The Basics of Attachment Theory & How It Affects Your Life

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Our experiences as a little kid have a huge impact on our health and nervous system as grown people.

This includes our relationship with our primary caregivers and how we responded to them when we were very little, as well as other formative early life experiences.

Attachment is the way in which little kids respond to and learn to respond to their primary caregivers in situations of distress.

If we are aware of our attachment style, can understand how it developed, and can understand how to work with it and make positive changes (if we aren’t securely attached) this can help us cultivate quality relationships in our lives.

Basics of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is based on the fact that as little kids we are helpless and we need our caregivers to take care of us.

This means as little kids we attach to an adult who can provide safety, comfort, and basic survival needs as we learn to navigate the world.

How we respond to our caregivers in situations of distress and establish this relationship molds our nervous system in ways that will impact how we relate to other people throughout our lives. 

The basics of attachment theory were founded on studies where scientists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby observed how infants responded and related to their caregivers when they were left alone with another person and then picked up later on. 

Below is the design of the experiment they ran.

The Stranger Experiment

  1. Baby and parent introduced into the room
  2. The mother places the baby facing the toys and then reads a magazine
    • The experimenter is testing the baby’s ability to explore on their own using the parent as a safe base
  3. The stranger enters the room and waits 1 minute before interacting
  4. The parent leaves the room and the stranger stops playing with the baby so they can notice the absence
    • This starts separation anxiety and the experimenters monitor how the child responds
  5. The mother comes back in and soothes the baby while the stranger leaves the room
    • Secure baby may smile at the return and may need a hug before going back to exploring, the avoidant may not have expressed any loss to start with, and the anxious may be angry
  6. Baby is left alone
    • How will the baby cope with the surge of stress from the separation anxiety of being left alone? 
  7. The stranger comes back into the room and attempts to engage with the baby
    • Without the mother can the baby be settled by the stranger?
  8. The mother comes back and picks the baby up

Attachment Styles

1. Secure Attachment 

Secure attachment is the ideal and healthiest type of attachment.

This type of attachment allows someone to have rich intimate relationships where the person can emotionally trust others to help them but also have a sense of independence and self-worth without other people.

This is able to happen because they have established a secure bond within themselves which allows them to venture out on their own.

People who are securely attached have positive beliefs of themself and positive beliefs of others. 

They are comfortable with intimacy and autonomy and can maintain healthy boundaries because of this.

People with secure attachment usually had parents who were attentive, nurturing, sensitive, and loving.

These parents were responsive to the child’s needs and the child felt that they could rely on their parents with both their emotional and physical needs as well as being comfortable expressing their deepest feelings around them for support and nurturing. 

The best predictor of happiness in relationships is a secure attachment style.

2. Anxious Attachment, Insecure 

Due to inconsistent parenting people who are anxiously attached develop a fear of abandonment causing them to excessively seek reassurance and validation in relationships.

People who have anxious attachments have a negative view of themself and a positive view of others.

They desire intimacy and closeness but are very afraid of being alone with themselves.

These people tend to always test their partner’s commitment and work to reassure themselves that everything is good in the relationship. They also have a hard time maintaining healthy boundaries because they are not as secure with themselves.

People with anxious attachment usually had parents who were inconsistent and unavailable. At other times they could be neglectful and dismissive.

3. Avoidant Attachment, Insecure

People with the avoidant attachment style are normally more independent and self-reliant which is positive but they have big problems with intimacy in relationships. 

They have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of others. 

They often feel that the emotional intensity and intimacy in relationships are too much or that they have a hard time expressing themselves emotionally or developing true intimate connections with others because of the discomfort of emotional vulnerability. 

These people tend to cope with their own emotional challenges without the help of others and they aren’t able to trust other people as much. Sadly, they tend not to have as many close friends just acquaintances or coworkers. 

People with avoidant attachment styles had parents who were emotionally unavailable.

They didn’t provide comfort or support on the emotional level and were dismissive of emotional needs. The child usually felt ashamed to express themselves emotionally and thus learned to suppress their true feelings and develop less trust and connection around other people.

