Attachment Types and How We Relate

Attachment research looks at how pairs of people bond emotionally. Initial research was largely with mothers and one-year old infants.

Eventually this extended to study adult couples. We will look at both, and how attachment patterns in childhood influence how we pair-bond as adult partners.

The focus is on how one handles distress. Can you maintain a happy, thriving relationship and deal well with upsets? Or does distress mount and erode shared happiness? And how does that relate to what you experienced before you even had words?

First we explore the 4 attachment types in infants and how these are produced by the child’s environment as created by the caregivers. Specifically, we see how the way parents respond to an infant’s distress determines if the child is secure or insecure, and how the child acts when in distress.

In a typical infant attachment study, mother and child are in a room together. The kid is often playing with toys. At some point mom leaves for 3 minutes, then comes back. In one interesting study, mothers were instructed to hold their child when they return. Another study measured the level of the stress hormone cortisol, which indicates how much internal distress the child is suffering.

Attachment Types in Childhood

Secure Attachment. With securely attached children, caregivers regularly tune into the child’s emotional needs, and they respond on a consistent-enough basis to the child’s signals of distress, like simple crying, with co-regulatory supportive touch, holding, rocking, and a soothing voice tone.

Thus, the child knows that simple distress signals will be responded to by the caregivers and feels secure in their care. It is relatively easy to soothe these secure children and they will tend to settle down quickly.

In the studies, this type cries when mom leaves but usually calms down during the 3 minutes. When mom returns, the child cries and runs to her with arms open to be held. Mom does this and the child calms down in less than a minute. In the study that measured cortisol, these children had the lowest level.

Insecure Avoidant Attachment. Here, caregivers pay little attention to the child’s emotional states or needs. When these children signal distress, they often get ignored and co-regulatory responses like supportive touch and holding are largely absent.

These kids must find their own way to self-soothe. Thus, they then cry infrequently and become self-entertaining, self-sufficient and “low maintenance”. While externally looking to be okay, in fact the child internally is insecure and self-suppressive.

In the studies, this type may not cry at all when mom is gone, but self-entertains by playing with toys. When mom returns, the child may not even notice. In the study where mom was instructed to hold, the child looked away and was not calmed by this. In the study that measured cortisol, these children had the highest level.

Insecure Preoccupied Attachment. Caregivers sometimes respond to a child’s distress signals with holding and supportive touch. But there is major inconsistency in getting such co-regulatory responses or not.

Either due to the instability or unavailability of the caregiver, often the child is left alone in their distress or gets role-reversed, where the child must deal with a dysregulated state of the adult. Thus, the child engages in angry protest, is harder to soothe, becoming clingy and “high-maintenance”.

In the studies, this type cries the loudest when mom leaves and does not calm down in the 3 minutes. When mom returns, the child gets held but does not calm down easily, screaming louder or even angrily striking mom. In the study that measured cortisol, these children had the second highest level.

Some researchers call this last attachment type anxious-ambivalent, or angry-resistant. All three of the above are “organized attachment” styles that are stable and predictable. The next type is highly dysregulated and manifests in complex or unpredictable ways.

Disorganized Attachment. The child experiences danger in the caregiving environment. This can be due to a caregiver being a “scare-giver”, through emotional or physical abuse, due to their own dysregulated states.

This puts the child in an unresolvable dilemma of needing the caregiver for survival while at the same time fearing that caregiver. That results in a highly dysregulated push-pull state within the child, needing the caregiver for survival and needing to escape the caregiver for survival.

In the studies, this type acts in visibly strange ways that can be quite uncomfortable to witness. For instance, when mom returns, the child might start rocking in place, running in circles, or running part way toward mom then suddenly running away.

Next, let’s look at the tendencies of these 4 attachment types as partners in adult relationships.

Attachment Types in Adulthood

Secure Attachment. Secure children learn that all feelings matter, that upsets can be discussed in ways that result in good feelings, that distress can be soothed, and ruptures can be repaired. They learned how to best put their feelings into words, how to respond to the another’s feelings in validating and reparative ways, and to have positive expectations for this to happen in their relationships.

Therefore, as adults they will tend to:

  • Value emotional closeness
  • Easily express vulnerable feelings
  • Value mutuality and interdependence
  • Know ruptures will be repaired and will do so instinctively
  • Will face distress and work with it to resolve upsets quickly
  • Have good balance between work life and the relationship
  • Easily flow between being alone and being together
  • Use interactive or co-regulation (calming through mutual supportive touch, hugging, calming voice, affirmations and reassurances)

Insecure Avoidant Attachment. Avoidant children learn that feelings do not matter and upsets cannot be worked with. They learned to suppress their feelings and to self-soothe by being alone and just focusing on objects or activities to calm themselves down. Essentially, they did not learn that feelings can be dealt with, so they tend to get overwhelmed by others’ feelings as well as their own.

Therefore, as adults they will tend to:

  • Suppress or get overwhelmed by feelings (self and partner’s)
  • Value self-sufficiency and independence
  • Focus on work, activities, performance (often was the childhood home focus too)
  • Be insecure about inadequacy, failure, being good enough
  • Avoid upsets and withdraw, distance or self-defend
  • Be proximity-avoidant, addicted to alone time
  • Have difficulty reconnecting after being alone
  • Overuse auto-regulation (self-calming through activities, performance, not through co-regulation and relational co-calming)

Insecure Preoccupied Attachment. Preoccupied children learned that feelings do matter, but significant others are not consistent in responding to them, and ultimately others won’t be able to handle their feelings. Although they know how it feels when they are soothed, they anticipate times when they are abandoned and easily get angry or negative when they sense unreliability in response to them.

Therefore, as adults they will tend to:

  • Be very verbal and even dramatically expressive
  • Highly value connection and closeness
  • Be proximity-seeking, clingy, and engage in angry protest
  • Pursue, prod, provoke and act out emotionally if distressed
  • Be threatening, negativistic, allergic to hope
  • Be insecure about abandonment or being alone
  • Have difficulty separating after being together
  • Overuse external regulation (venting or talking dramatically at length about troubles or upsets in an attempt to be heard and understood)

Disorganized Attachment. Disorganized children learned that a significant other you need for survival can simultaneously feel like a threat to survival. That a caregiver is also a scare-giver, and can flip out and be dangerous. As this is not an organized form of attachment, this type as an adult in relationship may at times display odd, unpredictable or inconsistent behaviors and feelings in the face of distressing situations or during discussions of past upsets. There may be sudden swings in emotional state, or a push-pull between pursuing the partner, but withdrawing or rejecting if the partner comes forward. Therefore, there are not specific, predictable tendencies around distress. Rather, reactions will be complex and strange. Dissociated states, shutdowns or highly activated states often are involved.