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How is Attachment Theory Related to the Quality of Your Relationships?

How is Attachment Theory Related to the Quality of Your Relationships?

Our attachment styles are at the root of how we perceive or receive comfort, care, and pleasure within our relationships romantic or otherwise. An understanding of attachment theory can strengthen your relationships by giving you a better understanding of why you behave the way that you do with the various people in your life. This is because attachment theory is centered entirely around one's inherent need to feel a sense of safety, security, and protection.

John Bowlby (1958) proposed four characteristics of attachment which can carry across from birth into adulthood. These four characteristics include: proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure-base, and separation distress.

  • Proximity maintenance pertains to the instinctual desire that we have to be close to the people that we become attached to. These people could consist of your parents, close family members, friends, etc…  

  • Safe haven pertains to the instinctual need to return to someone that we are attached to for comfort and safety especially when you are feeling anxious, scared or threatened.

  • Secure-base refers to the way that we explore our environment without the people that we are attached to being present. This might relate to one’s willingness to engage in activities with new people outside of their family, close friend groups, or romantic partners. It could also be related to one's willingness to do things by themselves and for themselves.

  • Separation distress is the anxiety that can occur when the attachment figure has gone away for an extended period of time, for example, if your spouse is serving in the army overseas. Separation distress can also occur when someone that you’re attached to passes away.

These characteristics were evaluated by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby during the development of the attachment theory. As a result of their findings, they proposed the four types of attachment styles including: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.

1. Secure-attachment.

Those who are securely-attached are usually the people who had parents or caregivers that were easily-accessible, sensitive to their feelings and sought to help them to reduce their anxiety by acknowledging how they felt instead of invalidating them. Children need to feel understood, accepted, and valued just like adults. It has also been shown that securely-attached children have higher self-esteem and better mental-health in adulthood.

When these children grow into adults they are usually more likely to develop long-term, trusting, and positive relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. They are also more likely to seek out the support of others and to share their personal feelings with people.

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2. Ambivalent-attachment.

Those who are ambivalently-attached have usually grown up with parents or caregivers that respond sporadically, unpredictably or insensitively to their children. As a result, these children often feel like they have to resort to being demanding in to order to get the attention of the parent or caregiver. They can feel a sense of helplessness if they are ignored and might even resort to unhealthy methods as a way to gain attention.

When these individuals grow into adults they are more likely to have more frequent and turbulent romantic relationships. They feel hesitant or even unwilling in some case to get close to other people. Ambivalently-attached individuals will frequently worry that their romantic partner does not reciprocate their feelings. This could create tension on the relationship causing it to become cold and distant. As a result, they are more likely to feel distraught when the relationship ends and might become more anxious when developing future relationships.

3. Avoidant-attachment.

Parents or caretakers of avoidantly-attached children often find it difficult to respond to or to accept the individual needs of their child. As a result, the child might begin to feel a sense of rejection or invalidation which will cause them to forgo expressing their feelings to prevent upsetting or angering the parent or caretaker. This causes the child to reject their attention and to look elsewhere for comfort or contact.

These children will often be very independent and comfortable with being by themselves, but they usually do not feel very comfortable around strangers. However, as these children progress into adulthood, they are often described by teachers as clingy and dependent.  

Avoidantly attached people often have a hard time developing close or intimate relationships because they fear abandonment. As a result, they try to protect themselves by acting emotionally distant with many or all of their relationships. These individuals will often find it more difficult to support their romantic partners in times of hardship because they have a hard time expressing themselves.

4. Disorganized-attachment.

Those who are disorganized usually show little to no attachment behavior towards their parent or caregiver and might even resist or avoid them altogether. These caretakers will make the child fearful sometimes but might also try to reassure them in other instances. This can cause the child to become very confused, fearful, or anxious while their caretaker is present. Disorganized-attachment is often the result of verbal or physical abuse by the primary caregiver.

Individuals that are disorganized are often disconnected from their emotions and might be less likely to know how to recognize or control their emotions. This can cause many of their close relationships to be unhealthy, abusive or disconnected. As they detach from their emotions over time, they will be less likely to learn from past experiences or mistakes. As a result, their behavior becomes repetitive and might even intensify.

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Attachment theory can provide you with greater context as to why your partner might be behaving in a certain way. They might not even understand this themselves, but having a discussion about your attachment styles can not only be a good way to better understand or to help your partner, but it can also help you to both understand and help yourself. This can prevent you from entering potentially damaging relationships characterized by negative or cyclic behavior.

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