Let’s Talk About Attachment Theory: The Basics

Early attachment with parents

Have you ever wondered why you repeatedly overanalyze interactions with other people? Or why you and your spouse have repeatedly argued over your tendency to downplay relationship milestones? Or why you constantly send text messages to your best friend to make sure they aren’t mad at you? 

All of these behaviors can be traced back to attachment. 

Today’s blog is the first in a series of blogs where we will explore attachment theory. Attachment theory offers valuable insight about ourselves and how we form relationships. Let’s dive in to the origins of attachment theory and its significance to counseling. 

Attachment Theory 

Famously known as the first attachment theorist, British psychologist John Bowlby wanted to understand how the earliest emotional bonds between a child and caregiver impacted a child’s development and mental functioning throughout life. This article from VeryWell Mind summarizes it this way: “The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant learns that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.” Bowlby believed that these early attachment bonds form the blueprint for all future relationships. 

Later, in the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed further research on Bowlby’s original work with attachment theory. In her famous study, Ainsworth observed the behavioral responses of children ages 12 to 18 months who were briefly left alone and then reunited with their primary caregivers. Her research yielded three major attachment styles—secure attachment, anxious (ambivalent) attachment, and avoidant attachment. Later, a fourth attachment style called disorganized attachment was added based on the findings of Mary Main and Judith Solomon. 

Check back in the next few weeks as we will do a more detailed exploration of each attachment style in upcoming blogs! We will unpack characteristics of each attachment style, its impact on relationships, and practical strategies for working toward secure attachment. 

Attachment Styles as an Interpretive Lens

I recently listened to an incredible episode of the Mel Robbins Podcast. In this episode, Robbins converses with Dr. Marisa Franco about attachment theory and its significance in understanding how we form relationships. 

In her discussion, Dr. Franco points out that we approach all of our relationships with a set of assumptions. These assumptions are often a reflection of our attachment style. In other words, our attachment style is the interpretive lens through which we view objective interactions with other people. Sometimes our interpretive lens is flawed and we perceive dynamics in the relationship that aren’t actually based on reality. 

Example From My Life

Here is a real life application of this from my own life. I tend to have characteristics of anxious attachment. People with anxious attachment commonly struggle with trusting the stability of relationships. Even positive and stable relationships are subject to sudden change in the eyes of someone with anxious attachment. As I have learned more about anxious attachment, I have become increasingly aware of my tendency to interpret interactions through this lens. 

For instance, when someone who might normally greet me with a hug only greets me with a wave from across the room, my lens of anxious attachment interprets that as a sign of emotional distance in the relationship. I assume that distance, even temporary, indicates a shift in the relationship. This can trigger an inner spiral of unhelpful questions: Did I do something wrong? Did I do something to offend them? Am I too much for them? I automatically interpret this interaction from an assumption that a change in our typical engagement with one another means a change in the relationship overall. 

Becoming Self-Aware of Attachment Triggers 

Herein lies the importance of understanding your attachment style and the kinds of interactions that might trigger an emotional reaction. Self-awareness of your own attachment triggers is key in moving toward secure attachment. Since I have grown in self-awareness of my own attachment patterns and assumptions, I am more aware of when interactions trigger an emotional response inside me. 

In the example above, I know that I am perceiving emotional withdrawal and distance that is likely not there at all. This self-awareness helps me to connect with my own internal experience so that I can offer care and kindness to myself in the moments after. Rather than spiraling into a pit of unhelpful questions, I can say to myself, That wasn’t how they normally greet me, so I am feeling confused and hurt. It’s okay that I’m feeling this way. But, I am making assumptions without having all the facts. Just because they didn’t give me a hug doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.

Dr. Franco calls this an internalized secure attachment. It is being able to be on your own side and to give yourself kindness in response to an intense internal feeling. It is remembering that you can talk to yourself differently than your assumptions would have you believe. 

When we give detailed attention to each attachment style in upcoming blogs, we will go into more depth of potential triggers for each of the insecure attachment styles. 

Attachment Theory & Human Connection 

We are complex creatures. Because this is true, establishing, developing, and maintaining healthy human connections can be difficult and complex work. Though, I would consider it necessary and worthwhile work. We are designed for connection with each other. This is why I find so much value in the contributions of attachment theory. At the core of attachment is human connection. 

I have found myself empowered by the understanding and insight I have gained from applying principles of attachment theory in my life. As I grow in understanding and self-compassion toward my own internal experience, that growth is reflected outward in my relationships with others. As we continue to explore attachment theory, I hope you also experience the empowerment that comes from being connected to yourself and others. 

Written by Ginger Hanny 

*Ginger Hanny, MSW, LSW is a therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling. Ginger enjoys doing individual counseling with adults. She also provides premarital counseling and teen and adolescent counseling.  Journey to Joy Counseling serves the Indianapolis area, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.