Archive | December 2013

Attachment theory extended from children (and their caregivers) to adults (in relationships)


We have all heard that our  relationships with our earliest caregivers have a lasting impact on our lives and our relationships, intimate or otherwise, as adults. The following sheds some light on how and why:

Adults have four attachment styles: secure, anxious–preoccupied, dismissive–avoidant, and fearful–avoidant. The secure attachment style in adults corresponds to the secure attachment style in children. The anxious–preoccupied attachment style in adults corresponds to the anxious–ambivalent attachment style in children. However, the dismissive–avoidant attachment style and the fearful–avoidant attachment style, which are distinct in adults, correspond to a single avoidant attachment style in children. The descriptions of adult attachment styles offered below are based on the relationship questionnaire devised by Bartholomew and Horowitz[6] and on a review of studies by Pietromonaco and Barrett.[7]

There are several attachment-based treatment approaches that can be used with adults.[8] In addition, there is an approach to treating couples based on attachment theory.[9]

Secure attachment

Securely attached people tend to agree with the following statements: “It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me.” This style of attachment usually results from a history of warm and responsive interactions with relationship partners. Securely attached people tend to have positive views of themselves and their partners. They also tend to have positive views of their relationships. Often they report greater satisfaction and adjustment in their relationships than people with other attachment styles. Securely attached people feel comfortable both with intimacy and with independence. Many seek to balance intimacy and independence in their relationship.

Secure attachment and adaptive functioning are promoted by a caregiver who is emotionally available and appropriately responsive to her child’s attachment behavior, as well as capable of regulating both his or her positive and negative emotions. [10]

Insecure attachment

Anxious–preoccupied attachment

People who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment tend to agree with the following statements: “I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.” People with this style of attachment seek high levels ofintimacy, approval, and responsiveness from their partners. They sometimes value intimacy to such an extent that they become overly dependent on their partners. Compared to securely attached people, people who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment tend to have less positive views about themselves. They often doubt their worth as a partner and blame themselves for their partners’ lack of responsiveness. People who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry, and impulsiveness in their relationships.

Dismissive–avoidant attachment

People with a dismissive style of avoidant attachment tend to agree with these statements: “I am comfortable without close emotional relationships.”, “It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient”, and “I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.” People with this attachment style desire a high level of independence. The desire for independence often appears as an attempt to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient and invulnerable to feelings associated with being closely attached to others. They often deny needing close relationships. Some may even view close relationships as relatively unimportant. Not surprisingly, they seek less intimacy with relationship partners, whom they often view less positively than they view themselves. Investigators commonly note the defensive character of this attachment style. People with a dismissive–avoidant attachment style tend to suppress and hide their feelings, and they tend to deal with rejection by distancing themselves from the sources of rejection (i.e., their relationship partners).

Fearful–avoidant attachment

People with losses or sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence often develop this type of attachment[11] and tend to agree with the following statements: “I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.” People with this attachment style have mixed feelings about close relationships. On the one hand, they desire to have emotionally close relationships. On the other hand, they tend to feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness. These mixed feelings are combined with, sometimes unconscious, negative views about themselves and their partners. They commonly view themselves as unworthy of responsiveness from their partners, and they don’t trust the intentions of their partners. Similar to the dismissive–avoidant attachment style, people with a fearful–avoidant attachment style seek less intimacy from partners and frequently suppress and deny their feelings. Instead, they are much less comfortable initially expressing affection.