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Understanding How Attachment Affects Our Relationships

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

Warning: we will be discussing some lite psychological theory, something that can be considered by those who are not psychology-nerds, boring. Hopefully, you find that an interesting prospect, but even if you don’t, I assure you that we are really talking about why you have the relationships you have, and hopefully that is more interesting to you.

Attachment theory which originated with John Bowlby in the 1960s refers to the ways in which our instincts as an infant or toddler tell us how to stay safe, specifically in regard to how our caregivers are the ones that keep us safe. Evolutionarily this was about perceiving threats and safety in early humans and it has continued today. The gist of it is that when we are so small and defenseless, we need to depend on a caregiver to keep us healthy and safe. We develop and navigate different aspects of this attachment to our caregivers via exploring what is safe and what isn’t, and what is helpful and what isn’t. What this looks like as a child today, is how comfortable you are being physically distant from your caregiver. Below we will discuss the different types of attachment and what they translate to for adults.

  1. Secure Attachment-Those who have this attachment style trust that their caregiver will protect them, so they are willing to be somewhat distant from their caregiver out of trust. Those who have this type of attachment typically are easily soothed as a result of their relationship being built on caring and sensitivity to the child’s needs. As an adult this looks like someone who is comfortable getting close to others, they are mindful of dangers but know how to protect themselves. 
  2. Insecure Avoidant- Children with this attachment style are not as concerned about where their caregiver is and very comfortable exploring their environment. They also rarely seek reassurance and soothing from their caregiver when upset. This typically stems from a caregiver who is not engaged or even rejects the child’s needs. As an adult, this is often someone who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the importance of relationships. They may not recognize when they hurt others, and strongly feel the need to resist needing these connections.
  3. Insecure Ambivalent- This typically is exhibited by lacking a sense of security from the caregiver. These children never felt confident their needs will be met but do still want the comfort and often don’t know what to do when they get it. As an adult, someone with this type of attachment will be inconsistent in their interactions with their partner or friends. They often show they want connection but struggle with it when they get it. 
  4. Fearful Avoidant- This refers to children who have little or no predictability in their attachment. When a child who has this type of attachment is distanced from their caregiver may be sad and clingy one moment, and completely unconcerned about their caregiver’s presence the next, or it can change with every scenario. This typically stems from a caregiver that struggles with emotional regulation or stable and organized reactions to the infant, they may be abusive or neglectful. A child is unable to understand what to expect in these situations and as a result, they do not have stable or consistent reactions. As an adult, this person will want to experience connection but won’t always know how to do so. They often can react unexpectedly and inconsistently to others as well.

Attachment theory does not give a clear map of how our relationships with caregivers will impact our relationships as adults. However, it does tell us there is a connection and that there are some predictable patterns of behavior as a result of our connections to caregivers. This is of course all something that can be addressed and overcome, but it does take a lot of intentional action. Please contact Symmetry Counseling if you are concerned about your attachment and how it affects your relationships, addressing this is usually a very powerful and helpful way to grow.

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