I was fascinated by attachment theory in grad school. My favourite professor was a woman from Germany who taught Developmental Psychology and also loved talking about attachment. She liked my paper on attachment so much that she read it to the class, much to my dismay. But in hindsight I take it as a compliment, and I’m glad I had a teacher who helped me understand what I’d been struggling with my whole life. I was able to apply these ideas to my own healing and also use it to help others. I want to explain attachment theory and how trauma affects our adult relationships in hopes that it helps people gain some insight into patterns they no longer want to repeat.
The basics of attachment theory begin with our first relationships with others, our caretakers. From this we learn a pattern or style of relating to important people in our lives. John Bowlby first came up with the idea of attachment theory. He saw attachment as a basic need for humans to connect, and pointed out that it also has a basis in evolution because it promotes survival. Attachment is how children get their emotional and physical needs met. Bowlby believed that our patterns of attachment in childhood shape our adult relationships. Mary Ainsworth then ran famous studies that identified four types of attachment styles by observing parents leaving and reuniting with their young children. Her results have been supported by countless other studies since the 1970s. About 56% of adults have a secure attachment style, 20% are insecure/ anxious, 23% are insecure/ avoidant, and 1% have an insecure/ disorganized style.
Although attachment styles in childhood are often a good predictor of how an adult will bond with others later in life, it’s not the only determining factor. Sometimes attachment styles can change over time. Studies have shown that some children who were observed to have a secure attachment style grew up to have an anxious or avoidant style. This is because we have many experiences as we grow up, and these can also change how we relate to others. Also, someone with an insecure attachment style as a child can have a secure attachment style as an adult if they work on repairing these issues through therapy or other means. However, childhood attachment experiences are often a very good predictor of the quality and longevity of adult relationships, and that’s why I find it fascinating.
So how does someone with a secure attachment style behave? As children they can separate from caregivers (they might be upset at first but can be consoled by others), they seek out a caregiver for comfort if scared, they greet the caregiver with positive emotions when they return, and they prefer caregivers to strangers. As adults, they are comfortable seeking social support, provide support for others, are comfortable sharing their feelings, and they generally have longer lasting relationships. They are not afraid to be vulnerable, and they want to openly communicate and repair issues in the relationship.
There are three types of insecure attachment styles. A child with an anxious style will be wary of strangers, become greatly distressed when caregivers leave, and do not appear comforted when caregivers return. This is caused by a caregiver who inconsistently meets their needs. Someone with an anxious style as an adult often believes they can get their needs met by being with their partner almost all the time. They are preoccupied with being close to them. However, because we choose the patterns we are used to, anxious styles tend to choose avoidant partners who are emotionally unavailable or inconsistent. Although most insecure attachment types long for consistency, they usually choose partners that mimic the way their caregivers related to them as children. This causes even more anxiety in the relationship. When the insecure anxious person feels like their partner has hurt them in some way or is not meeting their needs, they often feel desperate and act clingy or become angry. They become preoccupied or distrusting, which in turn may push their partner even further away.
The insecure avoidant type generally did not get their emotional needs met by caretakers. Their caretakers were often emotionally distant. Because of this, they usually feel shame over having needs. They feel that it’s safer to be independent, and they often have disdain for those who express their needs. The avoidant type learned that it’s safer not to show vulnerability or seek connection. They’re protecting themselves from the pain that they anticipate as being inevitable in relationships. If they choose an avoidant partner who doesn’t meet their needs, they withdraw further and there is little chance to repair the issues. If they choose a clingy, anxious partner, it makes the avoidant person feel like they’re losing their independence, and they will push the partner away. They are often dismissing of their partner’s needs and emotionally distant in an attempt to protect themselves.
The last type of insecure attachment is called disorganized. It’s more rare, and it only occurs in about 1% of the population. This style is usually a combination of both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. It’s often seen in children who have been neglected or abused. The children are caught in a painful dilemma because they desperately seek attachment and safety from their caretakers to survive, but they’re also terrified of them due to abuse and/or neglect. People with chronic trauma often display a disorganized way of relating to others. This is where you see a push/pull pattern of attachment. They alternate between anxious style (the pull- clingy, needy, etc.) and avoidant (pushing people away). Children with this style of attachment have a difficult time separating from caregivers, but when they’re reunited, they seem unable to be comforted by them and often reject or push them away. As adults they continue this pattern. They find it hard to keep a balance in their relationships, which are usually rocky.
The really great news about insecure attachment styles is they can be healed. Most people with anxious, avoidant, or disorganized patterns tend to do well with secure, consistent, and stable partners. The problem is that they’re not attracted to this type of person because that’s not what they’re used to. As I mentioned, we seek out familiar patterns, and it’s usually based on what we grew up with. But it’s true that a relationship has a greater chance of success if an insecure type dates a securely attached person. This person can model safe and loving intimacy. The avoidant person can start to see that having needs isn’t as dangerous as it seems. They realize that they can get their needs met and trust their partner’s acceptance of them. This helps them to stop fearing rejection. And similarly, when the person with anxious attachment style dates a securely attached person, they learn that they can get their emotional needs met in a consistent way without demanding attention or being clingy. They learn to trust their partner, and they are able to feel more secure in the relationship.
So what’s the best outcome for someone with one of the three insecure attachment styles? Well, they can heal these attachment issues in therapy, where the therapist models a consistent and safe connection. And as I just mentioned, another way to have a good outcome in a relationship is if at least one of the partners already has a secure attachment style (it doesn’t matter if this securely attached person has been so since childhood or has repaired their attachment issues later on). A safe and securely attached partner can show unconditional love and also teach someone with insecure attachment that relationships can withstand misattunements. A misattunement is when a caregiver or partner doesn’t respond to the needs of the person. This often happens by accident, and is extremely common in all relationships due to misunderstandings, miscommunications, and failure to empathize. Even securely attached children have caregivers that misattune often. The difference is securely attached children learn that despite these painful events, their relationship does not get damaged because they and their caregiver will repair the breakdown in communication, missed empathy, or hurt that has been caused. They become confident that their relationships can withstand the usual disagreements, disappointments, and mistakes that often happen between two humans. Instead of withdrawing or becoming clingy after a misattunement, they will seek out connection or support in order to repair the issue.
So honestly, there’s a lot of hope for people with insecure attachment styles. There are many ways that they can feel better and have stable relationships. It comes down to being aware of your past and the maladaptive patterns that you subconsciously seek, and then reflecting on your actions and feelings. Therapy definitely helped me do this. I used to seek out people with insecure attachments, and it hurt me many times. Now I have a hard time dating someone with an insecure style because I’ve worked really hard on repairing my attachment issues, and I no longer want to put myself in a position where I’m in pain because I’m dating someone with the push/pull pattern or someone who is excessively clingy or emotionally distant. I feel like I deserve consistency in my life after everything I’ve been through, and I want to be a safe and consistent partner as well. This doesn’t mean that I would never date someone with insecure attachment, because I understand where they’re coming from. If anything, I empathize with their struggle. I’m far from perfect, but I try to be careful about how my past experiences affect my relationships. However, it does mean that I’d want my partner to be aware of their patterns and be working on it like I am. The bottom line is that you have to love yourself enough to want something healthy. It took me decades and a lot of therapy to really feel that way. But there is always hope!