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Successful relationships and attachment

by Yoana Nikolova

‘Attachment is a deep and lasting psychological connectedness that connects one person to another across time and space’

Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969

The longest-running study on happiness done by Harvard in the last 80 years proves that the biggest influence on our levels of happiness is our ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships. This is where we ask ourselves what is necessary to form these relationships and why we sometimes have the feeling that whatever we do, we end up sabotaging the relationships ourselves, like a curse we cannot escape from. In order to answer these questions, we can turn to the attachment theory developed by John Bowlby and contributed to by other notable names such as Ainsworth and Harry Harlow. Attachment theory focuses on the connections and relationships between people, especially long-term ones, such as those between a parent and a child or romantic partners, by dividing people and their ability to attach into 4 main types.

Origins of Attachment Theory

The British psychologist John Bowlby is the first attachment theorist, describing attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’.

He wants to understand the separation anxiety and grief children experience when detached from their parents. Some of the earliest behavioral theories suggest that attachment is just acquired behavior as a result of the connection of a child being fed by the caregiver (parent) they are dependent on. Since the caregiver feeds the child and provides sustenance, the child gets attached, but what Bowlby finds is that even feeding cannot decrease the anxiety children feel when they are separated from their primary caregivers. Instead, he finds that attachment is characterized by clear behavioral and motivational categories such as – when children are scared, they will look for intimacy from their primary caregiver so they can be comforted and taken care of, i.e. their needs surpass the physical dimension.

Understanding attachment

Attachment is an emotional relationship with another person. Bowlby believed that the earliest relationships, between children and their primary caregivers, are hugely influential for the rest of their life. He claims that the function of attachment is to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving the infant’s chance of survival.

He regards attachment as a product of evolution processes. While behavioral theories of attachment suggest that attachment is an acquired process, Bowlby and others believe that children are born with an innate desire to form attachment to their caregivers.

It is proven that children who maintain their intimacy with attachment figures are more likely to find comfort and protection and therefore are more likely to survive until maturity. During the natural selection process, a motivational system arises to regulate attachment. Bowlby and others demonstrate that the definitive factors for creating secure and healthy attachments are the parent’s discipline and responsiveness.

The central theme of attachment theory is that the primary caregivers who are responsible for the infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that their caregiver is reliable which creates a safety net for the child to then explore the world. These structures of thinking and feeling will be brought into new relationships later on in the individual’s life.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

During the 70s, Ainsworth conducts an experiment aimed at studying the behavior of mothers and their children in thein natural environment. As part of this experiment, Ainsworth develops a systematic laboratory procedure for observation called the Strange Situation. It involves ‘scripted’ short-term separations of the mother and the child and allows identification of individual differences in attachment of children aged around one year of age, as well as different strategies for dealing with the stress of separation.

The scene is set like this: a room with two chairs and a pile of toys scattered on the floor. The mother and her 1-year-old infant enter, and the strange situation beginsa 20-minute, 8-episode laboratory experiment for measuring the attachment between infants and their caregivers.

The researchers observe them through a one-way mirror, categorizing their every move and reaction. It does not take too long to define the infant’s main temperament: physical state and behavior, running to every corner of the room; curious, purposefully examining every toy, putting it in their mouth; or reserved, carefully holding a wind-up toy. The mother is told to sit down and read a magazine so that the infant can do anything they ware naturally drawn to. Afterwards, a stranger enters the room and the infant’s reaction is observed – are they scared by the stranger, do they show no interest or are they drawn to the stranger? This shows the style of communication with people in general, in comparison to the mother.

The mother is instructed to leave the room, leaving her bag on the chair – a sign that she will return. This is where we see the infant react to the experience of being left alone. Do they cry? Do they run for the door? Or do they stay on the floor, comfortably, in a mountain of toys? The stranger tries to comfort the infant if they are upset, otherwise they let the infant continue to explore.

After a few minutes, the mother returns for Meeting #1. Attachment theory states that in the past, a behavioral system has been developed to keep infants close to their caregivers to protect them from harm. Presumably, all infants will be under stress when left alone (and their heartbeat and cortisol levels show that they are anxious even if they do not appear to be). So, researchers observe whether their attachment works as intended when the mother returns to the room. Does the meeting help the infant go from a state of relative anxiety to a state of relative carelessness? In other words, is the infant calmed down by the presence of the mother?

