Attachment Theory

Attachment theory was first proposed by psychiatrist John Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth. The theory suggests that the emotional connection you formed as an infant (0-18 months) with your primary caregiver, most likely your mother. The quality of the bonding you experienced determines how well you relate to other people and respond to intimacy throughout life. For those who struggle within intimate relationships, you likely have an insecure attachment. 

How Attachment Develops 

The strength of attachment, while based on the quality of bonding and emotional connection with your caregiver, is also based on the nonverbal emotional communication that occurred between you as an infant and your caregiver. As an infant communicates through cries, laughs, smiles, cooing, and pointing, how well your caregiver was able to interpret these cues and meet your needs determines if a secure or insecure attachment is to develop. 

Various factors can hinder the development of a secure attachment including the mental health of a parent, loss of a caregiver, having many siblings, abuse, neglect, trauma, divorce, age and maturity of a parent, being a single parent, etc., and just because you have an insecure attachment style does not mean you cannot go on to develop a healthy, more secure attachment style, coined earned secure attachment. Below is a description of the various attachment styles.  

Secure Attachment

When your primary caregivers provide a safe, stable environment and can accurately understand your changing physical and emotional needs and meet them, you will likely have developed a secure attachment. Some indications that you have developed a secure attachment include the ability to regulate your emotions, trusting yourself and others easily, being emotionally available and comfortable being vulnerable in close relationships, having high self-esteem, and being able to manage conflict using healthy communication and problem-solving. 

Some indications that you may have a secure attachment style are:

  • You can regulate your emotions in your relationship – you are not driven by fear, distrust, or anxiety
  • You trust your and your partner’s commitment to the relationship
  • You are emotionally available and are comfortable being vulnerable
  • You are confident in yourself and have healthy self-esteem
  • You can manage conflict using healthy communication and problem-solving

Insecure Attachment

If your primary caregivers missed your cues to meet your emotional and physical needs, or you experienced confusing, frightening, or inconsistent emotional communication during your infancy, you are more likely to have developed one of three insecure attachment styles. Individuals with insecure attachment styles struggle in intimate relationships, as they have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the feelings of others, fear intimacy, become anxious or clingy in relationships or feel uncomfortable when others get too close as they prefer not to have others rely on them. The three insecure attachment styles are: anxious-preoccupied (ambivalent), avoidant-dismissive, and disorganized (fearful-avoidant). Specific behaviours and responses from the primary caregiver cause the development of each of these three attachment bonds. 


Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style

If you have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, you likely had a caregiver who was warm and loving. However, the parent was inconsistent. At times they could be responsive to your needs, but at others, they may have been distant or unavailable.  The trust that emotional and physical needs are going to be met becomes increasingly difficult. This results in a deep-rooted fear of rejection and abandonment and impacts your self-esteem. There is a tendency to blame yourself for any misfortunes that occur within your relationships. You may also view the space between you and your partner as a threat, leading to feelings of jealousy, distrust, anger, and fear. The preoccupation with your partner is often described as clingy or needy. You require constant reassurance and attention to feel secure in your relationship. To cope with insecurities, you may act in controlling or manipulative ways to remain close to your partner. You may also have a preoccupation with your partner, a need for approval from others, codependent tendencies, difficulty trusting others, and fear of rejection and abandonment.  

Some indications that you may have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style are:

  • You blame yourself for problems in the relationship and will go to any lengths to fix them
  • You are extremely uncomfortable when you perceive your partner is distant
  • You are constantly seeing reassurance of love and commitment in the relationship
  • You try to control or manipulate your partner to show more affection, love, and attention
  • You think about your relationship/partner constantly and how you can please them
  • You have an overwhelming fear that the relationship will not last

Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment Style 

Children with inconsistent parenting styles grow up to develop anxious attachment styles.  However, children whose parents were emotionally distant or neglectful often grow up to develop avoidant-dismissive attachment styles. Parents may, or may not have been blatantly neglectful.  Parents may have been busy, disinterested, or more concerned with external achievements. Regardless of the circumstances, the children were unable to get their needs met as infants. They learn from a very young age to distance themselves emotionally and self-soothe. They then grow into adults who struggle with intimacy, often being described as hyper-independent and emotionally unavailable.  As a result, the relationships are unable to reach any level of depth. The more someone tries to get close, the more you tend to withdraw. These individuals are also more likely to engage in affairs, keep secrets, prefer short-term relationships to long-term ones, and seek out equally independent partners.

Some indications that you have an avoidant-dismissive attachment style are:

  • You are hyper-independent and are uncomfortable relying on others
  • You are uncomfortable with intimacy – you will push away or withdraw
  • You will not be vulnerable around others – you do not let them in
  • You engage in relationship-sabotaging strategies – affairs or secrets
  • You are more comfortable with independent partners
  • You prefer short-term relationships

Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganized) Attachment Style 

If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, you will have characteristics of both the anxious and the avoidant attachment styles. You seek closeness and emotional intimacy but are also afraid of it. Unlike individuals with avoidant attachment styles, you never learned how to self-soothe. You are more prone to having emotion regulation difficulties, relying on external measures (alcohol, drugs, sex, self-harm) to cope with negative emotions. 

Developing a fearful-avoidant attachment style generally occurs as a result of childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse. The child becomes fearful of the caregiver. Despite the feeling of unsafety in the relationship, there is also a reliance on the caregiver to be a source of comfort.  If the caregiver had addiction or mental health issues, the chaotic and unpredictable behaviour could be very frightening and traumatizing. As this is the blueprint for future relationships, you likely repeat this type of relationship in your adult relationships.

Some indications that you may have a fearful-avoidant attachment style are:

  • You may have difficulty regulating your emotions
  • You may have substance abuse problems
  • You may be prone to aggression and violence
  • You experience emotional extremes in relationships
  • You may feel like you love your partner one minute and despise them the next
  • You have difficulty trusting your partner
  • You feel unworthy of being loved 

How to Build a Secure Attachment 

While you may have developed an insecure attachment style, it is possible to earn a more secure attachment with the ones you love. Having an insecure attachment in a relationship can cause feelings of anxiety, distress, fear, and unhappiness, but there is hope. 

Individual counselling with a counsellor well-versed in attachment issues will help you identify your attachment style and correct any thought patterns and behaviours that are preventing you from being in a healthy, secure, fulfilled relationship. 

You do not have to be in a relationship to begin working on developing a more secure attachment. By exploring where the patterns stem from and the purpose they served you as an infant, you will gain self-compassion. In the process of healing your wounded inner child, you will be taught tools to regulate your emotions. Strategies include: self-soothing, communicating your needs, expressing your feelings, setting boundaries, validating yourself, becoming more independent, and trusting yourself and others more. 

At Incentive Counselling, we provide a safe, trusting environment where you can share your feelings, fears, negative thoughts, and self-destructive behaviours, without judgment.

Give us a call at (604) 210-4795 or book through our online booking system to arrange a time that best suits you. 

You can also check out our counsellors on our Meet the Team page of our website! 

Hope to hear from you soon!