The Attachment Theory is, in my opinion, the most difficult psychology chapter to master. Everywhere you look, everywhere you read, you’re getting more and more confused. Nobody can answer; nobody can explain this theory in a simple way. It was developed by several people over the years, has a tremendous research background, yet nobody can make sense of it.
The attachment style is necessary when investigating the personality; it’s something basic and explains a lot of stuff. You hit the wall of attachment for the first time when you try to explain the unexplainable… that is, when people do things but they can’t explain why. That’s because the attachment is subtly linked to love and feelings, something that can’t be easily explained using the reason, logic or… words. So, prepare to be stretched to the maximum in case you’re an analytical person.
In the attachment world, there is only one currency: love. In a mainly objective and rational society, this adds to confusion. We’re not encouraged by our education to open up to our emotions, so begin with the idea that most of us are emotionally impaired (read handicapped). Also, the attachment story begins around the moment of our birth, when our brain is not using words or reason, but can experience emotions. So, we’ll be talking about the first 18 months of our lives, when we craft our first attachment, the Infant Attachment.
Around 2/3 of us are lucky to experience a healthy Infant Attachment, also named Secure Infant Attachment. The caregiver (mother, father, grandparents, everybody acting as a parental figure) responds appropriately, promptly and consistently to the needs of the baby, and the baby thrives. However, 1/3 of us aren’t lucky; our caregivers aren’t OK, so we develop an Insecure Infant Attachment. This is a drama and it leaves a scar in our souls. Few children will have the luck to become secure in their adulthood; most of them will grow into insecure adults. So, what are the insecure infant attachments? And how do they look like?
First, we should look at the Caregiver (Mother). If she’s excessively overprotective, can’t allow risk-taking and the child’s normal steps towards independence are discouraged (a scared anxious mother), she will, unwillingly exaggerate the amount of love given to the child. And, as a result, the child will grow clingy, will find it hard to cope with the absence of the mother and will constantly seek reassurance. It’s a symbiotic relationship. And, due to the lack of risk-taking (experience), there are vague limits between me, the child, and you, the mother. Too much love given generates a thirst for much love. Too much anxiety will generate anxiety as a way of living. This is the Anxious Infant Attachment.
But there aren’t only loving mothers in the world. There are also cold mothers, mothers from Hell. Or so it seems. A hellish mother is not paying attention to her child, provides little or no response when the child is in distress, discourages crying and encourages independence. The child will soon learn that there is no reason to be hysterical and ask for love; love will never come. So the child mirrors the attitude of the mother: show little emotion while playing, exhibits little distress when the caregiver leaves or returns, usually does not maintain eye-contact. To put it simple, the child ignores you. But… there is a “but”… deep inside the child there is the same natural thirst for love, so, at a second look, you’ll see that the child is sometimes rebellious, has low self-esteem and a poor self-image. After all, he’s not loved, so there must be a reason. To his knowledge, there must be a cause, and the cause can be either himself (self-esteem down) or the caregiver (rebel against authority). Anyway, the best coping solution is to avoid the cold caregiver, so he gives birth to the Avoidant Infant Attachment.
If a cold mother is a mother from Hell, the next type is even worse. What about a mother that sometimes acts like a caring person and sometimes acts like a bitch? An unpredictable mother, inconsistent between appropriate and neglectful reactions. Or someone who generally responds only when the child is noisy enough, when the child screams out loud. Can you see this mother as a secure base, as a safe heaven? No. As a child, you’re preoccupied most of your time whether your mother will be available to you or not. You seek contact with your mother only to punish her with anger when she comes to you, so as to show her that you can be just like her. Again, you mirror her. Someone from outside will look at you and your mother in utter surprise: “What kind of child is this one who is distressed on separation from his mother, seeks contact, but then, when the reunion is finally achieved, resists, is reluctant or even angry?” Well, this is the weird Ambivalent Infant Attachment. It’s weird, but has its logic. A painful logic.
The World isn’t perfect. You already know this by now. So, there are frightened mothers or mothers that look frightening to their children. There are intrusive mothers, negative mothers, abusive mothers. There are mothers emotionally withdrawn or mothers that exhibit errors in their affective communication (double-binding, for instance). And then, there are role-confusions in the family (mother acting like a child, for instance). Life can be pretty much of a jungle, a chaotic place. Chaos gives birth to chaos. The chaos in the mother’s life generates chaos in her child’s life. Have you seen children who act in a contradictory way, look disoriented, lack any strategy, are freezing or behave in an absolutely bizarre way? Welcome to the World of Disorganized Infant Attachment!
