Emotions are central to attachment, and based on their effects on our autonomic nervous system, they fall primarily in one of two categories, love or fear in varying intensity. In other words, they are either overall stabilizing or destabilizing.
Perhaps no relationship is more intense, complex and challenging in its ability to discombobulate our otherwise healthy ability to think clearly and intelligently, make sound choices and engage common sense.
When our bids for connection with our partner fail to elicit the caring response we yearn for inside, our body’s autonomic nervous system activates distress signals, whether we’re aware of them or not.
Attachment is about the actual and perceived outcomes of our attempts to get closer or connect with a loved one. It can be as simple as asking for time together, seeking some level of understanding, or saying “Hi,” these bids for connection, and our responses to them, shape and are shaped by our perceived sense of the quality of connection we realize.
In Part 1, we looked at four early attachment styles identified by attachment theory originator Dr. John Bowlby and researcher Dr. Mary Ainsworth. In this post we touch upon how these early styles of attachment can impact the ability to navigate the challenges we face in forming strong, healthy bonds in our couple relationships as adults.
Attachment theory normalizes many of the extreme emotions that accompany distressing moments in relationships. The originator of attachment theory and research, psychologist John Bowlby, viewed anger in close relationships as often being an attempt to connect with a loved one that was perceived as emotionally inaccessible. He distinguished between the anger of hope where a viable response was expected, and the anger of despair, which activated desperate, punitive or coercive behaviors.
In one study, Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human emotions, neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Jaac Panksepp found that, in all primates, a loss of connection with an attachment figure produces a particular kind of fear, known as a “primal panic” that results in desperate attempts to seek to restore closeness and proximity. Seeking a sense of connection with a loved one is a key built-in drive, a mechanism for regulating painful emotions. Whenever our bids for connection as young children fail to evoke a caring response, our physical body activates separation distress signals. As children, these responses are critical. Depending on the (primal panic) strategies adopted to handle stress, we may activate behavior patterns that, in a manner of speaking, protest this loss of connection with an array of reactions, to include angry outbursts, depression, clinging, grief, withdrawal, and emotional detachment, among others. Whether we call the emotion anger or panic, this fear-based reaction stems from our attempt to realize a love response.
Characteristics of Secure Attachment
Securely attached children are noted for how they become noticeably upset when their mother leaves and yet quickly calmed and happy once parent returns. Separation may be upsetting, yet it is tolerable. They are responsive to their mother’s attempts to greet, comfort or play with them. When scared, they quickly seek comfort from the parent. They are responsive to their mother’s attempts to interact with them. They can also be comforted by other people in the absence of mother, yet show clear preference for their mother. Their sense of the world around them is one they can trust and predict to some extent.
Parents of securely attached children are responsive to their needs consistently. They are confident overall in their ability to soothe their children, and thus calm and emotionally present, and more likely to be empathic, and validating of their children’s emotional ups and downs.
In later childhood, securely attached children are more empathic toward others, less disruptive or aggressive in group settings and generally exhibit more common sense wisdom than children with insecure styles of attachment.
As adults, children who are attached securely have greater chances of being in secure, healthy love relationships. They also have higher self-esteem, can express their feelings, listen empathically to others feelings, resolve problems, and exhibit flexible thinking.
Characteristics of Anxious (or Ambivalent) Attachment
Anxiously attached children show considerable more distress when separated from their mother, and yet have a difficult time being comforted by the mother’s return or reassurance. The child may turn away from the mother entirely and refuse to be comforted and instead act out in anger. These children may be very suspicious of strangers on the one hand, or are very clingy at other times and over dependent on mother to take care of their needs.
Parents of anxious style children are unavailable emotionally, and overall fearful, anxious or reactive to their children’s expressions of certain emotions.
As adults, partners with ambivalent attachment styles often feel anxious about their partner and worry that their partner does not reciprocate their feelings. They tend to work too hard to please and appease their partners, and increasingly become resentful when the caring responses or appreciation they seek fail to be realized. They experience frequent breakups, complain that the relationship feels cold and distant, and may go into despair each time their relationships end. As adults they may cling to their children for security.
Characteristics of Avoidant Attachment
Children who are avoidant in their style of attachment tend to be dismissive or indifferemt toward their mother or caregiver. This avoidant behavior is more pronounced following a period of the mother’s absence. They may or may not reject the parents attention but they do not seek their comfort or contact with their parents, and become adept at taking care of their needs and wants separate from their parents. They behave similarly to parents as they do to strangers.
In adulthood, these children experience difficulty in their love relationships. They are not aware of their emotional needs for connection, and thus invest little emotional energy in connecting. Their relationships tend to be shallow as they’re accustomed to showing little distress when their partner is away or expresses their pain and sense of disconnect in the relationship. They find it difficult or very uncomfortable to connect to emotions, thoughts, and thus may use excuses to avoid intimacy, affection and overall resist encounters that invite them to express their emotion, grow closer and connect more deeply with their partner. They are more likely to engage in casual sex.
Characteristics of Disorganized Attachment
Children with disorganized-insecure attachment styles exhibit an absence of primary pattern of relating, and their behaviors in relation to their caregivers, as well as in relation to their partners as adults, are more inclined to be a combination of both avoidance or anxiety. When they need assurance, they may seem confused or distraught and uncertain, and may behave erratically. This confusion may have to do with experiencing unpredictability in relation to their caregiver with a caregiver who was both a source of comfort yet also cause of intense fear.
Relating Styles and Love Relationships
Before thinking this means parents are to blame or on shaky ground, note the following.
Our early attachment styles are not necessarily identical to what we experience in later love relationships. Intervening experiences in the time between infancy and adulthood can alter attachment styles. Also, thanks to our brain’s capacity for plasticity (change), certain experiences have a healing effect and help partners who were insecurely attached children develop secure styles as adults.
It is also possible for persons with secure relating styles in childhood to experience setbacks or events that, for various reasons, find them relating insecurely to certain others in a period of their adult life.
Nevertheless, studies indicate that early relating patterns tend to have a huge impact on intimate relationships in adulthood. The determining factor is not the circumstances of life, rather the response of the individual to those circumstances. And what shapes responses? The beliefs a child forms and holds onto, more specifically, the story they tell themselves that explain their life experiences, their caregivers and their own responses.
Another determining factor is the extent to which changing the early story is blocked, feared, controlled.
In sum, there isn’t an identical match between infant relating styles and love relating styles, however, studies show early styles are predictive of patterns of relating in adulthood. Conceivably, this speaks to both our unwillingness, on the one hand, to experience the discomfort of making changes to the way we relate to our self and life around us (and the core beliefs that keep these patterns in place) — as well as our brain and body’s built-in capacity for making change throughout life. Together this means good news for the science of relationships and the ongoing possibility for engaging life in ways that bring about personal transformation and healing.
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