Relationships are complex. We like to think that our interactions with other people are straightforward: they do or say something, and we react by doing or saying something else. While it may look like that on the outside, when we dig deeper, our relationships are moving, breathing organisms shaped by our past experiences, personalities, fears, and dreams.
Past relationships, in particular, seem to have a significant impact on relationships in the future. Our relationships with early caregivers lay the foundation for how we interpret our future relationships. During our lifetime, each relationship we have builds upon that foundation to reinforce or change the lessons we learned.
Attachment theories postulate that human beings are born with a drive to form close emotional bonds with a caregiver. When functioning well, these bonds provide children with a sense of security and a stable base from which they can develop and explore the world. This security is determined by how caregivers respond when children try to get their attention. For example, a child whose caregiver consistently fails to respond to her cries would develop a very different view of the world than a child whose caregiver does respond to her needs.
There are several different attachment theories, but the most widely accepted (and the one that I find most useful) is the Four Factor Model described by Bartholomew and Horowitz. This model proposes that our early relationship experiences cause us to develop a positive or negative view of ourselves and others, which influences our understanding of future relationships. Let's go through each of the attachment styles in this model in a little more detail.
Secure. People with secure attachment styles typically had early caregivers who were loving and responsive to their needs. Bartholomew and Horowitz's model describes people with secure attachment styles as "feeling comfortable with intimacy and autonomy," meaning that they enjoy close relationships and generally trust others while feeling positively enough about themselves to be independent.
Preoccupied. People with this attachment style often describe having early caregivers who were overbearing or overprotective ("helicopter parents," for example) or caregivers who were inconsistent in the way they responded to their needs. People with preoccupied attachment styles feel that others can meet their needs, but they are scared they will choose not to. They don't trust themselves enough to meet their own needs, so they cling to others and become very anxious about their relationships.
Dismissing. People in this subgroup feel pretty self-confident but tend not to trust others. As such, they avoid close relationships and may view other people as unreliable and even incompetent. This type of attachment style often develops in people who have been neglected by their early caregivers.
Fearful. People who have been traumatized by their caregivers may develop a fearful attachment style. They have a negative view of themselves which causes them to feel as though they can't depend on themselves. They want to be close to others, but because they also have a negative view of others, they avoid close relationships.
Although we have discussed these as four distinct categories, there are no rigid boundaries in real life. These attachment styles exist on a spectrum, even within an individual. Depending on what is going on in your life, you may become more or less secure or insecure. You can even have different attachment styles within various relationships. Although people generally remain within the same general categories, attachment is flexible. We can learn new strategies to improve our connections with others, grow, and develop more secure attachment styles.
We will talk more in the future about how you can work to make your attachment style more secure. But for now, awareness and understanding of these patterns and how they manifest can be a great place to start. If you are interested in this subject, check out the following books:
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Bartholomew K, Horowitz LM. Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1991; 61(2): 226-244.
Johnson SM. Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. New York, New York: Guilford Press; 2019.
Stuart S, Robertson M. Interpersonal psychotherapy: a clinician’s guide. 2nd Ed. London: Hodder Arnold; 2012.
Van Buren A, Cooley EL. Attachment styles, view of self and negative affect. North American Journal of Psychology. 2002 Dec; 4(3): 417-430.