This developmental concept, formulated by British psychologist John Bowlby, is called Attachment Theory – the study of how attachment patterns established in early childhood continue to function as a working model for our relationships in adulthood. Consequently, exploring Bowlby’s ideas in the context of attachment and romantic relationships quickly became a hot topic in psychology.
Attachment theory evolved in the 1960s, as a psychological model seeking to explain the dynamics of long-term and short-term relationships. In line with his research, Bowlby believed that a child’s relationship with their caregiver will shape their emotional, social and cognitive development. Many of the fears, beliefs and behavioral patterns we have as adults are acquired from the first few years of our lives. Bowlby also proposed that throughout evolution, genetic selection rewarded people who were attached because it gave them a greater chance at survival. It is believed that people who were with somebody who genuinely cared about them had a greater chance for survival, thus they have passed on to their children this preference to form intimate bonds.
A decade later, American developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded on the theory and discovered three very distinct ways in which babies and toddlers form attachments with their parents and/or caregivers: secure, anxious, and avoidant (a fourth less common style, “disorganized”, was later discovered).
Since then, many scientific studies in a wide range of countries and cultures have indicated that adults show patterns of attachment to their romantic partners similar to the patterns of attachment that children have with their parents. Basically, the three main styles of attachment growing up can translate into the way we perceive and respond to intimacy in romantic relationships. Relationship counselors and therapists have been using Attachment Theory in their work correspondingly.
Secure attachment style: children who are securely attached are able to use their mother as a secure base from which to learn about their surroundings and receive warmth and sympathy when they are upset or exhausted.
In romantic relationship secure adults feel comfortable with intimacy and are generally warm and loving, and they do not struggle communicating their needs and desires to their companion.
Insecure attachment style (anxious or avoidant): children are too obsessed with the mother’s whereabouts to be easily calmed down (anxious) or, quite contrary, are too distant toward her to use her as a secure base for comfort when needed (avoidant).
In romantic relationships anxious adults lust after intimacy, they are frequently preoccupied with their relationships and tend to worry if their partner is able to love them back. When their partner is absent, they are nervous that he or she might develop an interest in someone else. Anxious people worry that their partner will stop loving them, they live in their heads and not their hearts.
Avoidant adults associate intimacy with a loss of independence and continually try to reduce closeness. They find it difficult to depend on romantic partners and express how their partner often wants them to be more intimate than they feel comfortable being.
Advocates of Attachment Theory view it as an insightful way to understand people’s behavior in romantic situations. Every person falls into one of the following categories; around 50% are estimated to be secure, around 20% are anxious, 25% are avoidant, and the remaining 5% fall into the mixed anxious/avoidant category.
These attachment findings show us that most women and men are only as needy as their unmet needs. In a study using fMRI, James Coan of the University of Virginia, found that a woman holding the hand of her partner feels less stress when receiving a mild electric shock than if she holds the hand of a stranger (or nobody at all). In another study, Brian Baker of the University of Toronto, found that if you have a mild form of high blood pressure, being in an enjoyable relationship helps maintain your blood pressure at healthier levels. Contrarily, if you are not satisfied with your relationship, contact with your partner can raise your blood pressure when in physical proximity.
Studies have thus shown us how mismatched attachment styles can create plenty of unhappiness in a relationship, even for partners who love each other deeply. Unfortunately, we often don’t know another person’s attachment style before we are in a relationship with them. In order to improve romantic relationships, identifying your own attachment style is crucial. The second step would be to learn the attachment style of your (potential) significant other. By becoming aware of your attachment style, you can challenge your insecurities and fears, and progress into a healthier style of attachment.
To conclude, a secure attachment style can lead to better communication, greater personal self-disclosure and improved intimacy. It also brings about higher emotional expressiveness and more useful strategies for coping with conflict. A growing number of studies suggests that people with secure attachment styles also have longer-lasting relationships, the premise being, the more satisfied you are with your relationship, it will encourage you to stay committed longer and work at it harder.
Eva Berkovic, Student Counsellor, MSc Psychology