Now, a child usually has more than one caregiver. That’s why, he can attach in various ways to various caregivers. The notion of attachment has a meaning only when we talk about 2 human beings and one relationship. As a consequence (and as an example), a child can attach in a secure way to his grandpa, in an anxious or ambivalent way to his mother and in an avoidant way to his father. And, to add to the complexity of attachment, they way the child perceives the caregiver might be different from how the caregiver is in reality. For instance, a father who works from morning till evening would seem cold, while in fact he’s doing this from love to his family and he’s simply too tired to play with the child when he comes home at night. Sometimes, attachment is something you perceive and not something that is actually done to you.
Unavoidable, time passes. And the child becomes an adult. And the Infant Attachment is being replaced by the Adult Attachment. By now, the young adult takes one of the 4 life positions described by Transactional Analysis. You will not see this somewhere else, but I found that it is easier to explain the adult attachment using the 4 positions.
Below there is an image I made especially for this article.
You can see that 4 new Adult Attachments emerge from childhood. The Avoidant Infant Attachment gives birth to the Dismissive and Fearful Adult Attachment, and the Anxious-Ambivalent Infant Attachment becomes the Preoccupied Adult Attachment. What is Secure often remains Secure.
In the graph, you can see a lot of words. Some of them are self-descriptions, others are observations. But pay attention to the arrows and the background colors; they are the key.
To the right side of the graph there is increasing anxiety, in red color. To the lower part of the graph there is increasing avoidance, in blue color. When are you anxious? When you have an inner problem. When there is something wrong with you. When you’re not OK. When are you avoidant? Usually, since you have a survival instinct, you avoid people that are not OK. So, everything becomes simple. A Secure guy will be in a position of “I’m OK, you’re OK”. A Preoccupied guy will be in a position of “I’m not OK, you’re OK”. The Dismissive is “I’m OK, you’re not OK”. And finally, for the Fearful, nothing is OK.
Now, if you look at the 4 areas of the diagram, you might recognize someone you know. The Preoccupied is on a constant quest for human contact, he almost screams “I need you! I need your love!” but ends up disappointed by the fact that everyone leaves him. Approval seeking, always tormented about his past, he feels that, despite everybody is OK, there is something in him that is not right. Being used to receive a lot of love from his caregiver, he still needs love so as to feel complete. Without love, he lacks something… hard to tell what… but without a partner he is less than a perfect human. He is constantly on the look-out for “his half”, his “twin soul”, and being forced to live lengthy times alone is torture for him. If you’re a cartoon lover, you’ll probably remember Johnny Bravo… I’ve chosen a song that perfectly describes what’s going on: Chris Isaak – Wicked Game. Note the melodic line and the softness of the song, not only the delicate words.
The Dismissive guy is easy to recognize because he’s very defensive. He’ll smile and tell you that relationships don’t matter and he’s OK living without love. This is fake. He’ll try to convince you that this is reasonable but you’ll just see his explanations as absurd. Well, they aren’t absurd; they’re just defensive, over-rationalizing and over-intellectualizing life and love. Try to understand that he’s doing this because he’s trying to avoid the others, while he’s OK in his eyes. The word “paranoid” will probably come to your mind… “Schizoid” is another… Just listen to Tina Turner singing What’s Love Got To Do With It, paying attention to the roughness of the melody, not only to the defensive words.
The Fearful guy is living in a world that is not OK, just like him. You’ll hear Pink Floyd with their “Leave but don’t leave me”. A lot of books, dramas and telenovelas (soap movies) draw their emotional essence from this attachment style. You might not understand anything and there is probably nothing to understand. You have to feel. Feel that something is not right in you, yet something is not right in the other. Feel that there is always the fear that the trauma or the loss might repeat. Employ all kinds of strategies to prevent something that is lurking inside and is menacing you from the outside. Listen to Robbie Williams – Feel, especially trying to understand the words. Nothing is right. And you can feel that it won’t be right even if it didn’t even happen. The world is a chaos and you are a mess. A disorganized mess.
I left the Secure guy at the end. He will probably read this article with curiosity and nothing more. He will not be able to resonate with the other 3 attachment styles. Love is and has always been easy for him. He never encountered problems, nobody tried to cheat him in love. But life is a challenge, and a person who grew up as a secure child and, later, as a secure adult, might want to experience the other attachment styles. So, he might enter into insecure attachments just to feel how it feels. And vice-versa, the insecure guys, after years of experience, or psychotherapy, might get the chance to finally set up a secure attachment with another human being. It might not be a lover, but a friend or co-worker. It will take time to heal, as everything is emotional, and the cognitive side can’t help. But with each experience, with each relationship, with each new emotion, he gets closer to what could have been a good start in life…