What is attachment theory and how does it affect my current relationships?

You may have heard of the term “attachment style.” This blog will break down the fundamentals of what attachment theory is and why knowing your attachment style can be important in learning new ways of approaching interactions with others. It is important to understand that attachment style is dependent not only on caregiver interactions but on an individual’s temperament.

What is attachment? All children have a biological instinct in which they seek out an attachment figure when they sense or perceive a threat or discomfort. Attachment involves anticipation that the attachment figure will be supportive in response, by removing the threat or discomfort. Attachment also describes the degree of responsiveness that their attachment figure provides in response to the child’s needs, as well as the sharing of communication between the attachment figure and the child. It is important to understand that this process, in combination with their temperament, shapes the child’s sense of self, how they learn emotion-regulation, and how they later engage in relationships with others.

What does this mean? It means that based on the experiences and interactions we have with our primary caregivers we develop an attachment style. It also means that our caregivers’ attachment style affects the attachment style we develop. Attachment theory is a well-studied and documented theory of psychology. In this theory, it is the attachment relationship that has the potential to create a secure base from which children can explore their environment. The attachment relationship is also the haven of safety to which they can return when they get overwhelmed, scared, or are in discomfort. It has been proven that the more sensitive and responsive a caregiver is to a child, the more secure the child’s attachment is. Before we go any deeper into this working model, it is important to understand that even the most sensitive caregivers only meet the child’s needs 50% of the time. It is also important to understand that every human is doing the best they can to read the needs of themselves and others and that most, if not all of us, have some maladaptive or unhelpful coping skills that affect our relationships.

Let’s break down how attachment styles develop. The first three years of life determine the basic attachment style of an individual. Attachment styles can change throughout our life with recognition of our style and the quality of adult relationships. Attachment style begins to develop as a baby interacts with a caregiver in play or socially. The baby seeks to engage the caregiver. Based on the response of the caregiver, the baby begins to learn whether their needs will be met or unmet. So, if a caregiver picks up a baby when they wish to be picked up and puts them down when the baby wants to explore, then the baby learns that these needs will be met and the world is a safe place. If the baby is distressed and seeks comfort from the caregiver and the caregiver engages with the child in a way that soothes and comforts them, then the baby learns self-regulation and trust. 

On the other hand, if the caregiver does not respond appropriately and tries to play with the baby when they are tired, or socialize with them when they are hungry, or tries to feed them when the baby is seeking comfort, then the baby becomes confused and learns that their needs will not be met. Knowing that even the most sensitive caregivers only get it right 50% of the time, it should be comforting to know that ruptures can be managed and repaired, leading to healthy attachments. Repair takes place when the caregiver is sensitive enough to recognize that they are mis-attuned and are able to adjust and correctly attune with the baby in the moment. So if the baby wants to be held and the caregiver feeds them, and then realizes their mistake, then the baby’s needs were met, so we have rupture and repair. The rupture and repair sequence is key to a child developing resilience in life. So it is hopefully comforting for all of us to understand that we need our caregivers to get it wrong part of the time, so they can show us they can mess up and still meet our needs. This teaches us that even though the world is not always safe, safety can be reestablished.

Learning about your own attachment style and understanding your parent’s attachment style or your partner’s attachment style, can assist you in better understanding why you cope and interact the way you do. With that insight, you can begin to make more conscious choices about how you want to engage. We all have coping skills that don’t serve us 100% of the time. That’s part of being human. Having the ability to understand why we have those coping skills enables us to heal wounding from our past so we can make more deliberate choices about how we want to engage in the world. If working in this manner seems interesting to you, please contact me for a free consultation at allison@blossomingheartcounseling.com or 503-880-7190.