Attachment Theory is based on the belief that humans and other animals are biologically wired to connect with others and that the attachment patterns established in early childhood tend to persist throughout life. In this way, the early bonds with a parent or caregiver set the tone and pattern for how we pursue relationships with others and, even more importantly, how we see the world and our place in it. Attachment Theory grew out of the initial work of psychiatrist John Bowlby, who worked with orphaned and homeless children after World War II. He observed the profound and persistent effects of the absence of a caring maternal figure on these children and the theory grew out of his initial study.
In later years, psychologist Mary Ainsworth established the idea of a “secure base” or that the effective parent gives the child a sense of freedom and safety to explore the world around them knowing that they have the backup of a secure and safe place. This concept is a primary tenet of the first Attachment Pattern known as “Secure Attachment” Ideally, with consistent and attentive care from one or more parents, the child develops a sense of safety and is able to respond well to her parent. She can also interact well with a stranger but clearly prefers her caregiver.
When caregiving overly protective and discouraging of risk taking or independence, the second type of attachment or “Anxious Attachment” style may take hold. In this instance, the child may be very clingy or needy and seek ongoing reassurances.
When parents are disengaged, deeply self absorbed or consistently distracted, a child may develop an “Avoidant Attachment Style” with indifference to caregivers and others and a general reticence to connect with others.
If a parent is very inconsistent in response, sometimes attentive, sometimes dismissive, sometimes caring and sometimes indifferent or neglectful, an “Ambivalent Attachment” style can take root. The caregiver is not seen as a secure base. The care and attention of the parent may be sought fiercely and then rejected. Distress, ambivalence, anger and neediness become familiar emotions.
If a caregiver has episodes of abusiveness or frightening or dangerous behavior, a “Disorganized Attachment” style occurs. The child is fearful, uncertain and disoriented in the presence of the caregiver.
A general estimate is that approximately 65% of people could be considered “Securely Attached” with the remaining 35% in one of the insecurely attached categories. It is important to understand that this theory should not be used to be overly critical of parenting styles. Life events such as death in the family, divorce, major illness, financial insecurity, threat of crime as well as the parents own attachment style can clearly play important roles in the development of a child.
The theory posits that we take our attachment style with us into adulthood. Do we have a generally positive view of ourselves, see the world as a safe place, and feel comfortable with intimacy of friends and partners?....Do we feel needy, always seeking reassurance and approval with less positive views of ourselves and the world....Do we feel no need for connection and think we are better off alone seeing others with contempt and believing we can only rely on ourselves....Or do we feel very ambivalent about others and relationships, sometimes seeking them adamantly and other times rejecting them completely viewing others with mistrust and seeing ourselves as unworthy.
Of course these categories are not rigid or absolute. They exist on a continuum and we may certainly experience aspects of all of them and various times in life as circumstances change. But having a general awareness of our attachment tendencies as well as those of others in our lives can be very helpful. In attachment informed therapy, the therapist works with the patient to identify and explore these tendencies in a completely non-judgmental way. As humans we are wired to connect and to seek healthy social engagement. This is good news. Very often, the therapist's job is simply to help the patient clear the debris that is impeding them from their natural and innate pursuit of health and well-being.
Finally, it is important to remember that the therapist/patient relationship is ideally a meaningful one. Although it is not a typical relationship that the patient has out in the real world, it is still a real relationship. The advantage is that here, it is safe and expected that complicated or painful questions about how and why we are the way we are can be explored with safety and support. And, we can also ask the even more important question, how might I be different and how might it be better.
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