If the infant, despite being upset during the separation, sits still and does not indicate with their behavior that the mother has returned, this is a sign of unsecure attachment. If the infant was relaxed when left alone and unbothered when reconnected with their mother, this is less significant. If the infant rushes towards their mother but screams afterwards and shows that they have changed their mind, this could also be an alarming sign.

The most important moment is the second return of the mother. After the first meeting, the mother leaves again and returns again. If the infant was upset during the separation but continues to do nothing to indicate the return of their mother, it is a sign that the infant, barely one year of age, is used to their reactions being ignored. If the infant reaches forward for love and comfort but is in no condition to relax themselves enough to receive it (or it is not offered), this is a reflection of a relationship filled with mixed signals and behaviors. If the infant has gone wild with sadness and starts jumping like a monkey in their mother’s arms, then immediately stops crying, the infant is categorized as secure, being in a relationship where they expect and know their needs will be fulfilled. The same applies to the gentle infant whose signals are subtler, who just appears sad during the separation and moves closer to the mother after the reconnection. In both cases, the relationship is functional. (Just to be clear, ‘working’ relationships have nothing to do with constantly holding the infant in your arms, sleeping with them, taking care of them 24/7 or breastfeeding them for 6 years, secure relationships are formed without following a specific parental philosophy).

Based on the findings of this experiment, Ainsworth describes three main attachment styles: secure, anxious-avoidant and anxious-ambivalent/resistant. Later on, the researchers Main and Solomon (1986) add a fourth attachment style called disorganized-insecure attachment, based on their own experiments.

Several other studies of that time support Ainsworth’s attachment styles and show that attachment styles also influence behavior in later life.

Attachment styles

There are four main attachment styles:

Secure (stable) attachment:

This attachment style is a stable, secure base for relationships. A person with a secure attachment style will most likely agree with the following statements:

  • I deserve to be loved.

  • Yes, I am able to do what needs to be done in order to receive the love I need.

  • Yes, other people are reliable.

  • Yes, other people are accessible, and they want to respond to me when I need them.

Obviously, no parent is perfect and no child can correctly interpret everything that happens to them. The secure attachment style is not based on perfection; it is based on a model in which the parent provides the infant confidence in their own worth by demonstrating their love, stability and acceptance.

The attachment style is based on a parent convincing the child that they are in a situation where they can receive the love they need, by showing them that love regularly and consistently. The child learns that other people are also reliable when the parent showcases those qualities, ensuring structure and security. Finally, the child becomes secure in relationships because the parent is available and ready to meet their needs.

How can you find out whether you have a secure attachment style? People who have this attachment style have specific characteristics and character traits. Here is a list of typical statements people with this attachment style make:

  • I can easily share my feelings with people I am close to.

  • I like it when my partner wants to share their feelings with me.

  • I am comfortable being close to others, but I am also comfortable alone.

  • I expect my partner to respect who I am.

  • I expect my partner to accommodate my needs in a sensitive and appropriate way.

  • Building intimacy in relationships happens relatively easy for me.

  • I let myself experience my emotions but I rarely, if ever, feel overwhelmed by them.

  • I am able to understand and react sensitively to my partner’s feelings.

  • I am able to balance my need for intimacy with my need for achievements and success.

  • When I feel stressed, I feel comfortable asking for comfort from my partner and/or close friends.

People with a secure attachment style are usually persistent, calm, accepting and loving towards their partners, friends and children. They can take life easy and feel calm and secure in their relationships. People with this attachment style have a good influence on people with other attachment styles when they are in a relationship, as long as the other people are open to working on their issues so they can adopt a more secure attachment style.

Ambivalent attachment

The ambivalent attachment style is formed by a childhood in which love and care are given inconsistently, based on factors the child does not understand. Love and care, despite the child’s desperate need for them, are regarded as extremely fragile things which can disappear with no warning. Since the child is never sure of receiving love, it has a great desire to ensure the uncertain.

A child who is insecure in love and lives under constant fear of abandonment, becomes ambivalent in relationships. They desire something they are fundamentally scared of. There is no safety in ambivalent relationships. Love and acceptance one day do not guarantee love and acceptance the next, even with identical context. The only constant thing which the person can blame for this inconsistency is themselves. The child decides that love is refused because they are not good enough or they have not communicated clearly enough. There is no security in their relationship with the parent because that person can leave or take their love away at any point.

