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How Attachment Impacts the Grieving Process

Our attachment style is highly influenced by our early childhood and romantic experiences. There are many resources out there that explain attachment, the four core styles of attachment, and how each is displayed in individuals and in romantic partnerships. Interestingly, there is less research and discussion around how attachment influences our relationships with the deceased, and how our attachment to that deceased loved one will influence our grieving process. One thing to note about this is that there are many who will argue the idea of having a continued relationship with someone who is deceased is not possible – and in part, there may be some truth to this. The relationship does end in physical form, but it does however continue on in our memories, our hearts, and our thoughts. The internal relationship with our deceased loved one goes on, and attachment endures beyond death. This blog post will reflect on Leah Royden’s article, Which Attachment Style Struggles with Grief Most?

A Brief Introduction on Attachment

Before diving into the discussion around which attachment style struggles with grief the most, we first have to understand what attachment is. The concept of attachment was defined by Mary Ainsworth, who observed three types of responses in babies when they experienced separation from their mothers/caregiver(s): secure, anxious-ambivalent, and avoidant. From her findings, Ainsworth hypothesized three things:

The securely attached children were most likely parented and cared for with consistency and reliable responses. The caregivers were stable in their emotions and predictable. The children were calm as they knew that their needs would be met. As an adult, secure attachment looks like openness and playfulness in relationships, the ability to trust and relax, and little fear or anxiety around others’ behaviors during separation from them.

The anxious-ambivalently attached children were likely to have been parented inconsistently by their caregivers; they received unpredictable responses. Needs were sometimes met and at times not met. In adulthood, anxious-avoidant attachment may look like questioning the intentions of your partner, not trusting their faithfulness even if there is no credibility for it, and heightened anxiety when you are not with your partner.

Avoidantly attached children were likely parented by caregivers who were unavailable or rejecting of their needs. This oftentimes can be described as neglect or dismissal. An avoidantly attached adult will prefer less intimacy with their partner or loved one and avoid growth, commitment, or conflict altogether. They do not trust the relationship or the individual that they share the relationship with, and have difficulty meeting the other’s needs, as they are untrustworthy of their needs getting met in the relationship.

Royden notes that approximately 70% of people can be characterized by having a secure attachment style, while the remaining 30% or so fall under anxious-ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles.

Newer research indicates that adults can now fall under four different types of attachment styles, which are secure (autonomous), avoidant (dismissing), anxious (preoccupied), and disorganized (unresolved). Trauma, especially childhood trauma, can play a major role in adult attachment styles and how one functions in a relationship.

So, which attachment style struggles with grief the most?

No matter what kind of attachment style you identify with, there is no scale that could ever perfectly measure your grief after losing a loved one. People of all attachment styles are impacted by and suffer after a loved one passes away. However, Royden states that those with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles seem to struggle more with bereavement compared to those who have secure attachment. This is because attachment is all about building a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings – a bond that endures through time and space, existing within oneself and outside of self.

Those with anxious-ambivalent attachment tend to dismiss having the need for others and have difficulty connecting, and being vulnerable with, loved ones. This in itself can be a painful struggle for those with this attachment style, as it brings its own set of challenges. Anxious-ambivalent individuals are often lacking something that takes the sharp edge off of grief. However, this does not mean that anxious-ambivalent folks are stuck with grief or even with that attachment style in general, for that matter. Therapy can be a great place to work towards a more secure attachment style and to process grief altogether. Contact Symmetry Counseling to get connected with one of our compassionate clinicians today.


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