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Overcoming insecure attachment patterns

Attachment theory is based on research done in the 1960s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth which has revolutionised the way we think about child development.

More recent research has shown that our way of relating to significant others in adulthood is most likely the result of the emotional bonds (or attachment patterns) that were laid down and developed in childhood. In essence this means that the way that we were able to bond with our parents or care givers directly influences the way we are able to relate to others as adults.

Our attachment patterns are often laid down and developed in childhood based on the relationships we had with our care givers

Our attachment patterns are often laid down and developed in childhood based on the relationships we had with our care givers

Attachment styles

There were three main ‘attachment styles’ described by Bowlby and Ainsworth - ‘secure’, ‘insecure - anxious’ and ‘insecure – avoidant’.

Secure attachment

Those who are said to be ‘securely attached’, were able and allowed as children to use their parents/caregivers as a ‘safe base’ that they could return to if feeling distressed. They feel confident that their parent will be available to them when needed, and will not be too overbearing or too distant. Those children who experienced a ‘safe and secure base’ as children are more likely to grow up having confident and healthy adult relationships.

Insecure attachment

Those with one of the two insecure attachment styles are likely to have experienced a disruption of some kind in their bond with their parents/caregiver. This may have been though an enforced separation between parent and child, or through the parent being otherwise ‘absent’ (drug/alcohol abuse, preoccupied with themselves, depression or other mental health issues), or through neglect or abuse by the parent, for example.

The child learns that they cannot rely on the parent for comfort when they are in need, and instead of feeling safe and secure begins to feel vulnerable and unsafe and to develop behaviours that help the child to adapt to an environment that feels unsafe and emotionally frightening.

Anxious and avoidant insecure attachment

Anxious insecure attachment

Two insecure attachment styles may then develop – one which we call ‘anxious’ and one which we call ‘avoidant’. Those who grow up with an anxious attachment style are likely to be adults who find it extremely difficult to trust others and who may feel the need to be constantly reassured by their partner in any relationship. Often they can struggle to maintain relationships because their need for reassurance and fear that they may be abandoned puts a great strain on their adult relationships.

Avoidant insecure attachment

Those who grow up with an avoidant attachment style have learnt that their feelings will not be attended to. They often adapt to this harsh environment by trying not to have or show feelings themselves. To the adult who has an avoidant attachment style it can feel safer to not feel at all, than to have feelings that they fear will be ignored or dismissed by others. Even if they do have relationships they will tend to avoid intimacy or anything that requires them to experience or explore painful feelings.

Steps to security

A number of studies have concluded that somewhere between 50% and 60% of us have a secure attachment style. So where does that leave the everyone else?

Which attachment style are you?

Well, the good news is that feelings of safety and security can be ‘earned’. The first step is to understand what attachment style most closely resembles your current behaviour. The classifications are not intended to be rigid, but to act as a guide to helping us understand how our early experiences of being parented may be affecting how we relate to other people as adults. When you have an idea of your particular attachment style you can begin to work out your attachment needs.

For example, if you tend to be avoidant in relationships you may feel you need lots of independence within your relationships. Understanding our needs is essential to building a secure relationship with another person. In a relationship it can help if you can work with your partner and together understand each other’s attachment needs and work together to help each other.

Counselling and therapy can support your attachment needs

Counselling and therapy is also a place where you can work on understanding your attachment style and needs. Your therapist can effectively act as an adult ‘secure base’ and in growing to trust the bond within the therapeutic relationship it is possible to develop the ‘earned’ security that will allow you to develop more steady and healthy relationships in your life, and to make any changes that you want to make.

Counselling can support those with insecure attachment patterns by providing a therapist who acts as a 'secure base' and enables the building of healthy relationships

Counselling can support those with insecure attachment patterns by providing a therapist who acts as a 'secure base' and enables the building of healthy relationships

Attachment theory and modernising institutions

Thanks to Bowlby and Ainsworth institutions such as hospitals and schools are now much more aware of the detrimental impact on children of being separated from their parents. It was as a result of attachment theory research that hospitals introduced visiting hours for parents (where previously parents were banned from seeing their children in hospital), and in many cases beds for parents to stay with their children when they are sick. A recognition of the importance of early attachments can also be seen in modern day nurseries who have ‘settling in’ days where the parents stay with their child until they’re ready to be left, and there have been widespread implications in family and social work where it is considered beneficial for children, even when adopted, to maintain where possible some connection with their biological family.

The concept of ‘attachment’ is now a pretty vital tool for helping us to understand human relationships, whether this is about how we parent our children, how we manage our own experiences of childhood, or how we seek to develop our relationships with others as adults.