Read the following three paragraphs listed below and indicate which paragraphs best characterize the way you think, feel and behave in close relationships.
A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
Researchers by the name of Hazen and Shaver asked respondents to make these same choices in order to learn more about adult attachment styles in their key relationships. What they found is that 60% of adults categorized themselves as secure (paragraph B) and 20% described themselves as avoidant (paragraph A) and 20% described themselves as anxious-resistant (paragraph C).
Interestingly, these are about the same percentages found when measuring attachment in infants.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised the Strange Situation Classification (in one to two year olds) in order to understand how attachment might vary between children. This research created different scenarios including a mother, stranger and baby in a small room together. Then the mother would leave the room. Upon her return, researchers would score and observe the interaction toward the mother by the child. A child’s temperament might predict how they would react when the mother left. But what the researchers were observing was the child’s response upon her return.
Three attachment styles were observed by Ainsworth (1970) and a fourth later identified by Main and Solomon 1990.
1. Safe and Secure – “I am loveable and others will be responsive.”
One of the greatest predictor of satisfaction in adult relationships is our attachment styles. Children who were raised with generally consistent attunement and connection grew into adulthood with what is often called “Safe and Secure Attachment.” They developed a positive working image of themselves and saw others as being helpful. They saw themselves as worthy of respect and love.
2 Anxious – “I need other people, but I am not sure I can rely on them.”
Those children who experienced nurture, attunement and connection in an inconsistent pattern developed an adult Anxious Attachment Style. In this pattern, children experienced their caregivers tuning into them in a loving way, but just as frequently also often experienced the vacuum or withdrawal of that connection. The in and out nature of that important connection from a parent or caregiver resulted in an adult narrative that says “I need other people, but I am not sure I can rely on them.”
Avoidant – “I am on my own, all alone and I really don’t need anyone.”
Another group of children were identified that didn’t receive much soothing, emotional safety, security or an experience of feeling seen. This Avoidant Attachment Style may have had their survival needs taken care of, but received little attuned interaction to help them develop neurological circuitry for social engagement. We have two major brain systems that impact our relationships. One is all about safety and the other is about connections and social engagement. This unresponsive primary caregiver taught the child that communicating their needs had no influence on their mother or father. As adults, Avoidant Attachment Styles often have a core belief that of, “I am on my own, all alone and I really don’t need anyone.”
Disorganized – “Sometimes I fall apart and can’t depend upon myself.”
A fourth category was also discovered with children that had been abused or experienced ongoing trauma called disorganized attachment. Adult attachment expert Diane Poole Heller provides this descriptions, “When parents set up these interactions that are frightening, disorienting, inherently disorganizing, and which sometimes involve violence, the parents become the source of fear. The disorganized pattern arises in the child when there is a desire to be close to the parent as an object of safety, conflicting with a drive to detach from a dangerous and confusing caregiver. For the Adult this may mean being held emotionally hostage by the conflict of the desire for intimacy and as the fear of it.”
This Disorganized Attachment Style in adulthood often experiences lifes as “sometimes I fall apart and can’t depend upon myself.”
The So What and Now What
If this is your first pass through attachment styles, you might like many, a bit defeated. You may have read this as fate or reinforcement that you or your partner can’t change. We now know that change is possible. Our history certainly influences our relationships but it is not necessarily our destiny (by the way "avoidant" folk often believe that the past has no influence on who they are now). A difficult early childhood has a great influence on your adult attachment style, but it isn’t fate.
Some folk need to learn how to manage their anxiety and to communicate without the implied or overt criticisms that often flows freely. Others need to recognize that they do have a need for connection and need to work on learning how to attune and engage more deeply. If you are interested in learning more about your attachment style I would recommend the ..test on Diane Poole Heller’s web site. Click here for the test.
Therapeutic experiences, couples counseling, understanding our how attachment styles shape our perception, along with being in a healthy relationships can make all the difference in your relational health.