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There are a lot of different opinions on just about every subject within psychology. One thing that we can all agree on is that relationships are crucial in a person’s life, not just for emotional well-being and happiness, but really, for basic survival as well. From the very beginning of our lives we are reliant on other and (hopefully) quickly become attached. While that reliance on others may look different as we grow through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood, the need for attachment remains constant.

What is attachment?

So what exactly is attachment? It’s a bit of a buzzword in fields that study child development or intimate partner relationships. Essentially when we’re talking about attachment, we are talking about the way an individual is bonded to another in a significant relationship. As kids, our most significant relationships are in our nuclear family, and we all attach in some way to our primary caregivers. As adults, we may still feel close and attached to our family of origin, but also attach to close friends or partners.

What does it look like?

The way we attach to our caregivers as children depends on the child, the caregiver(s), and the environment. It’s different for everyone. As we grow, our attachment is further influenced by life events and more significant relationships that come in to play. Even though there is plenty of individual variability, psychologists have theorized that overall there are four primary styles in which we attach, one of which is secure. The other three are all variations of insecure attachment and are known as anxious (sometimes referred to as resistant), avoidant, and disorganized.

Why do we attach the way we do?

The way we learn to attach is often outside of our control. As kids (and certainly as infants!) we are completely dependent on our caregivers to meet our needs. We need to be fed, held, changed; we need them to respond to us when we’re crying (i.e., soothe us, hold us, or fix the problem) or when we’re doing something dangerous (i.e., stop us from touching the stove or walking into traffic). We see how they respond to us and learn how to trust (or not trust) and how to get our needs met. Basically, we do what we have to do to get what we need.

As we grow, these attachment styles often become our template for attaching to other people. For example, maybe you learned that if you get hurt and go to your dad, he’ll hold you and give you a band-aid. That taught you that when you’re hurt, you can go to the significant people in your life and trust that they will give you what you need. If, on the other hand, you learned that if you get hurt and go to your dad, he’ll tease you for being upset and tell you to suck it up, that may have taught you that it’s not okay to be hurt, that you can’t go to a loved one or they’ll likely make fun of you. Naturally, whichever lesson you learned is going to inform how you behave in the future.

As you have more experiences with more people, the way you attach can change. Even if you started off with an insecure attachment to caregivers who were perhaps unavailable or untrustworthy, with intentional healthy relationships, you can learn to attach securely to safe people. On the other hand, even if you had excellent secure attachment with caregivers as a kid, harmful or unhealthy relationship experiences can lead to developing more insecure attachments. Attachment is malleable, and it is always helpful to take a look at how you learned to attach and how you find yourself attaching today.

In my next few blog posts, I’ll take a deeper dive into each of the different attachment styles. If you’re interested in learning more about attachment or exploring your own attachment patterns, give us a call! We would love to process with you.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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