Attachment theory is one of the cruxes of interpersonal psychology. It’s extraordinarily important because it is thought to shape and influence every one of our relationships. Attachment theory is constantly used to explain the motivations and behaviours of people when they come together and feeds into many of the structures and models that are created to explain the human mind. So, if you’re planning on sticking around The Dirt Psychology for a while, we’re going to have to teach you this fundamental aspect of human relationships. We’ll keep it basic for now, but keep in mind that attachment theory goes much, much deeper. Lets go!
First of all, let’s get the important names out of the way. We’ll tip our hats to John Bowlby, the founder of the theory in 1979, Mary Ainsworth (a huge influence on its later development) and Hazan and Shaver, two psychologists who expanded the role of the theory into its influences on our romances later in life. Basically, when children are infants they are given a certain amount of attention from their primary caregiver (usually a mother). This attention will shape their expectations of relationships, love and trust. There are three main attachment styles:
- Secure Attachment: The caregiver will regularly, promptly and attentively respond to their infants’ cries and needs. Securely attached people develop the idea that they are ‘worth’ loving and people can be trusted to look out for them.
- Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment: The caregiver irregularly responds to their infants’ cries and needs. Anxiously attached people develop a fearful view of love, believing that they are only worth loving infrequently. As a result, people are seen as unpredictable and anxiously attached people will seek to ‘cling’ to make sure they get what they need. Anxiously attached people are often described as ‘needy’.
What it can feel like with an anxiously attached friend. Photo courtesy of Michelle Ette (Flickr)
- Avoidant Attachment: The caregiver is harsh, or cold. They will rarely respond adequately to their child’s needs. As a result, these people become fiercely independent and have trouble trusting anyone. Love equals pain and is not worth it in their eyes. They’ll just take care of themselves.
So, when children are in infancy they will develop a view of people that effects every one of their interpersonal relationships. These views are expectations (or schemas) of how other people will view them. It’s easy to see how problems could arise from these thought patterns. Anxiously attached people are often pushed away, seen as too ‘intense’ at times. Romantic relationships can suffer, because partners can feel smothered. This is obviously heartbreaking, because it reinforces the idea that love is unreliable. Avoidant people suffer from a host of emotional problems. Not being able to let others in means they can’t fully embrace the human experience. As social animals, close human contact is exceptionally important and Avoidant people often miss out on this. Also friends may drop these ‘distant’ people, thinking them cold and lovers can often feel rejected and alone in the partnership.
The good news. These perceptions can change. Obviously, psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy can help. But it can be easier than that. Securely attached people can teach Secure attachment to others. Basically, rewriting those more unfortunate styles’ scripts on what characterises a relationship. Relearning ‘normal’. Trust and love can be seen a very positive and reliable things (from certain people). Unfortunately, those who have had a particularly troubled childhood, will often need professional guidance to help them re-adjust.
Look forward to next week’s article on attachment to find out what a ‘safe haven’ is and how it determines how successful you are in your personal growth. In the mean time, maybe you’d be interested in why some people think they are your friend even when they aren’t? Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Georgiiar (Flickr)