Take a moment to reflect on your interactions with your spouse, sibling, friend or colleague. Are you constantly anxious about what they think of you? Or do you avoid forming deeper bonds, for the fear of becoming too dependent on them?
The way we bond or ‘attach’ ourselves to the people around us is a clue to the bonds we formed with our parents or caregivers as infants.
[Children] may not make much out of what they’re hearing or seeing, but these experiences will stay in the brain only to be expressed much later in life.
“Children are audio and video recorders, the kind that can move around by themselves. They may not make much out of what they’re hearing or seeing, but these experiences will stay in the brain only to be expressed much later in life,” said Dr Muhammad S. Tahir, specialist psychiatrist, adult psychologist and chairman of the American Wellness Centre in Dubai.
Knowing each other’s ‘attachment styles’ or behavioural patterns can help partners understand why they might appear clingy or aloof in relationships. We got UAE-based experts to weigh in on all three styles and their possible explanations linking to childhood.
What are attachment styles?
Typically, infants throw a tantrum when they’re separated from their parent, nanny or a caretaker. British psychologist John Bowlby noticed that babies expressed this emotional distress in three stages – protest, despair and detachment – calling it the attachment theory in 1969. According to this theory, the child should enter a final stage of detachment when the caregiver becomes negligent.
“John Bowlby, known as ‘father of attachment theory’, defined attachment as ‘the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’,” Dr Muttahera Wyne, clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, Dubai, told Gulf News. “Attachment is a special relationship that involves the exchange between two people of comfort, care and pleasure.”
The quality of the bonding you experienced during this first relationship often determines how well you relate to other people and respond to intimacy throughout your life.
The attachment theory was instantly picked up by empirical researchers, two of whom, American psychologists Cynthia Hazan and Philip Shaver, applied it to adult romantic love in 1987. Although, it’s being increasingly applied to platonic relationships as well.
“Essentially from infancy onwards, we go through life looking to form close affectional ties with others, which provide us with a sense of safety, security and protection,” added Dr Wyne. “The quality of the bonding you experienced during this first relationship often determines how well you relate to other people and respond to intimacy throughout your life.”
Hazan and Shaver theorised that there are three adult attachment styles: individuals who are secure, anxious-ambivalent and avoidant in relationships.
Find your attachment style: Are you secure, anxious-ambivalent or avoidant?
Our personalities are more than just the attachment styles, especially when “genes play a much greater role”, says Dr Tahir. But the weight of environmental factors should not be ignored, he continues, since parents who provide the genetic material also provide the environment.
Before we dive into attachment styles, think about the early bond you formed with your parents. The quality of your relationship will depend on three criteria, according to Dr Wyne:
- If caregivers are positively invested in the relationship and showed us that we are wanted
- If the caregivers responded frequently and sensitively to our needs
- If they provided a safe and secure environment.
1. Secure attachment
In adulthood: People with secure attachments find it easier to trust others and lead a positive life with a healthy mindset. “They are willing to develop a loving, long-term bond, easily deepen relationships and be ‘all-in’,” said Dr Wyne.
“If they ever face stressors in life, like financial difficulties or mental health issues, it will be easier for a therapist to manage their health,” said Dr Tahir.
In childhood: If you see yourself as secure, then this likely means your primary caregiver looked after you with empathy, says Dr Tahir. This includes feeling safe, wanted and cared for, which will translate to being open and optimistic about forming close bonds with others in adult life, added Dr Wyne.
2. Anxious-ambivalent attachment
In adulthood: Anxious-ambivalent is one of the two insecure attachment styles. This style in particular results in needy and clingy behaviour, where the person craves close relationships but spends a lot of time feeling anxious about not being loved.
“Those who are anxiously attached will constantly question the security you provide, or be preoccupied with what may happen to the relationship rather than focus on the present moment. You may feel as though you can’t reassure them enough,” said Dr Wyne.
In childhood: If your needs were met inconsistently and at random as a child, then the theory suggests you’re most likely anxious-ambivalent as a partner.
3. Avoidant attachment
In adulthood: The other type of insecure style describes those who keep the other party at an arm’s length, “sometimes in unpleasant ways such as criticism, sarcasm and shaming for being too needy”, says Dr Wyne. “Avoidant people fear intimacy and reliance on others,” she added.
According to a 1992 paper published in the Australian Journal of Psychology, avoidant styles are more likely to initiate a break up than the emotionally volatile anxious-ambivalent style.
In childhood: Have you always felt uncomfortable by deepening a bond, even before committing to a relationship? Then the cause, says Dr Tahir, could be severe neglect experienced in childhood. Caretakers of avoidant persons are presumed to be remote, cold and unavailable in early years.
Is my attachment style fixed?
Early attachment is not the be-all and end-all predictor of our behaviours. Take avoidant attachment style as an example; an unfortunate relationship with a former partner who caused trauma can, too, result in paranoia and mistrust, says Dr Tahir.
Besides the parent-child bond, Dr Wyne tells us that “our adult attachment styles are heavily influenced by a variety of factors, including our own temperament, life experiences, the perceptions we hold about the quality of our relationships with our parents, as well as the quality of our parents’ relationship with each other… relationships after childhood can also influence our adult attachment styles”.
Attachment styles are always malleable throughout life, adopting somewhat of a ‘plastic’ quality. Ideally, all relationships should aim to be secure. When you and your partner are empathetic, attentive to each other’s needs and patient when the one is sharing, then you’ve both developed a secure style with the other.
What happens if one of you is insecure? “You may experience difficulties with establishing a safe, healthy and consistent connection,” said Dr Wyne. “We can use the knowledge of attachment styles to help us be more confident in forming relationships with the people that are more likely to meet our needs, because of their attachment style.”
According to Dr Tahir, a secure attachment style partner can bring their insecure partner out of a negative mentality, if they’re persistent enough, awarding both parties with a new level of understanding.