Attachment refers to the type and quality of relationship you have with someone important to you. The emotional bonds that you form in your relationships are largely modeled on the relationship you experienced as a developing infant with your primary caregiver (typically your parent/s but not necessarily). This critical relationship will not only influence how you form relationships, but also how you see the world. Having a well-formed, secure attachment is associated with a wide range of positive health, economic and social outcomes.
This early relationship is so influential because as an infant you are so dependent on your caregiver. They can either be a source of comfort, support and love or a source of additional anxiety and stress. An infant with a reliable caregiver who is present, interested in them and ready to help them make sense of both the world and their physiological sensations can venture out, explore and make sense of the world knowing that they have a competent guide and a safe harbor to return to when the world feels like too much. An infant lacking this safety, or one with an unpredictable caregiver, must learn to make sense of the world and their role in it themselves.
There are four main types of attachment styles:
As the name suggests, a secure attachment is a safe, strong, and healthy attachment style. This person had a caregiver who was ready to soothe them when they were feeling anxious and this reassurance allowed them to develop a healthy understanding of the world, develop a good self-image and the necessary social skills to interact with others and continue forming healthy relationships.
Insecure but organized
If a caregiver is unable to provide a secure base reliably enough a child will, generally, develop a way to cope in one of two ways: learning to avoid seeking reassurance, thereby becoming fearless, self-sufficient and avoidant; or the opposite, by continuously seeking reassurance, thereby becoming fearful, clingy and ambivalent.
Avoidant individuals avoid seeking attachment because they are not used to receiving any relief from a secure base. Instead, they’ve learned to cope by denying any feelings of anxiety and instead press on and become self-sufficient. Children in this group are often described as fearless and mature beyond their years.
Like Insecure, Ambivalent individuals don’t find any relief from their secure base but unlike Insecure, they don’t stop seeking it. Their caregiver may be too distracted to be able to adequately quell the infant’s anxiety, or may be too anxious themselves to encourage the infant to continue exploring. Instead, the infant will cling to the caregiver seeking more and more reassurance. Children in this group are generally described as needy, immature, and dependent.
Different degrees of Insecure but organized attachment is widespread among the population and while not as protective as a Secure attachment, it isn’t as harmful as the final attachment style, Disorganized. The caregiver may not reliably be present or interested in the child but at least they provide a consistent response when the child seeks reassurance. This consistency allows the infant to develop a strategy that works for them to understand their caregiver and the wider world.
An infant exposed to unpredictable and/or chaotic care will not be able to form any reliable strategy to understand the world and cope with their caregivers’ nurture. Lacking a consistent strategy they learn to make the best out of every situation on a case by case basis. Children with a disorganized attachment style are often described as fake, manipulative or provocative.
Children are remarkably resilient and can form secure attachments even if they grow up in the most dysfunctional of families. Simply having one nurturing and stable relationship can do incredible good for the child and serve as a template for future relationships. It’s also important to note that caregivers who are unable to provide a secure base to their children rarely do so out of any ill will. What’s more likely is that they’re too preoccupied themselves and physically and emotionally unavailable due to, for example, their own struggles with mental health, financial insecurities resulting in them not having time to be as present as they’d like or not knowing better and simply repeating the attachment style they inherited from their caregiver. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that attachment styles are passed through generations and even that people with similar attachment styles seek out each other because they understand each other better.
See Miriam Silver’s Attachment in Common Sense and Doodles