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What is Attachment Theory?

Written by: Janet Fluker, M.Ed., M.S.
What is Attachment Theory?

John Bowlby, a British psychologist, was the first to develop the concept of attachment theory. He described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. His primary interest was in understanding the bond between children and their primary caregivers.

Prior to Bowlby, behaviorists believed that infants became attached to a caregiver because they were being fed, and therefore attachment was a learned behavior. Bowlby and other researchers determined that more than being a learned behavior attachment was about the nurturance and responsiveness of the caregiver. The central tenet of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are attentive and responsive to the infant allow the child to feel secure, that they can depend on the caregiver and therefore the child is free to explore the world.

It is generally understood that there are four patterns of attachment:

  1. Secure Attachment – This is the most common attachment style. Children with secure attachment feel distressed when separated from their caregiver and joy when they return. When frightened, securely attached children feel comfortable seeking reassurance from their caregivers.
  2. Ambivalent Attachment – This is the most uncommon attachment style. As a result of poor parental availability, these children cannot depend on their primary caregiver to be there when they need them.
  3. Avoidant Attachment – Children with this style will often avoid their caregivers because of abuse or neglect. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will avoid seeking comfort.
  4. Disorganized Attachment – Inconsistent caregiving can create confusion in the child. These parents can be a source of comfort and fear leading to disorganized behavior in the child.

As attachment theory has been developed, we have come to understand the impact of these attachment styles in our adult relationships as well. If your needs were met as a child, you likely developed a secure attachment. You feel secure in your intimate relationships and believe the other person will be there if you need them. If your caregiver failed to meet your needs or was slow to do so you may have an insecure attachment style and have more difficulty forming intimate bonds and trusting others.

Whenever I meet with a new client for therapy I always do an attachment history with them to understand how they learned to be in a relationship from their early caregivers. Adults can heal from insecure childhood attachment through therapy and other loving relationships in their lives that give them the opportunity to have a different experience of safety and security.