Why do some people experience healthy relationships while others may careless about relationships or move from one bad relationship to the next? John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth theorized that people development attachment styles. Attachment styles are the perceptions people hold of intimate relationships, the possibility of separation and loss, and our views of self in comparison to others.
Bowlby and Ainsworth contend that attachment style development is a normal aspect of human development. The theory holds similarities with Alfred Adler’s perspective that early interactions with primary caregivers either mitigate or serve to reinforce innate feelings of inferiority. Attachment theory also aligns well with Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Attachment theory holds that attachment styles are basically formed by the age of 6.
The healthy style of attachment is labeled secure. The secure attachment style typically manifests in the desirability and ability to maintain intimate relationships. The secure attachment style forms through consistent and frequent positive and nurturing interactions with parents or primary caregivers.
Mary Ainsworth found in her “Strange Situation” experiment that children from 12 to 18 months old reacted differently when parent left the room and returned. The secure children briefly demonstrated displeasure with the parent’s exit, but resumed play shortly thereafter. The child responded positively upon the return of the parent and resumed play. When given a choice the child chose the comfort offered by the parent over the stranger that remained in the room when the parent left. The secure style includes a high view of self, a high view of others, desirability for intimacy, and a positive ability to sustain intimacy.
Adults with the secure attachment style are able to develop and maintain intimate relationships. They tend to be trusting of others, report high self-esteem, and seek out social networks. Secure adults do not mind sharing their feelings with others and understand that relationships require give and take.
The insecure attachment styles often receive more attention in research. The insecure attachment styles are the one associated with dysfunctional relationships and are often the reason why people seek out counseling services. The insecure attachment styles include ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.
1. Ambivalent Attachment.
The ambivalent style was characterized in Mary Ainsworth’s experiment by extreme demonstrations of distress when the parent or caregiver left the room. The child continued to express distress until the parent returned. Ambivalent children were not comforted upon the return of the parent and in some cases demonstrated aggression against the parent. The ambivalent style has been linked to neglectful parental behavior. The ambivalent style includes a low view of self, a high view of others, desirability for intimacy, but an inability to sustain intimacy.
Ambivalent adults often have desirability for intimacy but lack the ability to maintain the relationship over time. Ambivalent adults resist being too open for fear of rejection. The emotional distance they bring to relationships and the tendency to commit relational suicide when they feel the discomfort of intimacy results in serial relationships. Many create a self-fulfilling prophecy through their emotional wounds. Ironically, ambivalent adults experience great distress if the relationship ends.
2. Avoidant Attachment.
The avoidant style tends to avoid relationships. Ainsworth found that children with this were indifferent to the attempts by parents or caregivers to provide comfort upon returning to the room. Avoidant children demonstrated no preference between the comfort offered by the stranger in the room and the parent. The avoidant style has been linked to parental abuse or punishment for seeking the care giving of parents. The avoidant style includes a high view of self, a low view of others, low desirability for intimacy, and an inability to sustain intimacy.
Avoidant adults may demonstrate low desirability and low ability to start and sustain intimate relationships. Avoidant adults make excuses for why intimacy is impossible in their relationships. Avoidant adults are generally open to casual sex. Avoidant adults invest little in relationships and experience little distress if relationships end.
3. Disorganized Attachment.
The disorganized style is a combination of ambivalent and avoidant styles. Children with the disorganized style are uncertain how to respond in the presence of parents. The disorganized style emerges in a dysfunctional family. The emotional chaos common in dysfunctional families blurs the views of self, others, and relationships. The disorganized style includes a low view of self, a low view of others, uncertain desirability for intimacy, and an inability to sustain intimacy.
Adults with the disorganized style are drawn to unhealthy relationships like a magnet. They often want the familiarity of relational chaos. Disorganized adults may be more prone to codependent behavior. They are more likely than the other styles to persist in abusive relationships.
We all develop a relationship style over time. The ideal situation is to create a secure attachment style. Unfortunately, we can create an insecure attachment style of no fault of our own. The good news is that we can develop a secure attachment style if we are willing to do the work. The transition may require the assistance of a counselor and will likely require a supportive social network. The transition will definitely require that we change our ways and experience the discomfort of learning to be a healthy partner in intimate relationships.