Humans are made for attachment. We do so unconsciously. It is our way of connecting to those around us and also dictates the types of connections we develop. Healthy connections are described as “secure” and struggling attachments are described as “insecure.”
Often in therapy, a core goal is learning how to heal attachment wounds and achieve secure attachment, especially in couples counseling. It is also important for parents to understand the signs of healthy or struggling attachments to better increase the chances of secure attachment.
When is attachment developed?
The minute we are conceived, we start forming attachments. At 25 weeks, babies in utero respond to voices, especially their parents, and recognize them when they are born.
Research has pointed out the importance of the bond that was begun in the womb continuing once entering the world most significantly through a study of Romanian orphans in the 1980s. These children were raised without physical affection and despite adoption in their later years, had significantly greater physical and mental health issues than those raised in more normal parenting environments. This emphasized the importance of developing attachments from an early age due to its lingering impact on the children.
Another study in the 1970s brought about what is termed “Kangaroo care.” Preterm babies in Columbia who were held close to their mother’s chests, usually using skin to skin contact, were found to survive significantly more frequently in comparison to those who did not spend time in touch with their mothers. Those who did not were found to have increasingly frequent infections and had a smaller chance of survival.
We would choose attachment over even the most basic survival need of food and water. Harry Harlow showed this to be true in his experiments with monkeys. In the experiment, baby monkeys were put in a cage with two “mother” figures. One was warm and soft, the other was metal and provided nourishment.
Time and time again, the baby monkeys chose the stuffed “mother” over the metallic one, despite her lack of food. This was especially true when they were scared. Their instinct was to choose the secure attachment over the most basic survival needs, thus showing this innate need.
These studies indicate that the very act of forming attachments is a survival instinct. It begins the moment we enter this world and is necessary for our survival. Without it, we fail to thrive.
What does attachment look like?
There are generally four types of attachment. One experiment illustrates the four types of attachment in children. A mother and her child would enter a room and the child would be given time to play. Then, the mom would leave the room. The reactions of the children indicated their type.
Those securely attached to their mother generally cried at the absence of their mothers but when their moms returned, they were easily and quickly soothed, and once soothed, were content to return to their play.
Those with anxious attachment styles were less comfortable exploring the environment in general and showed great distress when their caregiver left. Also, they were not easily soothed when their mother returned and were often temperamental towards their mother.
Avoidant attachment children were marked by a lack of emotion. This children did not play as much and were not emotionally respondent to whether their parent was in the room or not.
Lastly, children with disorganized attachment swung between anxious and avoidant behaviors. Like the other insecure children, they did not play as much but at times were anxiously clingy and at others avoidant of their mothers. This style is said to indicate the most risk of developmental and emotional problems.
How does insecure attachment develop, as opposed to secure attachment?
Children can develop insecure attachments for a variety of reasons but at the core is the insecurity of love. This can occur due to a parent’s inconsistent presence or inconsistent responses to their child. A parent who physically is not around will impact their child’s attachment just as one who rarely responds to their child emotionally.
It has also been found that parents who are inconsistent in their patterns are more harmful to their children’s well-being than those who are consistently poor at connecting with their child.
The manipulative parent who swings between showering love on their child and abusing their child will arguably do more damage than one who is consistently abusive. Kids in the prior scenario are more likely to develop disorganized attachment styles which make healthy development the least likely to occur.
Secure attachment comes as a result of knowing without a shadow of a doubt that we are loved as we are, no ifs, ands, or buts. For kids, this looks like knowing we can turn to Mom with our silly questions or being able to cry on Dad’s shoulder on a bad day. It means knowing our parents will emotionally connect with us and be present with us, even after being disciplined. And it comes from the consistency of all of the above.
How does this transfer into adult life?
The attachment styles we develop as children greatly impact the way we explore our adult worlds. Entire therapeutic theories have been developed based upon this finding.
Being securely attached is somewhat similar to the concept of a military fort. If the fort is strong, well-supplied, and welcoming, soldiers have greater courage leaving the fort to do battle because they know there is a safe base to which they can return when needed.
Humans operate like this relationally. When we feel safely attached to our main caregiver, we experience peace in leaving our safe base because we have 100% certainty we can return whenever we need a hug, listening ear, encouragement, and safety.
As children, this home base is our parents. If there is a secure attachment with our parents, we feel better able to explore our worlds, make friends, and even leave our parents from time to time. This sets us up for success in life and acts as a catalyst for healthy development.
When the attachment to our parents is not secure, that is when problems arise. We become scared to leave them, we fear their love is not consistent, self-esteem plummets, and we have a hard time relating to others in healthy ways. And these are problems that transfer into later life.
Once we hit adulthood, we start detaching from our caregivers and reattaching to our partners. This is a staple process in couples therapy – how can we become as securely attached to our spouse as we were with our parents? There will always be a significant level of attachment to our parents, but often the goal of therapy is to help clients develop healthy ways of attaching to others, especially their spouse.
When someone has an insecure attachment style with their parents, that will likely transfer into their marriage and other relationships unless they put in intentional work to counteract their patterns.
A partner with an anxious attachment style background will likely have a hard time trusting their partner loves them and won’t leave them. Even if the partner is completely trustworthy and committed, someone with an anxious attachment will likely be “clingy” out of an inability to truly relax in the relationship.
A partner with avoidant attachment styles will likely have a hard time being vulnerable with their spouse and might come across as being emotionally cut off. Again, this may have nothing to do with how loving their partner is. Their avoidant tendencies were a way of keeping their heart safe when it needed it most.
Those with disorganized attachment tend to have a “please love me, but don’t get too close” way of connecting. They are desperate for a safe place but don’t trust that it can actually exist.
With all of these styles, couples therapy exists to bring two partners together and mend the type of attachment between them. This takes into account their natural attachment styles while beginning to strengthen the attachment bond between them with the eventual goal of achieving secure attachment in their relationship.
A secure attachment between partners looks like uninhibited trust, total commitment, comfort in being vulnerable with each other, and feeling safe to explore the world because their safe fortress is waiting for them at home.
If you are concerned about your child’s attachment security or want to strengthen the attachment within your marriage, contact one of our counselors today.
“Mother and Baby”, Courtesy of Ana Tablas, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hike”, Courtesy of Alberto Casetta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Shoulder to Cry On”, Courtesy of Sr. Janko Ferlic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Laughing by the Tracks”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com; CC0 License