• Do you feel secure in relationships, or are you deeply worried about losing the one you love?

  • This article explains attachment theory and explores whether it is possible to change your attachment style

  • Counselling supports you with understanding your attachment style and making desired changes

Attachment theory is a concept that has really captured the public imagination – my patients often want to talk to me about what types of attachment style they have. But what is attachment theory and how does it affect your relationships?

The central idea of attachment theory is that the way in which we form relationships with other people depends on what happened between us and our earliest caregivers. We can either be securely attached or insecurely attached.

 

What is secure attachment?

The theory of attachment was formed by observing what happens when very young children are briefly separated from their mothers/caregivers. When a securely attached infant is separated briefly from their caregiver, this infant is upset, but ultimately confident that their caregiver will return.

When reunited with their caregiver after a brief separation, the securely attached infant will be happy and will not retaliate to punish their caregiver for going away and will not cling anxiously to them in case they go away again.

No infant likes being abandoned, but a securely attached infant does not have an absolute fear that they will be left forever and no one will be there for them.

Securely attached infants trust their caregiver and have a belief that their caregiver will return and take care of them. They have faith in the fact that they are loved. 

It is important to remember that human babies are entirely dependent on their parents/caregivers when they are born and have to form intense emotional bonds with them – we naturally love our caregivers and want to be loved in return. This provides us with a basis sense of safety and security as we grow up and try to understand the world.

 

What is insecure attachment?

So what happens in the case of an insecure attachment? It is believed that something has gone awry in the infant-caregiver relationship. Perhaps the caregiver goes away for long periods of time and the infant has no idea if they are coming back. Or maybe the caregiver is not very responsive to the infant when they are there. The caregiver might be inconsistent – they might be loving and caring some of the time, but distant and dismissive at other times.

Depending on what has happened, after being briefly separated from their caregiver, an insecurely attached infant might cling to their caregiver so they do not leave them again (anxious attachment) or they might act nonchalantly toward their caregiver, as if to say to them that the brief separation did not bother them (avoidant attachment).

At the end of the day, all infants are very upset when their caregivers leave and they do not know when they are coming back.

In an insecure attachment, the basic belief that your caregivers can be relied on, that you are loved and that you can trust your loved ones to take care of you has been broken. 

 

Attachment styles and relationships

People often come to therapy when relationships have broken down – it’s very distressing to lose someone we love, and we want understand what has happened. Sometimes relationships can break down because of attachment styles.

Our attachment styles formed with our caregivers can continue into adulthood and people can observe some behaviours in themselves that are suggestive of insecure attachments. For example, if you feel really hurt when your partner does not respond to your messages, it might be because it feels as though they don’t care about you. You might wonder what they are doing or who they are with, because it’s hard to trust that anyone can really love you. These thoughts and feelings would all be consistent with an anxious attachment style, as it is difficult to have faith that someone loves you and cares for you, and that causes a lot of anxiety. 

For an avoidant attachment style, very close relationships might feel hard to develop. There might be a superficiality to relationships – you might find something that annoys you about a relationship just as it’s about to become deep, so you end the relationship. This would be because it’s hard to become close to people in case they let you down – for an avoidant attachment infant, they felt they could not rely on their caregivers for help and love, so the safest thing for them to do was to never let people get too close to them in case they hurt them. Maybe their caregivers were inconsistent, or maybe too smothering – ultimately, they needed to be kept at a distance to feel safe.

 

Can we change attachment styles?

In a word, yes, is it possible to change attachment styles, but it can take a lot of work to move from an insecure to secure attachment style. Therapy can really help you realise what your attachment style, and with a good amount of effort we can help to establish the sense of security, trust and faith that is needed to form secure attachments in relationships.