These are the statements which describe those with an ambivalent attachment style:

  • I really enjoy sharing my feelings with my partner, but they do not seem as open as I am.

  • My feelings can easily go out of control.

  • I am anxious to be alone.

  • I am worried I will be abandoned in close relationships.

  • My partner complains about me being too clingy or emotional.

  • I deeply desire to be very intimate with people.

  • In close relationships, the other person does not exhibit as much desire for intimacy and closeness as I do.

  • I am very worried about being rejected by others.

  • I am more likely to appreciate close intimate relationships more than personal achievements and success.

  • When I feel stressed, I desperately seek others for help but no one seems as accessible as I would like them to be.

A person with an ambivalent attachment style is constantly looking for proof of love and attachment. They are untrusting of others and try to test the relationship, often with extreme behavior which can create conflict and confuse the other person. Because the relationship appears to always be in danger, the ambivalent person is likely to focus obsessively on it. How is it going? Are there any problems? Have I done everything right? How does the other person feel about me? No reasonable reassurance seems enough and the person comes across as needy and suffocating, while being in a state of extreme anger and rage.

Avoidant attachment

Children with this attachment style are likely to avoid their parents or caregivers. When given the choice, these children will not show preference for either their caregiver or a complete stranger. Studies show that this attachment style can be a result of abuse, violence or negligence. Children who have been punished for seeking help or comfort from the caregiver learn to avoid looking for help in the future.

Just like those with an ambivalent attachment style are likely to frantically attach themselves to others, those with an avoidant attachment style are likely to hold tight onto themselves. Because of the emotional, physical and/or mixed unavailability of the parent, the avoidant person decides they must deal with life on their own. Here is how people with this style answer questions regarding love:

  • Yes, I am worthy of love, not for who I am but for what I can do.

  • Yes, I am able to do what I needs to be done in order to receive the love I need, because I give it to myself.

  • No, other people are not reliable nor careful, so I must rely only on myself.

  • No, other people are not accessible nor ready to respond when I need them, so I must take care of myself.

When the avoidant person is faced with abandonment of any kind, they often decide they will never again be put in a similar situation of need. They deal with the panic and pain of abandonment by burying these negative feelings. The anger caused by pain and abandonment can fuel a response of social isolation, emotional detachment and perfectionism. Massive walls are built in front of intimacy as protection from additional pain, and they learn to deal with relationships like tasks or exercises to be done. These people avoid deeper emotional context, remaining as part of a relationship, but distant.

Relying solely on oneself can seem like an effective way to fulfil our needs. Why should we depend on others if they only hurt and disappoint us? This type of thinking fails to recognize the purpose of a relationship – a relationship is between two people. The reason for an avoidant person to miss out on this type of relationship is because they have not experienced it in their first, fundamental relationship.

What should a person who has learned to rely completely on themselves do? What do they do when they are confused? The avoidant style can make people lean towards narcissism (a falsely elevated sense of self), introversion (unaccountable to others) or perfectionism (rigidly accountable to self).

The narcissist elevates self at the expense of others, believing self to be superior. To avoid the anxiety of relying on others to provide love and acceptance, the narcissist may seek out and manipulate others for approval. While it may appear that these individuals are not avoidant but actually like to be around people, the opposite is true. The narcissist uses people to build up and fortify self, which is their only relational goal. The narcissist may be engaging, funny, and charismatic, but the only true relationship the person has is with an inflated sense of self.

An avoidant person may also become an introvert, one who crawls into a hole of self-sufficiency. Because the introvert does not trust others, others are not to be avoided. The introvert shuns relationships with others and instead substitutes things or activities for connection and pleasure. People, as the avoidant person has learned, are unreliable, so people must be avoided. Things, on the other hand, can be controlled and manipulated and therefore are more secure. Because the introvert rejects relationships, the introvert is unsure of their own emotions, preferring to suppress them in a bland and apathetic attitude.

An avoidant person may also be prone to perfectionism, seeking security and order through performance. If your self-worth becomes tied not to who you are but to what you do, then can you ever really do enough? If your value in life consists of the content of your performance, then any infraction, any mistake, any miscalculation negatively detracts from that value. Perfectionism becomes a way to “prove” your value to those who gave you none.

