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What is it?

Established by British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby in the mid-20th century, Attachment Theory explains the way in which ones early parental relationships impact our biological hardwiring for relationships later in life.

How does it work?

In his research on humans’ innate desire to develop relationships, Bowlby used attachment styles as a way to understand how humans connect on a psychological and emotional level. Attachment theory explains how our parents’ ability to provide us with feelings of emotional and physical safety from birth to the age of three provide a blueprint for how we relate to others.

Why do our early ages define our relationships?

Our first relationship is our child-caregiver relationship. As babies, our connection with our caregiver ideally provides us with life’s necessities- food, shelter, and love. If a child is given these things, the child develops feelings of safety, connection and protectedness ultimately allowing that child to grow up feeling supported in more challenging situations. However, if a parent is unable to provide these basic things, the child’s orientation to others is grounded in feelings of disconnection, insecurity and distrust.

These different outcomes exist on a spectrum and can be understood as “Attachment styles.”


Secure Attachment: Do your relationships make you feel supported?

  • Your Caregiver:

    • Consistent supplier of necessities between birth and the age of 3

    • Provides feelings of safety and security

    • Consistently present to assist child in problem solving as things come up, allowing child to know he or she is available if something goes wrong

  • Relational patterns later in life:

    • had good model for healthy communication

    • Typically able to balance issues throughout life

    • Feel more comfortable expressing vulnerabilities and trust partners

    • Able to self regulate with disagreements arise

    • More likely to respect partner’s boundaries

Anxious-Ambivalent: Do you have a hard time trusting people?

  • Caregiver:

    • Inconsistent responses to their child’s needs (maybe you fell, and it took an hour for a parent to come to your aid—other times, they were right there to catch you)

    • Presence was not reassuring— prompting child to search for other ways to meet their needs

  • Relational patterns later in life:

    • May not trust easily

    • Needs constant reassurance to resolve anxiety (overpowering at times)

    • Self-critical

    • Does not prioritize one’s own needs

    • Overthinks and may feel jealous

    • Fearful to stand up for oneself or begin arguments (fearful that they will be abandoned)

Anxious-Avoidant: Do you consistently choose independence over intimacy?

  • Caregiver:

    • Unresponsive due to other priorities taking precedence (never came when you were crying, because “work” took priority)

  • Relational patterns later in life:

    • Avoids close relationships due to fears about losing independence

    • Fears intimacy and characterizes closeness negatively, using sentiments such as “crazy” or “clingy”

    • Lies and make excuses for themselves and others

    • May have trouble trusting others, leading to surface level relationships

    • Creates surface-level relationships

Disorganized: Do your relationships make you feel uneasy?

  • Caregiver:

    • Abusive behavior (physically and emotionally)

    • Instills contradicting feelings of safety and fear at the same time

  • Relational patterns later in life:

    • Precarious behavior

    • Conflicting feelings of both wanting to pursue and avoid connection

    • Difficulty communicating emotional needs clearly

    • Overly fearful of rejection and abandonment, to the extent that it prevents closeness

    • Depressive/suicidal thoughts

Why is this information helpful?

This information can provide you with insight as to why you are the way you are and provide impetus for recognition and change. It may be upsetting to realize that many of the dynamics in the first couple of years of your life (which you may not even remember) are now impacting your ability to be in a healthy, secure relationship. However, it is not a life sentence. Together with your therapist, by actively questioning and exploring your relational patterns, you can begin to model healthy attachments and proactively replacing old habits, with healthier ones. Many people even find that the act of working closely with a therapist to be therapeutic in modeling intimacy in the controlled environment of therapy.

*** Please note, we are all human and we all have flaws— it is important to accept that our caregivers have flaws as well. If one’s caregiver was balancing a demanding job, struggling with mental health problems, or working out a difficult relationship during the initial stage of their child’s life, that child could develop “insecure attachments” in their future relationships.

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