woman holding child before sea and sky

Have you heard of attachment theory? When I ask this question, I get a 50/50 response: only half of the people in my circle seem to know about attachment theory.

I’m excited to share what I have learned about attachment theory recently, because it has quickly become one of my favorite explanations for life phenomena. Before I understood attachment theory, so many things about human relationships were a mystery. After I understood attachment theory, all the pieces fell into place.

From early childhood and all the way through adulthood, attachment theory applies. Understanding attachment theory as a caregiver for a child can have far-reaching implications in that child’s life. Understanding attachment theory as an adult can help you become happier and have stronger, healthier relationships with others—including a significant other, friends, family, and everyone you encounter.

How I Heard About Attachment Theory

I cannot believe that I lived four decades without once, that I remember, hearing of attachment theory. I even got a master’s degree in education, for which I had to take courses in child psychology, and I don’t remember attachment theory mentioned in any course or reading.

Attachment ideas, however, have been around for decades. They were developed, tested, and expanded upon in the mid-twentieth century. Today, it is a highly respected theory in psychology, one with far-reaching implications for all of us.

It is not without controversy, however. Attachment theory is about the effects of early childhood on personality development, which means that attachment theory is about parenting. And parenting, as we know, is a flash point for controversy. Mothers and all parents often feel under fire from multiple directions. No matter what decisions they make, someone is sure to be hovering nearby, ready to criticize them.

Let’s not do that. Let’s sidestep the culture wars and focus on the science. Let’s dig into human biology—which evolved over millions of years and isn’t going to change anytime soon—so that parents, policy makers, employers, and ordinary people can make the best decisions they can, to achieve the results they desire. Hopefully, we all desire happy and healthy kids, as well as happy and healthy adults. It can be confusing and difficult to live healthfully, with our million-year-old biology, in the modern world. Fortunately, there’s flexibility in applying the science. In other words, different families might make completely different choices that are equally good.

The controversies surrounding issues such as parenting, feminism, and the workforce could be why I had not heard of attachment theory until recently; I don’t know. All I know is that it wasn’t until I was sitting in psychotherapy, one day in my early 40s, that someone explained it to me. I didn’t understand, at first. It’s a complicated theory. I had no idea why my therapist started talking about the experiences of babies, when I had just been talking about adult relationships; those two concepts were separate in my mind. But I went home, bought two books on attachment theory, and devoured them. I also listened to an 18-hour podcast special on attachment theory.

This changed my life. Aspects of my life pertaining to human relationships suddenly made sense. In this and upcoming blog posts, I’m going to attempt to share with you the basics of what I learned. Unfortunately, I can’t share with you everything I learned. For that, I recommend that you go deeper into the theory. One book I recommend is Becoming Attached, by Robert Karen.

What Is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory holds that very young children (infants and toddlers) have a biological need to develop a close relationship with an attuned attachment figure (a caretaker such as mom, dad, or another adult).

The word attuned means that the caretaker actively pays attention to the child and is responsive in appropriate ways to the child’s needs. For example, if the baby is in a mood to play, the caretaker plays with the baby; if the baby cries, the caretaker hugs the child, says soothing things, and fixes whatever is causing the baby to cry.

Note that a baby could lack an attuned attachment figure due to lack of physical proximity OR lack of emotional attunement. In other words, it’s obviously bad to leave a baby alone in a room for 24 hours (lack of physical proximity). But it’s also detrimental if a caregiver is physically present but emotionally unattuned, perhaps because of a mental health issue, an addiction issue, constant distractions of technology, working too much, excessive stress, or another reason (lack of emotional attunement).

Attachment theory holds that if a child receives a sufficient amount of attuned attachment from a caregiver in the early years, that child is likely to develop a healthy psychology of attachment. These children are called “securely attached.” A child who does not receive a sufficient amount is likely to develop an unhealthy psychology of attachment. These children are called “insecurely attached.”

Secure attachment is associated with better outcomes later in life than insecure attachment. Secure attachment is associated with healthy adult relationships (including with a partner, family, friends, coworkers, etc.). Insecure attachment is associated with unhealthy adult relationships, mental health issues (such as personality disorders), and problems with addiction (all types of addiction).

