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Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory:  Secure and Insecure Attachment

In my opinion, psychology spent a very long time doing a pretty lousy job of understanding love, or understanding the deep bonds that people form with each other. Freud did a terrible job at explaining or understanding love. The behaviorists and the cognitive behaviorists figured out many useful things, but did an equally terrible job of understanding love. The good news is that for the last few decades there has been a really exciting line of research and study that has figured out quite a bit about love and about attachment, about the close bonds that we form with each other.

This research and study goes by the general name of “attachment theory.” Researchers tend to avoid the word “love,” because it can be hard to describe exactly what it means, even though we all think we know. This article will be about the field of attachment theory, and about some of the important things that attachment theorists have figured out about the bonds that we form with each other, and about the human need for closeness. It is a complicated subject, but it is well worth it. It is the kind of information that can help you understand yourself in a different way. Before I dive in to the long explanation, let me tell you about some of the highlights.

Attachment theorists have done lots of lots of careful research showing that our earliest attachment relationships set the stage for how we go about seeking or avoiding closeness for the rest of our lives. If our first attachment experiences don’t go well, it can set us up to be either too clingy, because we are afraid of being abandoned, or too distant, if we develop the defense of trying to be self sufficient so that other people won’t let us down.


Attachment Theory started off by focusing not on romantic love, but on the love and the attachment between a mother and a young child. It involved a long collaboration between Mary Ainsworth, who led most of the research, and John Bowlby, who developed most of the theory of how attachment works. The researchers started by spending lots of time observing mothers with their babies and toddlers. They were trying to figure out what was going in on the relationships emotionally, and what it meant to have a good or a not so good relationship with your parents.

Skipping a lot of details, the heart of the matter seems to revolve around whether a child winds up feeling certain that their mother will be there and care for them when they need it. Will she notice what I need? Will she respond kindly to my needs? Will she simply be around? The researchers were trying to figure out from the behavior of the toddlers whether they felt calm and safe in their relationships to their mothers. If they did, they were seen as having a “securely attachment.”  If the toddlers didn't seem to feel safe and secure in their relationship withh their mothers, they were seen as having an "insecure attachment."  

Mary Ainsworth and the Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth set out to understand the bond that forms between infants and their mothers. (It doesn’t have to be a mother, but mothers were typically the first and deepest attachment relationship for an infant.) She started by having her researchers hang out in the homes of mothers with new babies. The researchers would spend a couple of hours each week at the home, watching how the mothers and babies interacted with each other, the eye contact and facial expressions and maternal responses to babies expressions.

They then brought the mothers and babies into the lab, and tried and experiment that looked at how a baby responds when its mother goes away for a couple of minutes and comes back. The “strange situation” was a room with toys and places to sit, and a stranger.

Secure Attachment: “Oh, it’s nice you are back. I knew you’d come back. We’re good.”

A little more than half of all the toddlers were judged to have a “secure attachment.” Babies with a secure attachment were sometimes upset when their mother was gone, but when she came back they were very quickly comforted, and quickly went back to playing. The kind of mothering that produced a secure attachment involved the mother being tuned in to the child, and taking her cues from what the child seemed to need in the moment. If the child wanted closeness and comfort, the mother was happy to provide it, and if a moment later the child was ready to go and explore and play, the mother allowed that as well. 

One difficult thing about psychological research is that you are trying to figure out from someone's behavior what is going on inside them.  This is particularly challenging when you are dealing with a toddler, and dealing with something as complex as love and attachment.  It took lots of research and observation to figure these things out, but the heart of the matter is this crucial question:  Is it safe to love someone?  The main finding of attachment research boils down to this:  About half of us feel safe loving someone, and the other half don't feel all that safe.  These patterns typically last all of our lives.  The "secure attachment" group feels safe in their attachments.  The various "insecure attachment" groups all tend to feel more or less unsafe in their love relationships, and they react to that feeling in a certain set of ways.

Avoidant Attachment: “Go ahead and leave. See if I care. I’m fine without you.”

There are three main categories of insecure attachment, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized. These are worth exploring in some detail, because they are the primary categories of what can go wrong, and what it looks like.

The toddlers in the category called “avoidant attachment” initially seemed not to be all that interested in attachment or closeness with their mothers. They were far more interested in exploration and play. They didn’t seem bothered by their mother leaving, and didn’t seem to care when their mothers came back. Unlike the both the secure and the ambivalent babies, the avoidant babies typically didn’t go up to their mothers for connection or comfort when she returned after being gone.


On the surface these babies seem to be fine, and one could come to the conclusion that they were just rather self sufficient and independent. But there was evidence both from the observations in the home and from physiological measures in the lab that there was something else going on. In the home, it was often observed that the mothers of avoidant babies would not respond to their baby’s bids for connection, or would ignore it when their babies looked sad.

That leads to the question, why would a parent not respond to her baby’s cues? It appears that some parents don’t respond to their baby’s distress because they believe that will help their children grow up to be more independent. That sort of works, but at a cost. Other times parents don’t respond because there are too many demands on the family system.

These babies focused on the toys, and avoided their mothers when they came back.

The parents who produce this pattern are apparently those parents who have learned not to be needy themselves, not to ask for much. They don’t know what to do with someone needy and distressed, and they don’t have the belief that distress is relieved by proximity, by the offer of comfort.

These babies had higher cortisol levels than secure kids, meaning that they were stressed by mom going away, but distracted themselves with exploration and tried not to show their distress.

Ambivalent Attachment: “Thank God you are back. I was afraid you weren’t coming back. I’m still afraid you are going to leave me.”

