In this article, you will learn about the theory of attachment as well as what it means for your relationships.
Theory of Attachment
The theory of attachment fundamentally explains how a person forms, and maintains, a connection with another person. This understanding first emerged in the 1950s with research conducted by John Bowlby with mothers and infants. He believed, contrary to popular psychological theory at the time, that family interactions contributed to emotional and behavioral concerns in children.
The popular theory at the time was Freudian in that psychologists believed the child had a core internal issue such as fantasies related to power and sexual desire. It was also believed that it was dangerous for babies to be too close to their mothers. His research was revolutionary as he discovered attachment is a natural part of human development rather than a sign of pathological or immature dependency.
Attachment Research by John Bowlby
To test his belief that family interactions impact a child’s behavior, he studied how babies (typically age 9 to 18 months) respond when they were separated from their mother and then reunited. He discovered that there were clear phases to the response to this separation experienced by the babies.
First, they would appear anxious over this separation and act in protest to being apart from their mother. Next they may appear to experience grief and despair over this separation. Finally, they would then detach from the connection and appear to deny its importance. A baby here may look away or become silent.
Bowlby also noted that some babies didn’t appear too distressed or anxious by this separation. He theorized that perhaps these were babies who felt well loved. On the other hand, he also theorized that negative family experiences such as feeling rejected or abandoned by parents would lead to a baby and child who appeared more distressed by the separation.
The Importance of Feeling Loved
These observations were expanded upon by research conducted by Mary Ainsworth who is another key figure in attachment theory. She conducted “strange situation” tests in which a mother and infant are first introduced to a playroom in a lab together. Then a stranger enters and plays with the baby and here the mom leaves. Next the baby is left alone and finally the stranger and mom return to the playroom together. She became intrigued by the baby’s responses to the mom returning.
Some babies were happy to reunite with their mother. However, a few babies were surprisingly angry with the mom while others ignoring the mother even though they looked for while away. She looked at the home data and realized that those babies who were ambivalent or avoidant with the mom upon her return had less harmonious family lives than those who were happy to return to being close to the mom.
The Importance of Trust and Safety
These responses to being reunited led to Mary Ainsworth discovering the importance of a “secure base” for human development. In other words, all human beings need at least one safe, reliable, trusting relationship with another human being to feel healthy and happy.
She also formulated the basis of attachment styles. Other researchers have studied how these attachment styles impact how we form and maintain relationship not only in infancy and childhood but also throughout our entire lives including in romantic relationships.
What the Theory of Attachment Means for Your Relationships
Each of us has a personal attachment style which influences the types of relationships we attract and maintain; therefore, healing this is much more important for lasting change than just finding a new partner.
At its core, attachment theory reveals that it is a core human need to seek, develop, and maintain connections with other human beings. It is not codependent or weak to want to be close to another human being. In fact, your health depends on it. For example, Holt-Lundstad found that being disconnected from other human beings is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Related article: Dealing with Being Lonely and Single
You Need Connection
Loneliness is literally deadly – even if you’ve developed psychological defense mechanisms such as telling yourself you don’t really “need” anyone. Therefore, it’s imperative for a healthy happy life that each person heals their barriers to connection including the belief that it’s unimportant or weak. At the same time, your health also depends on connecting with safe people as some relationships literally are toxic.
Part of mental and relationship health, is healing any personal attachment behaviors you have which are understandable yet, also get in the way of having the safe, healthy partnership you inherently deserve.
When analyzing the reactions of infants to their mother’s return, Mary Ainsworth noticed three distinct styles of attachment. These attachment styles have now been translated into adult relationships as well. The three main attachment styles are secure, anxious, or avoidant. Some people have a combination of insecure attachment behaviors and are both anxious and avoidant in their relationships.
In Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love, authors Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller explain that just over 50% of people are securely attached. This means about half of people have an anxious, avoidant, or anxious-avoidant attachment style. They explain 20% of people are anxiously attached while 25% are avoidant. Finally, about 3-5% of people have an anxious-avoidant style.
You may assess your own personal attachment style here.
If you have a secure attachment style, you find that you naturally form, and maintain close relationships. It’s easy for you to identify safe people and for you to trust them. You also naturally trust in your lovability and worth. You know that you have a lot to offer others in your life and that you are loved and valued just for being you.
If you’re anxiously attached however you fear abandonment and rejection greatly. This can make you act in ways that are clingy or obsessive at times i.e., texting someone non-stop until they respond or obsessing about someone who ghosted you.
An anxiously attached person, deep down, greatly fears being being all alone out of a fear that they are less lovable or worthy than others. This fear of rejection often leads to people pleasing and masking who you really are. You may find that you change who you are based on who you spend time with if you’re anxiously attached for example.
Anxious attachment is codependency enacted where you will focus the vast majority of your energy to keeping others happy just to keep connections.
People with an avoidant attachment style still naturally desire connection with other human beings yet they fear being suffocated by others. They fear intimacy, vulnerability and commitment above all else. Therefore, they develop strategies to keep others’ at arm’s length. For example, they may work 80 hours a week, cheat, or be obsessed with video games to create distance in a relationship.
People with an avoidant attachment style have a hard time opening up about their feelings, needs, and wants because they feel this is weakness. They like to imagine that they don’t need others and are fully independent. Therefore, natural needs such as a desire to feel close to another human, feel like “weakness” to them.
Finally, some people have a combination of anxious-avoidant attachment. They crave intimacy with others and yet they are afraid of it. They may swing to extremes in relationships and run hot and cold. For example, one moment they may be affectionate and talking about future plans with someone and then, the next they may be “too busy for a relationship right now.”
People with an anxious-avoidant attachment style may also find themselves interested in people who are unavailable to create distance. For example, a person may enter a relationship with someone who is already married and then obsess about this person leaving their spouse yet, deep down, like the distance provided by this person already being married.
Or they may obsess about people who don’t seem to like them and quickly reject someone who is interested in them.
Anxious-attachment behaviors most clearly look like self-sabotage in relationships.
Toxic Relationships and Attachment
If you find that you are in a relationship that’s unhealthy, or toxic, please know this is completely understandable. Attachment theory is central to helping us understand why someone – yourself included – may find someone in a toxic relationship with clarity and compassion. Attachment theory helps clarify why each of us is attracted to certain types of people, what we think is acceptable or normal in relationship and the toxic cycles we will endure and/or co-create.
The good news is that you can absolutely break free of a pattern of toxic relationships by healing your attachment style. Fundamentally, healing is about developing more inherent self-worth and trust.
For guidance on how to heal please check out the following articles:
- Fearful Avoidant Attachment: 6 Steps for Healing,
- How Do I Heal My Attachment Style?,
- How Do I Stop Being Insecure in My Relationship? 3 Therapeutic Ways,
- Self Worth Journal – Free Daily Journaling Worksheet,
- Building Self Confidence in Your Relationships: 4 Simple Steps,
- Codependency: How to Fix it for Healthier Relationships, and
- How Do You Love Yourself? 3 Tips to Start Loving Yourself Today
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About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist and author with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to find their voice, deepen their ability to self-love, and improve their relationships.
Her newest book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach), gives you the tools necessary to identify, set, and stay firm with your boundaries.
Her other books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many overcome people pleasing, self-neglect, and resentment to have a healthier relationship with themselves and others.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to email@example.com or DM her on Instagram. We will always keep your name and other identifying information confidential.