Disorganized attachment

Children with a disorganized attachment style often exhibit confusing combinations of behavior and can appear disoriented, dazed or confused. Children may simultaneously avoid or oppose their parent. Some researchers believe that the lack of a clear attachment style is most likely related to inconsistent behavior from the caregiver. In these cases, parents may be sources of comfort as well as sources of fear which leads to disorganized behavior.

A disorganized person is a hodgepodge of responses without a consistent pattern. If there is a pattern, it is that there is no pattern. The disorganized person has come to view relationships, often because of the presence of abuse, as a source of both comfort and fear. As a result, they may hesitate between a secure response one minute and an avoidant response the next. A disorganized person is in conflict and answers questions about love this way:

  • No, I am not worthy of being loved.

  • No, I am not able to do what I need to do to get the love I need.

  • No, other people are not reliable or trustworthy.

  • No, other people are not accessible and willing to respond when I need them.

Because there is no surety anywhere, a disorganized person will use whatever strategy they think might work at any given time, bouncing from one to another, trying anything to gain relational ground.

Statements of the disorganized attachment style:

  • My feelings are very confusing to me, so I try not to feel them.

  • My feelings are very intense and overwhelming.

  • I feel torn between wanting to be close to others and wanting to pull away.

  • My partner complains that sometimes I am too needy and clingy and other times I am distant and aloof.

  • I have a difficult time letting others get close to me, but once I let them in, I worry about being abandoned or rejected.

  • I feel very vulnerable in close relationships.

  • Sometimes I feel disconnected from myself and my feelings.

  • I cannot decide whether or not I want to be in a close relationship.

  • Other people can really hurt me if I let them get too close.

  • Close relationships are hard to come by because people tend to be unpredictable in their actions and behavior.

A disorganized person lives a life of crisis and chaos. A moment of calm is disrupted and may be subconsciously sabotaged in order for them to return to the chaotic, to the known and the “normal.” When chaos is normal, the emotional turmoil that accompanies chaos and trauma can also become normal. This can often cause an intense feeling of guilt and a feeling of ‘something about me is not right’.

Constantly inundated by an avalanche of intense emotions, the disorganized person learns to dissociate from them, essentially detaching from their emotions. As the disorganized person detaches from their emotions, they become less able to recognize, manage, or control these emotions. The more they detach from the emotional self, the less they are able to learn from experiences, the more vulnerable they become to repeating past mistakes and miscalculations. The more they repeat past mistakes and miscalculations, the more this cycle is intensified and the less grasp on self the disorganized person is able to maintain. In Why You Do the Things You Do: The Secret to Healthy Relationships, the disorganized attachment style is also called the shattered self.

How to deal with attachment issues?

Even though attachment styles exhibited at a mature age are not necessarily the same as those seen at an early age, studies show that early attachments can have a significant influence on mature relationships. For example, those who are securely attached during their childhood are likely to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships and an ability to reveal themselves to others. As adults, they tend to have healthy, fulfilling and long-lasting relationships. If we follow the same logic, people who have been abandoned, mistreated, ignored and neglected when they were little often continue to have similar experiences as they get older. The reason is that what we believe plays a major role in what we experience, the people we choose, the boundaries we place, and we often provoke different responses and reactions to our thoughts and behavior. The key to correcting and stabilizing our negative attachments lies there – in our ability to recognize and challenge acquired patterns and to allow new alternatives of existence. Even though this is a painful and frightening process for people who have experienced a lot of betrayal and pain in previous relationships, in the long run it will bring happiness and stability while following dysfunctional patterns will not. The first step is to recognize what attachment style we demonstrate currently and to try to trace back to where it came from, while approaching the situation with love and understanding for ourselves and our circumstances. It is also helpful for people to write down ideas they have about themselves and the world and to try to objectively consider whether they are valid or are a product of pain and bad experience. An important step is to connect with our feelings and emotions, to address the reasons behind them and when we can – to try and communicate them with those close to us. In the beginning, it may be hard to find the words and the trust we need to share how we feel, but even if we share them with a delay, communicating our feelings honestly is a great step towards creating meaningful relationships. Being aware of our circumstances and accepting them will allow us to reveal them to others. Maybe the most important step towards having a stable, secure attachment is making the decision to work with ourselves and give the other person a chance, because the truth is that everyone is worthy of being loved.


This article is part of the project Healthy, Brave, and Proud: A mental health support program for LGBTI youth, which aims at providing support and raising awareness regarding the mental health of LGBTI youth. The project is financed by the TELUS International Bulgaria Community Board.

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