Developing Your Attachment Style


Alright folks, let’s pick up where we left off. If you didn’t catch the previous post, CLICK HERE and give the video a look. It will help some of this next discussion make sense. Also, as a reminder, all of this info I’m providing has been super condensed and doesn’t nearly cover the complexity of this process. BUT, hopefully some of these key points are informative enough to give some insight into you and your relationships. 

I know these last couple topics have focused mainly on childhood, and I started this out by saying I was going to provide information about relationships, romantic love, and forming and maintaining emotional bonds. Well, the wait is over. Today you will get info that directly pertains to how you move about the world as an adult, AND problems that may arise while dealing with adult relationships. 

In the “Still Face” video you got to watch an accessible, responsive and engaged interaction between child and caregiver. AND, you saw what it looks like when the child desperately reaches out for connection and can’t seem to access it. The child didn’t immediately break down during the “still face” part. Instead, she attempted to use strategies that had seemed to work previously. She laughed, reached, pointed… but nothing appeared to engage her mother. When the child’s fear of disconnection began to grow, you can see the physical discomfort as she squirms about. As the distress increases her high pitched squeals turn into full-blown crying. Thankfully, the mother is able to reengage with her child and quickly soothe her. This is an ideal example of how, in a perfect world, it should go down throughout childhood. We get distressed, caregivers provide comfort and reassurance that it will be okay. 

That’s obviously not how it goes down for all of us, though. As Dr. Tronick said near the end of the video, “You have the good, the bad and the ugly.” Hopefully, there’s more good than bad, but the bad is always going to be there. Life is stressful. Raising children is stressful.  But, if caregivers are able to manage the stressors, model self-regulation and problem solving, and effectively provide nurturing for child… child also begins to internalize all of these qualities. Child develops a sense of security and belonging in the world. However, if caregivers are overcome by their own life circumstances and are unable to be consistently nurturing, insecure attachmentsbegin to form.  This isn’t to say that caregivers have to be perfect angels all the time. But, problems arise from inconsistency, repeated invalidation, and downright abuse. 

In a nutshell, people who are securely attached have learned to trust that other people will take care of them; that they are worthy of love and belonging. People whose experiences with a caregiver are negative or unpredictable still want connection. They still want to feel like they belong and are loved (remember, connection is a biological drive), but their experiences have led to internalizing the opposite feelings. 

This creates what is known as an insecure attachment, and this is what is more often than not causing chaos in your relationships. This is what Mary Ainsworth was studying in her “Strange Situation” test. They were basically observing a caregiver’s ability to regulate the child after the child was placed under some stress. Here’s some video filler: 

When the caregiver is consistent in their nurturing, the child is easily soothed after something stressful. They trust their attachment figure, and accept the comfort. When nurturing has been inconsistent, invalidating and abusive, the child becomes weary of their attachment figure, and is not easily regulated upon reunion. The child either clings tight to their caregiver, not wanting to let them out of their sight. Or basically shuts down and disengages, having learned the caregiver is not a safe and reliable source of comfort. 

Another way of looking at it, is that we begin to develop “strategies” to keep connections close and in good favor, or we learn to shut down and numb out because our connections are often our source of pain. Remember the baby in the video squealing and reaching for connection? That was a strategy to test the strength of the connection. The baby reaches out and finds the connection to be pretty secure because the mother is responsive. Remember how I asked you to picture yourself as the baby, and your significant other at the caregiver? What strategies do you use to test the strength of the connection? 

Through the “Strange Situation” test, Mary Ainsworth and colleagues were able to identify four attachment styles (I really like the “strategies” analogy)and researchers have been able to show that they carry with us as we grow. Our attachment styles have an impact on how we feel about ourselves and how we think others feel about us. AND… they impact everything from the types of partners we seek out, to our ability to form healthy emotional bonds, to the arguments we have, and ultimately to the confusion we have about why it’s so damn hard to create a lasting connection. 

For the most part attachment styles break down to secure and insecure, with insecureshowing up 3 different ways. In the next post I will break all of this down, and provide details about the effects of an insecure attachment.