I will never forget witnessing a family friend tell my aunt “Stop bringing your child everywhere with you, she will be too attached to you.” I always thought that was an odd sentiment. I had assumed closeness was the goal. Why was it so wrong that a parent wanted their child to be “close?” What was the problem with her child wanting to be around or feeling bonded with her mother? Is there a such thing as being too attached? If so, is being “too attached” a bad thing? So many questions began to form in my head, and I began to question my own relationships and attachment. I realized that my earliest form of attachment, my relationship with my parents, heavily influenced the way in which I bonded with family members and friends. I thought about my own relationship in term of need for affection, physical touch, closeness in proximity and the way in which I communicate. I wondered what level of “attached” had my own attachment with my parents and the life experiences that I had placed me on the “too attached” spectrum. Did I develop a particular style that was good or bad? It was amazing how witnessing a conversation could spark so much curiosity. Luckily for me, there was research on attachment and attachment styles waiting for me to explore.
John Bowlby developed attachment theory and introduced a new way to observe how we relate to our caregivers to survive. Since his work on attachment, there have been numerous scholars detailing how attachment and attachment styles impact the way in which we relate. So, what are attachment styles and is it actually as important to consider in our adult relationships? Attachment styles give us insight into how we perceive intimacy and our expectations surrounding communication and conflicts.
Many individuals find themselves relating to one of the three primary categories of attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. There is another attachment style, what some call anxious-avoidant or disorganized, that others may refer to at times. While these styles may not be unchangeable, understanding the characteristics of each style can be beneficial in developing better bonds with the ones we love and care for. Individuals with secure attachment styles typically feel more comfortable in their relationships. They are comfortable with both closeness and autonomy, able to regulate their emotions well in relationships, and are more trusting. These individuals may find it easier to use insight to navigate their relationships. Individuals with an anxious style tend to be needy, meaning they desire more attention, can be overly emotional, and unpredictable in their behaviors resulting in more conflict. Those with avoidant attachment styles may seem emotionally unavailable, finding it hard to connect with their loved ones, and deeply valuing their independence. The anxious-avoidant, or disorganized, attachment style can be characterized by a tendency to be erratic and have difficulty expressing their emotionality.
Gaining an understanding of the four types of attachment styles can be helpful in navigating interpersonal relationships. Once we begin to recognize different patterns of behaviors in the individuals that we interact with, navigating our relationships, whether romantic, familial, of platonic, can begin to feel manageable. As a psychotherapist, one of the best tasks that I have completed is understanding my attachment style. Understanding how I navigate relationships helps me to better recognize my own biases. The insight that I have gained has also helped me to relate better to my clients and offer more tailored perspectives.
I can reflect on moments when I felt confused but what seemed to be a rejection to my affection or even understanding my own reactions to physical touch, and I wonder what could have been different had I made sense of the individual’s attachment style early on. What would have been different? How would our relationship have evolved? So, what can we all do as we get to know or loved ones’ attachment styles? Learning to observe specific characteristics in relating to levels of emotionality, sensibility, predictability in communication, and collaboration are among the initial steps in learning to connect on a deep level with loved ones. So yes, I would say that attachment styles are extremely important, and we can utilize them to strengthen our relationships.
Khila Anderson, MA
CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC