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This month we’re going to talk about attachment styles and why they matter!

Attachment styles are the way that we relate to other people, and they’re based on what we learned when relating to our earliest caregivers. 

The field really took off in the 1950s studying children after the war. It used to be believed that all kids needed to be happy and healthy was food, clothing, and safety. So they evacuated many children from major cities all across Britain and sent them to the countryside to live with strangers, and it didn’t always go very well. Researchers wanted to know why.

When children feel as if their caregivers respond to their needs, care about them, and are consistently present, they develop secure attachment–a style shared by about 60% of North American adults, they estimate. 

But when caregivers aren’t consistent; when kids have needs but then those needs are not taken care of; when caregivers react with anger to a child’s emotions or legitimate cries for help; when caregivers ignore a child’s emotions; then that child can develop what is called insecure attachment, where they feel as if they aren’t safe and other people can’t be trusted. 

Researchers have identified three insecure attachment styles, leaving us with 4 attachment styles in total:

 

The 4 Styles of Attachment

Secure Attachment: Able to form loving relationships and attach to others. 

Anxious Attachment: Regularly nervous that a partner or loved one will leave, and unable to relax in relationships

Avoidant Attachment: Reluctant to form close relationships or share emotions, trying to maintain some distance

Disorganized Attachment (or fearful-avoidant): A combination of anxious and avoidant, where the person is scared of relationships, but craves them at all costs.

Let’s look at how the four attachment styles operate.

Secure attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

Caregivers are very attuned to the child’s needs. When the child cries, the caregiver is there to figure out why and comfort the child. The child can count on the caregiver to look after them. The caregiver is attuned to the child’s emotions, and shows that they care.

A securely attached child will explore a playroom easily when the mother or caregiver is present. If the child is upset, the child will run for the mother and hug her tightly. If she leaves, the child will be distressed, but usually can be comforted. When the mom returns, the child runs to her and hugs her and is very happy.

When children are securely attached, their energy can be put into understanding and exploring the rest of the world and learning, because they don’t have to worry about their needs being met.

Securely attached children tend to be happy, and tend to be attuned to emotions in others, having good social skills and helping others in distress.

Securely Attached Caregiver

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

Securely attached people tend to form healthy relationships. They tend to have high self-esteem, can talk about their feelings and identify their feelings, and have hope for the future.

Anxious Attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

Caregivers of anxiously attached children are inconsistent. Sometimes they’ll ignore a child’s cries or become angry at them for crying, and other times they will overly compensate.

Toddlers who are insecurely attached will cling to their mom, and won’t play as much independently. When she leaves, they’ll play, and when she returns, they may not go over to her, or they may push or hit or kick if she picks them up. (While all children will go through separation anxiety, and where all children may cling for a time in a new situation, most securely attached children do figure this out after a time, while insecurely attached children cling for much longer).

These children have a harder time exploring the world because they pay attention to the mother’s cues above everything else. Their main focus is figuring out if mom (or another caregiver) will be kind to them today and if they will be safe.

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

Some with anxious attachment will be scared to start relationships, and some will be desperate to start relationships.

Both, however, can be very clingy in relationships once they start, always trying to reassure themselves that the relationship is safe. They may constantly seek validation from others, and friendships often fizzle out because they become too needy. To compensate, many anxiously attached individuals go out of their way for others, burning themselves out in the process.

When relationships end, anxiously attached people are often devastated. They can have a tendency to cling to young children who need them desperately as well and who won’t leave them.  They often have low self-esteem and are worried about how others perceive them.

Avoidant Attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

When caregivers are consistently angry with a child, or send the message that the child is a bother, the child can develop avoidant attachment. When caregivers interpret a child’s crying as trying to punish the parent, or as a sinful behavior that has to be stopped, then children learn that parents don’t care about them. When we believe parenting philosophies about how we have to “break our child’s will” (as the Pearls teach, and as Shepherding a Child’s Heart often teaches), then we interpret the child’s emotions and needs as bad. If this isn’t combined with a much greater degree of love and affection and care, children can develop avoidant attachment.

Toddlers with avoidant attachment don’t seem to prefer their mother over other adults. They don’t run to her when in distress. Studies have shown that the babies experience the same level of distress when the mother leaves as securely attached babies, but they learn not to express it. They “turn off” their normal emotions.