The babies who were classified as having an “ambivalent attachment” clearly had strong feelings about their mothers going away. Some seemed upset, and weren’t easily comforted when she returned. Some seemed angry and even threw tantrums. Some were clingy, and obviously afraid that she might leave again. They didn’t return to play, and were very focused on the mother’s whereabouts, but it was as if there were still upset and afraid of being abandoned even when their mother was right there.

In observations in the home. the mothers of ambivalent babies were quite inconsistent, sometimes responsive and sometimes not, setting up the expectation that the child never knew what to expect. Also, the mothers of ambivalent infants often seemed anxious themselves, and seemed to discourage exploration and encourage the babies to stay close.

Disorganized Attachment: “I’m too upset to even think straight."

 There was a third, smaller insecure attachment group that seemed particularly upset and overwhelmed. Think about it this way: The Ambivalent Attachment group had a consistent and coherent strategy of clinging to their loved one, seeking connection and reassurance. The Avoidant Attachment group developed an organized strategy of being self-sufficient and trying not to need anyone. The Disorganized Attachment group was just so upset and overwhelmed that they didn’t have any organized strategy for dealing with their situation.

Your Attachment Category Persists Throughout Your Life

The reason that this research on toddlers is so important is that much research has found that the attachment categories and the attachment defenses that develop when we are children typically stay with us throughout our lives. Mary Main was the researcher who did most of the early work on how the attachment patterns that form when we are children persist and play out in adulthood.  People who show an avoidant attachment or an ambivalent attachment when they are 2 years old typically show an adult variation of the same pattern when they are 22 years old or 42 years old. And this is important, because these patterns in adulthood can actually mess up the person’s adult relationships. Here is how: The two basic self defeating patterns are the person who is too needy, and the person who is trying to hard not to be needy.

Ambivalent Attachment Turns Into Too Much Neediness

We all have needs for closeness, for human contact, and for comfort when we are feeling bad. What seems to go wrong for people with an ambivalent attachment is that closeness and comfort still don’t make them feel safe and secure. With the toddlers, these toddlers still seemed anxious even when their mother had come back, even when she was sitting right there. It seemed as if their caretakers had been inconsistent enough in the past that they were never sure that mom would be there, or would be comforting, when they needed it.

And what reactions are a parallel to this as an adult?  I’m always afraid that you are going to leave. I’m always afraid that you might find someone better.  I don’t feel safe in the relationship even when you are right there.  I always want more reassurance, but even when you reassure me it doesn't seem to stick.  


This can be hard on a partner. If I am trying to comfort my partner, trying to tell them that I love them, that I plan to stay with them, and that things are OK, how do I start to feel if very little of my reassurance seems to work? I tell them I’m committed, and they are still afraid I will leave. I tell them I am faithful, and they still seem jealous of anyone who they are afraid will catch my eye. I can wind up feeling as if I am offering all the reassurance I know how, and they are still doubting me and acting like I probably can’t be counted on, can’t be trusted. That typically feels bad to a partner, who feels like they are trustworthy, but not trusted.

Avoidant Attachment Turns Into Trying Not To Have Needs 

It is quite amazing the way that one's early attachment experiences seem to determine how a person approaches love and closeness for the rest of their lives.  With the Avoidant Attachment pattern, it all seems to crystalize into the game plan that if I don't need you then you can't let me down.  It is the Paul Simon plan, as in, "I am a rock.  I am an island." 

Most people with an Avoidant Attachment pattern don't avoid relationships entirely.  Typically they do have relationships, but they have relationships while trying not to be needy.  One version of this is the person who is very resourceful and self-sufficient.  They are good at solving their problems themselves, and usually don't ask for much.  Often they are quick to help other people, and even gravitate toward roles that allow them to be helpful.  Nurses and police officers often fit this pattern.  "I don't need anything from you; I'm here to help you."   My basic game plan is, I don't want to be needy; I want to be needed.

This can backfire in some classic ways.  The original definition of the term "codependence" was someone who chose their way into relationships where they would be needed, often because they chose someone with problems.  If you are alcoholic, or otherwise not functioning well, you will need me, and then you won't leave. 

Another way that the pattern can backfire is that people with an avoidant attachment pattern generally avoid asking for things.  I'm afraid that my needs are unwelcome, that you will like me better if I am not needy.  So I don't ask for much, and I even try hard to meet your needs and meet everyone else's too.  Typically, sooner or later, I become aware of feeling that goes something like, "I take care of everyone.  Why won't someone take care of me for a change?"  I will have a partly-unconscious conflict around this.  I am proud of being self-reliant.  I am proud of not being needy.  But I also have an awareness that I usually try to ignore that underneath it all my needs aren't getting met very well.  I sometimes resent other people for not noticing my needs and doing a better job of taking care of me.  But if I'm honest I have to admit that it is mostly my fault.  I don't show them my needs, and I don't ask for much.  But I'm sure disappointed that they don't figure out what I need and take care of me anyway. 

With avoidant attachment, it is also typical to fall into habits of turning to other things besides people for comfort.  Most people with secure attachments are better at seeking comfort and taking comfort from other people.  But doing that involves an element of vulnerability.  People with insecure attachments are more likely get comfort from things that don't require them to be vulnerable.  Alcohol works well for that.  So do all forms of distraction, like TV, video games, or overwork.  If I dull my mind with a substance, or fill it up with a distraction, then I will be less aware of my unmet needs.  

And There Is More...

What I have written about here is just a small sample of all the important implications of Attachment Theory.  Those studying these things have figured out lots of important things about what we do in our relationships, about our defenses against closeness, and even about how we think.  I'll write more about this stuff in a future article, but this is a good enough stopping point for now. 

Lots of good stuff has been written about Attachment Theory.  My favorite book on the subject, written for therapists, is Attachment in Psychotherapy, by David Wallin. 

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