Infancy to Adulthood:
Attachment forms the foundation for how we connect with others and also how they connect with us. It’s a style that includes how we perceive, understand, and respond to information in our world. At the root of attachment are strong beliefs that we hold about ourselves and our world. Attachment-based therapy invites us to explore how our past experiences might have shaped the challenges in our lives today. Then we have an opportunity to learn more about our needs and how to meet them.
To focus on attachment-based therapy, I’ll begin with a description of the theory behind it. Psychiatrist John Bowlby developed Attachment Theory after studying the mental health of children during WWII. He discovered that children who had been separated from their parents for a prolonged period of time were more likely to face mental health challenges. He proposed that when infants perceived a threat, they needed comfort from an attachment figure to believe that their world was trustworthy. This would allow them to grow physically and emotionally because an attachment figure was a safe base for infants to understand their surroundings. They could go out into the world with the knowledge that they would be protected if they felt unsafe.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth added to this theory with a study in 1965 called the Strange Situation Procedure. She and her team of researchers observed infants with their mothers and strangers at three intervals in the study: before, during, and after the infants were separated from their mothers. The researchers had also observed mothers and infants for one year before these monthly home visits.
Three attachment styles were identified:
- Secure attachment style: Infants with this style showed an interest in their environment, they were uncomfortable with the stranger, and they were comfortable after their mothers returned.
- Insecure attachment style – anxious-avoidant type: Infants with this style showed a lack of interest in their environment, they seemed comfortable with the stranger, and they did not seem comfortable after their mothers returned. A study that measured infants’ heart rates found that these infants were the most uncomfortable, even though they didn’t show it.
- Insecure attachment style – anxious-resistant type: Infants with this style were uncomfortable before separation from their mothers, they were more uncomfortable with the stranger, and they seemed unsure how to feel when their mothers returned.
In 1990, psychologist Mary Main identified a fourth attachment style called disorganized or disoriented. Infants with this style were very confused after their mothers returned and they had uncoordinated movements. Abuse, neglect, or loss are believed to increase the risk of this style.
This brings us to the role of parents who I will call caregivers. Caregivers help to shape children’s attachment styles. Caregivers who are mostly sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs encourage a secure attachment style. Over time, their children learn how to navigate the world to meet their needs. In contrast, caregivers who are mostly insensitive and unresponsive to their children’s needs encourage an insecure attachment style. However, there might be factors that affect their capacity to be who they want to be for their children. They include their age, knowledge, skills, income, and resources. It’s possible though that they have an insecure attachment style themselves.
Psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver applied Attachment Theory to adults in the 1980s. They identified four attachment styles:
- Secure attachment style – Adults with this style are comfortable with both intimacy and independence.
- Insecure attachment style – dismissive type – Adults with this style are uncomfortable with intimacy and they have a high need for independence. They tend to play the role of a rescuer in their relationships by being responsible for others’ needs.
- Insecure attachment style – pre-occupied type – Adults with this style have a high need for intimacy and they are uncomfortable with independence. They tend to play the role of a victim in their relationships by assigning responsibility to others to meet their needs.
- Insecure attachment style – fearful type – Adults with this style have conflicted thoughts and feelings about intimacy and independence.
As you might have noticed, these styles match with the infants ones listed above. How? Research has uncovered that attachment styles tend to be stable from infancy to adulthood, and they also tend to be intergenerational. Attachment-based therapy could help us turn our lives around if we’re open to learning through it and apply the insights it brings.
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