Assessment & Repair of Insecure Attachment Styles in Adults
“Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when an infant or a toddler, but throughout adolescence and years of maturity as well, and on into old age.”
– John BowlbyJohn Bowlby, 1980
We are born completely dependent upon our primary caregiver for survival. The attachment we form is perceived as no less necessary than food or water. For this reason, we develop behaviors to protest when that attachment is threatened. These behaviors become a pattern, as we learn what works and what does not work. In other words, if a child learns that he or she only gets their needs met when they throw a tantrum, then the child will continue to throw a tantrum with the expectation that they will get their needs met. Research shows that these behaviors are well in place by the time we are 2 years old.
Once we reach the toddler ages, we begin forming a more detailed internal map of our attachment relationships. This “internal working model” provides the framework for our beliefs about our own self worth and how much we can depend on others to meet our needs.
Through many studies like the one in the video above, the attachment research has found four different types of models that we form as humans. We refer to these models as attachment styles. Each attachment style consists of its own sets of behaviors and beliefs about the world. (Kennedy & Kennedy, 2004).
For starters, how does attachment form in early childhood?
As soon as a baby is born, he or she starts bonding with his or her caregivers – usually parents. For the first few years, the baby is entirely dependent on them.
The caregivers, on the other hand, are responsible for the child’s primary physiological (food, shelter, etc.), as well as emotional (soothing, loving, caring, etc.) needs.
If they are sensitive towards and attuned to these needs, the child builds a secure attachment with the caregivers, whose presence equals safety.
The child learns indirectly, that he or she can rely on, and thus, trust other people. A secure and stable attachment is formed.
In some cases, however, the child perceives that his or her needs are not met and that the caregivers are not emotionally available or responsive when the child seeks their attention, affection, or support. As a result, the child is unable to form a secure bond.
Early attachment experiences do shape attachment styles. So the way we experience our first social bonds with caregivers will determine the way we view and behave in relationships in the future.
Insecure attachment styles typically develop as a response to misattuned parenting and as a form of adaptation, i.e. a defense against feeling the rejection of mom or dad’s misattunement.
Anxious/Resistant Attachment Style
For example, if a child perceives the parents as unpredictable or neglecting, the child might become overly clingy and needy. In other words, the child lacks attention and starts working harder to get it.
Later on in life, this child (now a teenager or adult) continues to question whether they are good enough, lovable, or worthy.
Such individuals can develop a low self-esteem and need constant reassurance from their partners. This is known as an anxious attachment style, which is characterized by a strong fear of abandonment and rejection.
Avoidant Attachment Style
If the child perceives that their emotional needs are rejected by the parents, the child stops expecting any response from their parents. Thus, the child learns that they should not express emotions openly or seek support, because they are not going to receive such.
As time goes by, such children (now grown-up) become self-sufficient and independent. Other people will reject their emotions anyway, so why bother trying to express them? This is the ‘strategy’ behind the avoidant attachment style.
Disorganized Attachment Style
We see that there is a sort of continuity and coherence in each of the two attachment styles described above.
What makes the disorganized / fearful-avoidant attachment style different is that it implies a lack of coherence in the individual’s social behavior.
Most attachment specialists believe that the disorganized attachment style is the most difficult of the three insecure attachment styles to treat because it incorporates both the anxious and the avoidant styles.
The Four Attachment Styles
Research has found the following attachment styles in children:
- Secure Attachment: These children are generally more likely to see others as supportive and helpful and themselves as competent and worthy of respect. They relate positively to others and display resilience, engage in complex play and are more successful in the classroom and in interactions with other children. They are better at taking the perspectives of others and have more trust in others.
- Anxious-Avoidant Attachment: Children with an anxious-avoidant attachment style are generally less effective in managing stressful situations. They are likely to withdraw and resist seeking help, which inhibits them from forming satisfying relationships with others. They show more aggression and antisocial behavior and they tend to distance themselves from others to reduce emotional stress. They choose individual exploration over connection with the caregiver.
- Anxious-Resistant Attachment: These children are on the opposite end of the spectrum from anxious-avoidant children. They likely lack self-confidence and stick close to their primary caregivers. They may display exaggerated emotional reactions to stress and fear of abandonment. They choose connection with the caregiver over individual exploration.
- Disorganized Attachment: Children with a disorganized attachment style usually fail to develop an organized strategy for coping with separation distress, and tend to display aggression, disruptive behaviors, and social isolation. They are more likely to see others as threats than sources of support (Kennedy & Kennedy, 2004).
Once we develop an attachment style, it remains very stable throughout the lifetime. It effects how we see ourselves and our environment. Because our lives become incredibly more complex as we grow, this internal model plays itself out in many ways. Research has shown that adult attachment styles follow the same general pattern described above.
- Secure Attachment: These adults are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships, feeling secure and connected to their partners without feeling the need to be together all the time. Their relationships are likely to feature honesty, support, independence, and deep emotional connections.
- Dismissive-Avoidant (or Anxious-Avoidant) Attachment: People with this attachment style generally keep their distance from others. They may feel that they don’t need human connection, and insist on maintaining their independence and isolation from others. They are often able to shut down emotionally when a potentially harmful scenario arises, such as an argument with their partner or a threat to the relationship.
- Anxious-Preoccupied (or Anxious-Resistant) Attachment: People with this attachment style may feel desperate for love or affection and feel that their partner must complete them or fix their problems. They can be clingy, demanding, jealous, or easily upset by small issues.
- Fearful-Avoidant (or Disorganized) Attachment: People with this attachment style generally try to avoid their feelings because it is easy to get overwhelmed by them. They may suffer from unpredictable or abrupt mood swings and fear getting hurt by a romantic partner. These individuals are simultaneously drawn to a partner or potential partner and fearful of getting to close. Unsurprisingly, this style makes it difficult to form and maintain meaningful, healthy relationships with others (Firestone, 2013).
We offer a comprehensive assessment and treatment program for insecure attachment in adults. Using the most current research in the field, the Adult Attachment Interview by Mary Main and Erik Hesse has become the gold standard for assessing attachment strategies in adults (see Adult Attachment Interview). Also, we rely heavily on the “Three Pillars Approach,” led by Daniel Brown, Ph.D. We have seen many clients move from insecure to secure attachment using the following cutting edge approach.
The Three Pillars Approach to Treatment
- The First Pillar: Creating a New, Positive Internal Working Model (IWM) of Attachment using the Ideal Parent Figure protocol (IPF).
- The Second Pillar: Developing a Range of Metacognitive Skills.
- The Third Pillar: Enhancing Collaborative Abilities.
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Firestone, L. (2013). How your attachment style impacts your relationship. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201307/how-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-relationship
Kennedy, J. H., & Kennedy, C. E. (2004). Attachment theory: Implications for school psychology. Psychology in the Schools, 41, 247-259. doi:10.1002/pits.10153