These children explore the world in a more self-reliant way. They tend to become more hostile and aggressive with others.

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

One of the main characteristics of avoidant attachment adults is how “closed off” they seem. They may be very good at getting tasks done, or may be able to command a room and give off orders, but they’re unable or unwilling to share feelings or talk about feelings. It’s very difficult to get close to them.

People with avoidant attachment have few relationships that are below surface level, if any. If they marry (and most do), they will often handle conflict by stonewalling or refusing to engage, or just walking away. They may yell a lot to stop uncomfortable conversations, or they may completely shut down. They may ironically yearn to be close to someone, but have absolutely no idea how to start doing that. When others ask them how they’re feeling, they may genuinely have no idea.

When in a relationship, they may again perform all the right “tasks”–earning an income; doing their share of the housework; etc. But they invest little in the emotional side, and are often consumed with individual projects, and don’t concern themselves too much with what others think of them.

Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Dynamics of how it is formed

In abusive families where the child is actively mistreated, a disorganized attachment can be formed, which is the most destructive. When parents use a lot of corporal punishment without any affection, or when cruelty becomes the main parenting style, the child is left with a terrible paradox: the person they crave love for the most is also the person they’re terribly afraid of.

What differentiates this style from avoidant styles is that, while avoidant styles are taught that their parents don’t care; disorganized attached kids are taught that their parents are actually scary and pose a threat.

This often occurs in homes with a lot of substance abuse, with untreated mental illness, with parents with unresolved trauma or their own, or with abusive parenting practices like the Pearls to the extreme.

Babies like this can either be flooded with emotions, or become almost flat, showing very little emotion at all. Ironically, in the latter case, these children could be described as “good” children, because they don’t bother the adult and they show no emotion. In some heavily fundamentalist Christian parenting books, this is praised as being perfect, but in reality, the child has been so abused they have lost themselves.

It’s not uncommon for disorganized attachment children to take on more of a parental role very early in life because the parent can’t be relied upon.

Disorganized Attached Child

Dynamics of how it operates in relationships now

In many ways, those with disorganized attachment can look similar to those with avoidant attachment. They appear walled-off; they often avoid relationships; they can’t talk about their feelings. They don’t have close or deep friendships.

The main difference, though, is that disorganized attached individuals WANT those relationships. They just have no idea how to get there. So they may act in a very inconsistent way, at times pursuing a relationship, but then, once they have it, doing a 180 and breaking it off or becoming aloof in a marriage.

They’re not running away from intimacy; they’re just expecting intimacy to hurt. So when they’re close to achieving it, they’ll often sabotage it.

These individuals have a higher rate of developing mental illness or substance abuse themselves.

The good news: Attachment Styles Can Change!

What if you’re afraid that you’ve raised a child without secure attachment? Research says that changing your parenting techniques can help immensely. And we don’t need to be perfect parents to raise kids with secure attachment. You really only have to get it right about 50-60% of the time.

Once parents realize they may have been inconsistent or using discipline techniques that cause fear or shame, if they talk about it and switch, kids can grow and become secure.

Also, sometimes trauma can affect kids, even trauma that isn’t caused by caregivers. Sometimes when kids have more insecure attachment styles it isn’t because of what the parents did, but what others did. And sometimes the primary caregivers for the kids can do everything right, but it’s very difficult to overcome the loss of a birth parent or other caregivers early in life. 

What about changing as adults?

Even if you’ve grown up without secure attachment, even understanding attachment can help you change and adapt and grow now. Things don’t have to stay fixed. Sometimes just understanding WHY we act the way we do can help us react to people differently.

Seeing a licensed therapist to talk through anything that is holding you back or to get some trauma therapy can help.

But I’m hoping this month, as we go through attachment theory, we can all grow and understand ourselves better, and even parent better.

We’ll be looking at how to raise kids that are securely attached. We’ll look at how to help our kids identify emotions, and how to start talking with ourselves about our emotional inner world as well. We’ll look at how attachment styles affect our marriages, and how some marriage issues may not be marriage issues at all, but rather rooted in attachment.

I hope you’ll enjoy this series. I think it’s going to be a good one!

4 Attachment Styles and how they matter for marriage

What do you think? Do attachment styles make sense to you? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Attachment Series

 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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