsychCentral: 5 Ways to Create a Secure Attachment with Your Baby, Without Sharing your Bed

Reactive Attachment Disorder

National Institute of Health: Reactive Attachment Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

Attachment Styles – What are they?
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