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What are the different types of attachment?

Updated: Nov 29, 2023


African-American mother and baby looking at each other; what are the different types of attachment
Secure attachment gives you a sense of safety, trust, in connection.

Some of you may have heard of attachment theory or heard someone say that they have a secure or insecure attachment style. You might have wondered what attachment is, and what are the different types of attachment. Attachment theory is a rich, complex field of psychological study that addresses how infants relate to their caregivers. If you were lucky, you had a secure, healthy attachment to your caregiver. However, you might have had an insecure attachment to your caregivers for a variety of reasons. This blog will discuss the general theory and how it relates to coping with stress and relationships.


What is attachment theory?

The chief theorists who have developed attachment between infants and caregivers are Drs. John Bowlby, Mary Main, and Mary Ainsworth. Dr. Bowlby was interested in the distress that children showed when separated from their primary caregivers. He believed that attachment was an evolutionary process that secured infants’ survival. It was an innate survival drive to connect with the caregiver to receive comfort, sustenance and protection. Kids did best when their caregivers were dependable, calm, and provided consistent, loving care. One of Dr. Bowlby’s colleagues, Dr. Mary Ainsworth, furthered his research by doing the famous “strange situation experiment.”


Dr. Mary Ainsworth developed an experiment where mothers departed from there babies for short period of time and returned. The babies’ reaction to their mothers on return demonstrated how babies were connected to their mothers. From this research, three different attachment styles were identified.


What are some of the attachment styles?

The initial types of attachment were secure, avoidant, and ambivalent/anxious. Later, another type was added called disorganized/disoriented. Some professionals call disorganized attachment anxious-avoidant attachment, because you may be anxious in some settings but appear avoidant in other settings. For example, you might be cool and collected at work but feel very dependent and insecure in romantic relationships or friendships.


Strange situation experiment

Babies with a secure attachment to their mother initially showed distress when the mothers left, but upon return, the babies didn’t take long to adjust and seemed happy to see their mothers. If the babies had an anxious attachment to their mothers, they were more hypervigilant and clingier when the mother returned. Avoidant babies didn’t seem to care very much whether their mothers were present or not. At the tender age of 12 to 18 months, they had already learned to distrust the consistent availability of their mothers.


For a while, there were only three types of attachment that were identified, until Dr. Ainsworth’s doctoral student Mary Main, along with Dr. Judith Solomon, later developed a fourth style. The disorganized/disoriented attachment type resulted in babies who were unsure how to respond to their mother. The same parents who provided comfort could also hurt or frightened the babies, so they might seem dazed or disoriented, seek closeness, or reject the caregivers. Because the caregiver’s treatment is inconsistent, so is the child’s reaction. These mothers were frightening to their infants. This was a big discovery for attachment research and helped psychologists understand children’s response to caregivers who were abusive, unpredictable, mentally ill or inconsistently available.


Indian females embracing; what are the different types of attachment
What kind of attachments do you form as an adult?

What does secure or insecure attachment have to do with you?

Your attachment with your caregivers may influence a lot of how you operate in the world. It may affect how you relate to yourself, to others, and your ability to handle stress. As you can probably imagine, the type of attachment you had with your caregivers influences your sense of safety in the world. Can people be counted on? Will they be there for you when you need them? Will they take care of you when you’re scared, hungry, angry, etc.? This can also impact your relationships with friends, coworkers, romantic partners, and supervisors.


Research suggests that children with insecure attachment can develop mental health disorders later in life, including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder. When they become adults, their relationships are less secure, they generally have poorer self-esteem, and their social lives are more problematic than adults who were securely attached to their caregivers.


How do the different attachment styles handle stress?

You learn how to regulate your emotions and handle stress by how you were treated when you were very small. You may depend on other people to make you feel better. It may be tempting to use alcohol, drugs or activities to distract you from feeling depressed, anxious, or angry. The problem is, looking for something outside of yourself to provide that comfort can lead to substance abuse or process addictions.


What does attachment type mean for relationships?

Your insecure attachment to your caregiver may also negatively impact your love relationships. For example, you may worry that if you’re not in a romantic or sexual relationship, it means that you are undesirable. It may be hard for you to be alone, so you might make unwise choices to avoid it. Partners or friends might describe you as clingy, overly dependent, or paranoid.


You may fear that other people are will hurt you, even without any evidence. Your fear of abandonment may lead you to track the location of significant others, and you might have severe anxiety about separation from your loved ones. Your attachment style can even influence how you handle grief when a loved one dies, or if you get divorced or separated. In some instances, you might even seek out friends or romantic partners who treat you poorly because that is what you used to and what you think you deserve.


On the other hand, you might be unable to trust others or fear getting involved. When other people want to get close to you, you may push them away to avoid being hurt or disappointed. You might have a very lonely existence and depend on yourself primarily.


Are you ready to explore what the different types of attachment mean to you?

This may sound like bad news if you had abusive, inconsistent, frightening or unavailable caregivers. You might worry that your attachment style dooms you to having poor coping mechanisms and lousy relationships. However, this is not necessarily the case.

Even though having an insecure attachment as a child can profoundly impact your relationships with other people, it is not beyond repair. Psychotherapy with a warm, compassionate, knowledgeable therapist can help you rebuild your ability to attach to others. So can having a relationship with a secure, kind, inconsistent significant other. Usually, to obtain such a caring, healthy relationship, you need to work on resolving the results of the insecure attachment. If you’re interested in learning more about this, please call (661) 233-6771.

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