Before we can begin to understand how a once loving relationship can turn into a hurtful one, we must understand a bit about human attachment. John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist and Mary Ainsworth, an American-born developmental psychologist are credited with being the originators of attachment theory. Bowlby is often quoted as saying that humans are hardwired to connect with another from the ‘cradle to the grave.’ Our very survival is predicated on our ability to attach to a primary caregiver. We attach to another for protection from predators or harm as much as we do for nourishment and nurturance. And that this nurturance must be consistent enough that we can count on it. Based on the attachment style of our parent or primary caregiver we develop our style of attachment through the early experience of that relationship. If our “parent” was able to read and attune to our needs, we are likely to develop a secure attachment style. If on the other hand, our parent was unable to attune to our needs, we are likely to develop an insecure attachment style. Our parent or primary caregiver, acquired her/his style from their relationship with their parents.
This need to attach to another is a lifelong need, especially in times of stress, illness, or threat. It is not a sign of immaturity, dependence, or mental illness. Feeling atached is a healthy human need – it is the need that seeks out comfort and feels connected (emotionally close) with another primary person. And our ability to self-sooth, when we are separated from our primary person, is based on our having been comforted and supported by a loving parent or caregiver in our lives. When we are feeling secure in our relationship to our partner, we are freed up to focus on and develop other parts of our lives. We should feel close and connected yet also feel autonomous. I like to say “attached enough to detach.””
Research has shown that one’s attachment style in infancy will influence all the subsequent relationships. It is therefore, worth your time to figure out if your attachment style, your child’s attachment to you, or your partner’s attachment style to his primary caregiver, is actually at the root of many of the arising challenges.
Secure: “It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me.”
Anxious: “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.”
Avoidant: “I am comfortable without close 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.”
Disorganized: “I am 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 worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.”
This attachment style questionnaire is adapted from K. Bartholomew, and L. Horowitz, “Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four Category Model.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61 (1991): 226-44