4. Fearful Avoidant Attachment or Disorganized, Insecure

These people are erratic as they have issues with fear of abandonment but they also really want quality social connection so they can swing back and forth between avoidant and anxious types of attachment.

In a sense, it’s a hybrid between anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

A lot of the time the parents demonstrated very erratic behavior and comforting styles as well which left the kid confused and floating around in the wind because there was no clear source of security to go to teaching the kid to just go with whatever is going on in an insecure way.

How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Life and Relationships 

Your attachment style plays a big role in the way you relate to and attach to other people in your adult life.

For example:

  • If you tend to be avoidant you will most likely lean towards being more self-reliant but have a harder time with emotional intimacy and quality relationships. This means you might have a harder time with friends and romantic partners but be ok with your career and personal motivations.
  • If you tend to be more anxious you will most likely be doing a lot of seeking for new relationships but get anxious and concerned when other people have different opinions or break up a relationship because of fear of abandonment. Due to this insecurity, this person may have a lot of shallow relationships.
  • If you tend to be fearfully avoidant then you might have a mix of both avoidant and anxious styles of relating to others and generally be seen as erratic in the way you act towards others.
  • If you are more secure you will most likely have deeper connections and stronger boundaries enabling a rich and fulfilling social and romantic life because you can relate to others on an emotionally intimate level but also function well on your own. There will be a sense of deep quality and security in the relationships you have and you will be able to give this to others.

How To Become More Securely Attached

So how do you become more securely attached or shift your patterns over time to be more secure in your relationships instead of insecure?

The short answer is awareness, corrective emotional experiences, and time to allow your brain and body to change its default response.

Below are the basic steps it takes:

  1. Develop self-awareness of your patterns so that you can clearly see how your attachment is healthy and unhealthy
  2. Once your awareness increases you can gain a coherent narrative of your development and come to terms with the good and bad of your early years
  3. Put yourself in a position to have some reparative experiences with others who are more secure within themselves so you can relearn on a deep level in relationship
  4. Allow your brain and body time and new corrective experiences to rewire in a healthier way so it can cement these patterns over time

Once someone is more secure they will develop the following abilities:

  • The vulnerability to enter into the depths of emotional intimacy with other people
  • The ability to be totally yourself in relationships
  • Becoming someone others can securely attach to and not replicate the incorrect patterns you learned as a little kid

Also, keep in mind that someone will need to go through the following stages of growth when changing any set pattern in themselves.

  1. Unconscious incompetence– you are unaware of your problems
  2. Conscious incompetence– you are aware of your problems but don’t know how to change them (often a very painful time period)
  3. Conscious competence– you are aware of your problems and are making changes so they start to improve and shift (start to experience some relief)
  4. Unconscious competence– your default mode is to act in a healthy manner without consciously working on them anymore (this is freedom)

The process of change always starts with becoming aware of your defensive resistant patterns and experiencing them in the body in full awareness so that you can recognize and understand them when they occur and how they came to be in your life. 

It’s important to bring compassion to the little kid who was longing for this support but couldn’t find it.

Next, it’s critical to have new reparative experiences with people who have some security themselves. The more you have been let down by other people or experienced stress and trauma in situations the more important it becomes to find these new relationship experiences. 

Make a note to take in the experience when you are included in it, feel/remember the emotion, and express gratitude because it’s easy to brush it aside if you have been programmed negatively.

Lastly, the main catalyst in allowing the process to play out is getting on your own side.

This means you need to develop healthy support and compassion for your inner child who didn’t receive this security as a kid.

Be the father to yourself that encourages, protects, provides love and nurturing, and motivates you to take healthy action.

The one who can be with you in your pain who won’t abandon you and has your back no matter what.


Shifting deep-seated attachment issues doesn’t happen overnight and often takes the help of other people and new experiences to have an impact on the molding.

That being said, it is entirely possible to become more securely attached over time and I wish you and everyone else who is interested in becoming more emotionally healthy the courage and compassion to make positive change.

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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.