According to Bowlby, if we bonded with our mother or primary carer in infanthood/early childhood in a healthy way so that strong bonds of love and trust developed between us then we, as adults, will develop a SECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE. However, if the reverse is true, Bowlby suggested that we are far more likely to develop an INSECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE.
In very early life, even very short separations between the infant and the mother/primary caretaker can have a serious adverse effect on the child’s development. This is illustrated by the following vignette:
In the 1950s, when visitors to hospitals were far more restricted than they are today due to the threat of infections being passed from visitors to patients, the psychiatrist James Robertson realized that hospitalized children were being psychologically damaged by being deprived of parental contact for the duration of their stay.
For example, a two-year-old girl whose parents were only permitted to visit her for three-quarters of an hour every other day cried for the first few days of the separation but then, when the toddler’s parents visited her, she became unresponsive towards them.
Furthermore, the psychological damage done to the infant continued to make itself apparent even after she returned home to her parents. She became anxious and irritable despite the fact that, before the enforced separation, she had been happy and well adjusted.
Why was the effect so severe? It is likely to be because she was so young she had not been able to understand that her parents’ absences from her were only temporary, so her brain reacted as if the separation was permanent and catastrophic, endangering her very existence.
According to Bartholomew and Horowitz, (1991), the INSECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE can take on three different forms:
PREOCCUPIED ATTACHMENT STYLE
DISMISSING ATTACHMENT STYLE
FEARFUL ATTACHMENT STYLE
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
PREOCCUPIED ATTACHMENT STYLE:
A person with a preoccupied attachment style
- feels painfully in need of being in a relationship
- longs to feel a profound emotional connection with another person and worries his/her partner does not feel as emotionally close to him/her as s/he does to the partner and that the partner is keeping him/her at an emotional distance.
- needs to receive explicit approval within a relationship
- has deep concerns s/he appreciates and values his/her partner more than the partner values and appreciates him/her
2. DISMISSING ATTACHMENT STYLE:
A person with a dismissing attachment style:
- feels OK about not having emotional connections
- highly values independence and self-reliance
- does not particularly value emotionally close relationships or even see the point of them
3. FEARFUL ATTACHMENT STYLE:
A person with a fearful attachment style:
- strongly desires a relationship but is afraid of having one as sees self as unlovable and not worthy of the affections or admiration of others and if shown such feelings it makes him/her feel uncomfortable, anxious, and awkward.
Now let’s consider how these compare to a secure attachment style.
A person with a secure attachment style:
- is comfortable with emotional intimacy
- is not frightened of being dependent on an intimate partner and, therefore, making him/herself vulnerable, or of a partner being dependent on him/her or feel smothered by such dependence
- does not expect universal acceptance and so can take non-acceptance, when it’s encountered, in his/her stride without feeling crushed
CAN WE CHANGE OUR ATTACHMENT STYLE?
Yes, but this takes work as our attachment style has been ingrained into us throughout our childhood development.
For example, research (Levy, 2006) suggests we can develop less insecure attachment styles by examining and, where appropriate, correcting, how we perceive ourselves and others in the context of our relationships and, in light of these new insights, adapting how we approach interacting with others so that our interpersonal interactions become more productive
One therapy that can help to achieve this is cognitive behavioural therapy. Learning self-soothing techniques for helping us to control our behavior and regulate our emotions when inevitable tensions within relationships threaten to overwhelm us can also prove highly valuable.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).