A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found that partners’ early childhood attachment styles impacted their ability to recover from conflict in their adult couple relationships. Partners with secure attachment styles in childhood tended to be more resilient and recover faster.
The research studied the early attachment styles of 73 participants from birth and, over a two year span, measured their conflict recovery styles, emotional wellbeing, relationship satisfaction and their relationship stability. The ability of partners to rebound after conflict seems to depend on each partner’s personal attachment style as an infant.
That’s huge. For one, this tells us how key the formation of healthy relationships is to our wellbeing throughout life.
What is Attachment?
Attachment refers to the quality of our first emotional connection to our primary caregivers, more often, the relating pattern between the child and mother. It is in this special relationship that we first experience the emotional experiences of love and safety, comfort and care, in relation to another human being, and this foundation acts like a springboard that allows us to feel safe enough to courageously explore our world, and grow as separate and unique beings.
In other words, there is a connection between how grounded and secure we feel in our first relationships with our caregivers, and how secure we feel not only expressing and being an authentic separate-self — but also honoring the freedom of those we most love to do the same.
This is why “how” we respond (or react) to one another in conflict is such as big deal. In a sense, regardless the content of the issue, each partner in the conflict is making one or both of the following statements in their protest:
1. The manner in which you try to be yourself when you get triggered causes me to lose my sense of safe connection to you.
2. I don’t know how to be myself and honor my wants and needs in the relationship, and still maintain my sense of safe connection to you.
The theory of attachment was initially developed by psychologist John Bowlby and later developed into a science by psychologist Mary Ainsworth who, by devising a method of studying children’s attachment patterns known as the “Strange Situation,” gave attachment theory credibility in the scientific community. More recent research on the brain and intimate relationships further substantiate the findings.
John Bowlby conducted extensive research on the early attachment of children to their mothers. He described this early relationship as the most “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194). He believed that the early style of attaching or relating to mother has powerful influences on the child’s grow and development as well as relating behavior patterns throughout life. He was the first to identify the purpose of attachment as serving and ensuring survival.
Bowlby examined the following four characteristics of attachment:
(1) Proximity Maintenance – The measure of a child’s desire to be close or to be with mother.
(2) Safe Haven – The measure of a child’s perception of mother as a source of comfort and safety in distress.
(3) Secure Base – Child’s perception of mother as a source o security from which child can grow, explore world.
(4) Separation Distress – Child’s level of distress in response to mother’s absence.
All of the above can be seen as emotional responses or anxious reactions the child experiences in relation to mother, based on the perceptions, or beliefs, they form and internalized about self and mother, as well as self in relation to both mother and world.
During the 1970’s, psychologist Dr. Mary Ainsworth’s research on attachment in her “Strange Situation” studies put attachment theory on the map among scholars. This research allowed us to collect information by studying children’s responses to parents in situations when they were with their mother (baseline), when mother left the room, and when a stranger was present. She came up with a way to study and collect data on children’s attachment patterns to caregivers.
From decades of data, Dr. Ainsworth identified three primary styles of attachment: (1) secure; (2) anxious or ambivalent; and (3) avoidant. A style identified later, (4) disorganized-insecure, appears to be a mix of traits from both anxious and avoidant styles. Studies since support findings for these attachment styles and their impact on later adult relationships.
In Part 2, the characteristics of these styles and how they express themselves or impact couple relationships in adulthood.