Let’s Talk About Attachment

Is how we form relationships determined in early life? If yes, how can we use that to our advantage as adults? If no, is there any usefulness in examining our childhoods?

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Let's Talk About Attachment

Attachment refers to our capacity to interact with others at an emotional level, and as humans, we all have an attachment framework. In an ideal world, we’d all be provided with the tools for healthy attachment, but due to the myriad of factors including divorce, abuse, abandonment, or a parent’s lack of awareness and attention to meeting the child’s needs, this always isn’t the case. The theory is that if not managed, previously difficult experiences ‘distort’ the working attachment model, which carries onto maladaptive behaviours in adult dynamics.

There is rarely (and some may argue, a non-existent) perfect working model of attachment; all children and young people will experience some form of rejection within their lives. However, this doesn’t have to be problematic, as rejection and emotional hardships are often a part of growing up. The power is in recognising our past in relation to current patterns.

Though psychoanalysis traditionally examines parental attachments and their role in present behaviours (tell me about your mother, etc), attachment research posits that the relationship between the emotional bond between parents (or primary caregivers) and their children is deemed to form the basis of the bonds we create as adults later in life. John Bowbly pioneered attachment research in order to understanding infant behaviour when separated from their parents.

Mary Ainsworth built on such research, whereby infants and their parents were brought into a laboratory in an experiment called the ‘strange situation’. Upon being separated and subsequently reunited, their reactions were examined. This led to the categorisation of three attachment styles. ‘Secure’ attachment was characterised by children becoming upset when the parent left, actively seeking them out upon their return, and being easily comforted. ‘Anxious-resistant’ children were extremely disconcerted by their parent leaving and once reunited, had difficulty being soothed and often exhibited contradictory behaviours of wanting to be comforted whilst also appearing to punish their parent for leaving. Lastly, ‘Avoidant’ children didn’t appear too distressed by the separation and upon reunion, actively avoided seeking contact with their parent, sometimes turning their attention to other stimulants instead.

The type of attachment of the infant corresponded to the parenting style; children who were ‘secure’, tended to have parents who were responsive to their needs. Children who displayed anxious-resistant or avoidant attachment behaviours, often had parents who are insensitive or inconsistent to meeting their needs. Though I don’t believe that infancy necessarily dictates our attachments for life, it is important to consider early attachments and early relationships on the premise that we subconsciously welcome the dynamics of our earlier years into our lives. The idea is that our brain has been programmed in a particular way, and delving into automated thought processes and internal dialogue can give us the tools to avoid looping or gravitating towards patterns of our earlier years; especially if they didn’t serve us, or weren’t particularly healthy.

Though on the surface this may seem dire, acknowledging the imperfect nature of attachments in our lives can be liberating to the people who report consistently unfulfilling relationships. Though it is not necessarily a cause-effect scenario, we can often rely on our past behaviour to guide our present and it can be beneficial to be mindful of this. The idea is not to live in the past, nor to disregard the gravity of pain that may have occurred in younger years, but rather to acknowledge the malleability of the human brain and the capacity to change one’s inner working model. Bringing to awareness one’s relationship habits and patterns is the first step, but following this and implementing behavioural changes is the next, and requires conscious effort. This said, experiences throughout childhood and adulthood can also impact our model of attachment in positive ways (such as healthy friendships and reationships), and in addition there exists the possibility that one can shift one’s ability to bond with others as an adult via personal experience, awareness, and therapeutic practices if need be.

I shirk away from the notion that our lives are predetermined within the first years of life, however such observations and studies provide a direct jumping off-point for reflection of the sort of relationships we’re embracing and allowing in our lives as adults. However, hitting the rewind button is pointless and potentially damaging unless you do so with the mindset that you have the capacity to change your patterns if need be with the right supports, mindset, and motivation.

I do not want over-pathologise attachment. Rather, I wish to encourage that we acknowledge and recognise the potential influences of our past on our present behaviour, and therefore make a conscious choice as to what patterns or behaviours we’re continuing in our lives. The point is to find the balance of living with an awareness of past experiences where need be, without mindlessly letting them influence your present and your future.