Patterns of behavior and beliefs that influence how we relate to others are known as attachment styles.
Survivors of complex childhood trauma often have difficulty forming attachments. This struggle can create an unfulfilled desire for connection, leading to loneliness and isolation, depression, and risky, self-destructive behaviors, leading back to loneliness and isolation in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Our attachment styles developed in early childhood, and by understanding them, we may gain insight into our patterns of relating and navigating our current relationships more effectively. Understanding our own personal style of attaching may help us improve communication and build healthier and more fulfilling connections.
Discovering the Secrets of Emotional Connection
Here’s a little history about attachment styles: John Bowlby (1907–1990), a British psychologist and psychoanalyst, theorized that childhood experiences directly influence adult development and behavior. He concluded that individual attachment styles are established in early childhood wholly through infant/caregiver relationships.
According to Bowlby, the attachment phase occurs in the first three years of life. His research indicates that as children, we must feel safe in our caregiver relationships to develop a healthy sense of self and form healthy adult relationships. Any traumatic childhood experiences may potentially negatively impact our ability to create secure attachments as adults.
Here’s the thing: survivors of complex childhood trauma often have difficulty forming attachments. This struggle can create a self-perpetuating cycle: an unfulfilled desire for connection leads to loneliness and isolation, depression, and risky, self-destructive behaviors, leading back to loneliness and isolation.
Ainsworth expanded on attachment theory in her paper “Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by The Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation.” In her research, she discovered three major attachment styles: secure, ambivalent-insecure, and avoidant-insecure (Ainsworth and Bell 1970). Drs. Mary Main and Judith Solomon added a fourth attachment style called “disorganized-insecure attachment” (Main and Solomon 1986). Additional research supports their conclusions that early attachment styles can predict future behavior.
The following is a description of the four attachment styles as per Bowlsby, Ainsworth, Bell, Main, and Solomon:
- A secure attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is mostly predictable, reliable, and trustworthy. If a parent or caregiver is a source of comfort, the child feels relaxed as they discover, learn, and play in their environment. As an adult, this person can develop meaningful connections with others and confidently deals with the inevitable disagreements.
- An insecure ambivalent attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is unreliable, erratic, or unpredictable. There are times the child feels cared for, which are interspersed with times of being shouted at or rejected. These kinds of mixed messages often lead to the child feeling indecisive, hesitant, or doubtful. As an adult, this person may feel a sense of dependency combined with a fear of abandonment.
- An insecure-avoidant attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is disengaged, distant, and unavailable. The child’s needs go unmet or are ignored, and they learn to take care of themselves, becoming self-reliant. As an adult, this person may have a dismissive attitude towards other’s emotional needs or lack the ability to experience intimacy with others.
- A disorganized attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is chaotic and abusive. The caregiver is not a source of love and nurturing but of fear and trepidation. Kids still attach to an aggressive, cruel, or abusive parent because humans are born with a need for closeness. But we also have a strong need to escape danger. A child in this position will likely develop feelings of helplessness and hopelessness because they’re caught in the middle; they need and desire attachment and also need to escape danger. As an adult, this person will likely alternate between feeling fear or anger and defeat or depression.
Unlocking the Power of Attachment Styles
It’s common for us to repeat the first relational patterns and attachment styles we learned as children. (Schwartz, A., 2019). Most of us have a “combination style” of attachment because we often have more than one parent or caretaker. Because each of them treats us differently, we may develop a combination of any of these four attachment styles.
Tools for Moving Forward
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Find out how to identify toxic relationships
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences Quiz
Know the signs of manipulation and coercion
Find out if you’ve been love-bombed
Learn the signs of C-PTSD
More Resources for You~
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YOUR CRASH COURSE IN RELATIONSHIP SELF DEFENSE
In a world where love and companionship are highly valued and sought, it becomes necessary to navigate our relationships cautiously. Understanding relationship warning signs can be helpful in your relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues too. By recognizing potentially harmful patterns of interaction or behavior, you can take proactive measures to avoid toxic dynamics and nurture positive connections with those who share your values and aspirations.
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About the Author
Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and author specializing in abuse and family dynamics.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. Her professional portfolio is diverse, encompassing fields such as Domestic and Partner Abuse Counseling, Geriatric Care Management, Developmental Disability Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, Information Technology Management, and Education.
Through her personal healing journey from physical and emotional abuse and neglect, and with ongoing self-improvement practices, she has developed effective tools that she happily shares with others seeking growth in their own recovery. Her focus is on healing relational trauma through awareness, intention, and introspection, combined with healthy coping strategies and tools.
She is the author of the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series, an emotionally supportive collection that dives into the effects of growing up with mothers having narcissistic traits. This compassionate trilogy provides valuable insights and guidance for coming to terms with past traumas to initiate the healing process.
Learn more about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.