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Interpersonal relationships are at the core of every individual’s existence. From whichever angle they are perceived, they play a crucial role in the kind of life an individual is living. Starting from early childhood, the relationship that the child has with its parents, to the formation of their first friends, the roles in life they take on, the field of study and work they choose, the partner they connect with, all of these fundamental aspects of life are influenced by their interpersonal relationships and their perception of themselves within them.
It is natural for a concept so important to human beings to be studied and theorized about from many perspectives immensely, however its essence is captured and deepened in the leading theory introduced in the 20th century by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, known as ATTACHMENT THEORY.
John Bowlby first made his way into the world of psychology as a psychoanalyst. However, over time, that did not satisfy his aspirations for his work, since it mainly focused on the importance of the individuals’ internal processes as an explanation for the emergence of behavior, and did not take into account the role that the environment plays, which he believed to be crucial. The roots of attachment theory stem from his work in a psychiatric hospital with children, to be precise from a specific observation of two children under his care that displayed different yet interesting behaviors. One child was notably distant and emotionless, while the other was constantly in his vicinity, to the extent that others started to refer to the child as Bowlby’s “shadow’’.
From this curiosity, he drew out certain conclusions that later on became the foundations for the attachment theory, such as the idea of mother-child separation issues and their impact on children’s behavior, as well as the idea that the newborn baby doesn’t find comfort only in the mother’s food, but rather desires to have that caregiver-child connection between them.
Bowlby’s attachment theory states that attachment bonds are innate. Each child is born with a psycho-biological system, the so-called attachment behavioral system that motivates them to seek or maintain proximity to an attachment figure. The attachment figure is identified by the child as the one that protects them from threat, and that is usually the primary caregiver. Each child seeks to be with this figure in stressful and threatening situations, and if this need is not met, the child starts feeling threatened. In the case of these kinds of situations persisting, and the failure of meeting the child’s need becomes a habit, the child is likely to develop social, emotional and even cognitive problems further in life, which will have a strong negative impact on their interpersonal relationships, as well as their own self-perception.
What is so thought inducing about this theory is this fundamental claim that Bowlby stated in his theory, which is that: The attachment system, once developed in childhood, remains relatively stable over the course of a person’s life span into adulthood. This claim, very directly, sheds light upon the importance of the caregiver-child bond, even from the earliest instances of life.
From his observations of the two children in the psychiatric hospital and their highly distinctive behaviors, he introduced a spectrum that was characterized on one side by attachment anxiety and on the other, by attachment avoidance. However, this categorization could not account for all possible behaviors observed in children, so here the second founder of Attachment Theory is introduced.
Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation’’
Mary Ainsworth, crucially contributed to the theory by introducing the concept of a secure base. Her idea was that for the child to be able to undertake the task of exploration of the unknown world surrounding them, they first need to establish a secure base, which is usually with their caregivers. This is a crucial aspect in the formation of a healthy individual.
The Strange Situation is a study from which Ainsworth’s conclusions came forth, and its aim was to assess the association between attachment and infants’ behavior and exploration of the surroundings, with their mother, in her absence and in the presence of a stranger.
From this experiment, the formation of the attachment classification system was derived.
The Attachment Classification System
- The first establishment of this system was naturally focused on children’s behavior, and today, it poses as the foundation of the current categorization of attachment styles in both children and adult relationships.
Four styles are distinguished:
Individuals that have developed this type of attachment:
- Easily find trust in others,
- Are in line with their emotions and are able to correctly detect emotions of others
- Rarely experience difficulties in communicating their thoughts and feelings
- Embrace intimacy
- Handle conflict calmly
- Feel comfortable both in relationships and on their own
- Maintain a balanced sense of self and confidence
Individuals that have developed this type of attachment, have an extra-sensitive nervous system, as well as:
- Hyperactivation of emotions – being triggered very fast by minor events
- Proneness to hypervigilance and catastrophic thinking, constantly thinking that something will go wrong
- Positive perception of others, but negative of themselves
- Self-sacrifice, giving their all in relationships, even to an unhealthy extent
- Difficulty in receiving criticism and rejection
This attachment style, as all others, stems from childhood relations, and in this case, more specifically from a parent that did not maintain a consistent presence in their life, a parent that was present and attentive in one moment and unavailable and disinterested in the next one. As a result, for individuals with this attachment:
- The scariest outcome in life, is being abandoned by their loved ones.
Individuals with this attachment style usually aim to disconnect with their emotions as much as possible and never perceive them as valuable or reliable aspects, they are:
- Highly independent
- Avoidant of support and help, especially when they need to seek for it
- Inclined towards having a positive self-view, yet a negative view of others
This, as one of the two primary dimensions on Bowlby’s spectrum, characterizes the individuals as highly avoidant of intimacy in interpersonal relationships. In situations where others try to connect emotionally, their main response is to distance themselves. When a situation requires trust in a person they can rarely live up to the task.
Naturally, the main cause for this are their caregivers who were emotionally distant during their childhood period.
Individuals with this attachment style are often victims of child trauma or abuse. As it is stated in the name, they demonstrate inconsistent behaviors and lack of trust in others, they also struggle with:
- Inconsistency and unpredictability
- Shifting between avoidant and anxious behaviors
- Intimacy and trust
This attachment style stems from caregivers that posed themselves as the source of safety for the child, but also the source of fear simultaneously. This kind of primary care in child leads to a chaotic perception of the world, as well as themselves.
The awareness that individuals have regarding the attachment styles, as well as their own, is a very important step towards building successful interpersonal relationships. If an individual is aware that they are prone to reacting in a certain way, they are able to take a step back and re-evaluate if that is the most beneficial approach to the situation. Simultaneously, if each individual is conscious that a certain person has a deeply rooted attachment style that drives them to react in certain ways, then they are able to act with compassion and understanding, so the relationship can be nurtured.
(PDF) Attachment Theory. (n.d.). ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314694646_Attachment_Theory
Bretherton, I. (1992, September). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. ResearchGate; American Psychological Association. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232490779_The_Origins_of_Attachment_Theory_John_Bowlby_and_Mary_Ainsworth
Mcleod, S. (2023, February 8). John Bowlby | Maternal Deprivation Theory | Simply Psychology. http://Www.simplypsychology.org. https://simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html
The Attachment Project. (n.d.). Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth’s Theory and Stages. Attachment Project. https://www.attachmentproject.com/attachment-theory/