However: every child and every adult is different, and sometimes things don’t end up as might have been predicted. There are too many variables, including the genetics of the child and all of the events in the child’s life, not all of which pertain to parenting. Even events during the birth or in the womb can make a difference. So attachment theory is not an iron rule; it’s a statistical observation. The theory merely states that when x happens, there are better outcomes than when x doesn’t happen, on average, and there are exceptions.

How Was Attachment Theory Discovered?

I recommend the book Becoming Attached, by Robert Karen, for a clearly written, fascinating account of how attachment theory was discovered and who the key players were in its discovery. The book doesn’t stop there; it goes on to describe the controversy surrounding attachment theory, and what attachment theory means for parents, as well as what attachment theory means for adults and their relationships.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are two of the big names in the early development of the theory. John Bowlby examined what happens when the main caregiver is separated from a baby for a period of time. At the time, it was common to drop off a young child at the hospital for days, weeks, or even months, if the child had a medical issue. The parents would visit once a week, every other week, or not at all. Bowlby also became interested in scientific studies about the behavior of nonhuman animals that, at a young age, display a strong need to find a mother (or mother figure, if the mother is absent).

Karen writes the following about the conclusions Bowlby drew about human babies:

“Separations from mother were disastrous developmentally because they thwarted an instinctual need. It’s not just a nice thing to have someone billing and cooing over you, snuggling you, and adoringly attending to your every need. It is a built-in necessity, and the baby’s efforts to obtain it, like the parents’ eagerness to give it, are biologically programmed.”

Mary Ainsworth, who worked with Bowlby, went on to create a fascinating experiment called the “Strange Situation.” It’s too complicated to explain here, but it involves observing how a young child behaves when the child and the child’s mother go into an unfamiliar (“strange”) room and then various things happen, including the mother leaving the room for brief periods.

Ainsworth—along with psychologists who did follow-up studies—discovered that children tend to behave in different ways in the Strange Situation, and that the different behaviors can be categorized into four groups.

What Are the Four Styles of Attachment, and What Does This Mean for Adults?

One attachment style is called “secure.” The other three attachment styles are called “insecure.” The insecure attachment styles can be separated into three categories. Here is a list of the four attachment styles. (The second one, confusingly, does not have a consistently used terminology. It is common to see three different terms used to mean the same thing.)

  • Secure
  • Insecure: Preoccupied, Anxious, or Ambivalent
  • Insecure: Avoidant
  • Insecure: Disorganized

These categories can change throughout a person’s life. A person can also be, at any given time, a mix of different styles. So think of them not as ironclad traits, but as personality tendencies that can change over time.

That being said, there is a correlation between events in early childhood and the personality of an adult. A child who grows up secure is likely to become a secure adult. A child who grows up insecure is likely to become an insecure adult. Secure adults are likely to raise secure children; insecure adults are likely to raise insecure children. But life events, positive and/or negative, can change things for the better and/or worse. Genetics and culture/society also play a large part in this.

Applying attachment theory gets real personal, real quick. I will share with Patrons only what my own attachment style is. I will also share how I acquired information about attachment theory outside of the book I’m featuring on this blog. I’m grateful for your support. Join today!

So what does this mean for adults? If you know your attachment style, that knowledge is power. If it turns out that you are insecurely attached as an adult, you can work on this and, over time, become more securely attached. This will make you happier! You can also learn about traps that people often fall into as a result of their attachment style, and work to avoid those traps. You can gain insight into your relationships and make informed choices and personal changes as needed.

All this can come from knowing your attachment style. It worked for me! It can work for you! During two upcoming blog posts, I will write about the preoccupied (or anxious or ambivalent) style and the avoidant style, and contrast them to the secure style.

I won’t dedicate a blog post to the disorganized style, so I’ll say a few words about it here. This style tends to occur in cases of child abuse. It results in a child who is consumed by fear, distress, and confusion. An adult who has a disorganized attachment style will tend to have big mental health issues, as a result of the abuse they suffered as a child. This person will likely require the expertise of a mental health professional, and they may have to do a lot of personal work to be able to experience healthy, loving relationships.

Of course, people who fall into any of the three insecure categories may require the expertise of a mental health professional, and they may have to do a lot of personal work in order to experience healthy, loving relationships; but the case of the disorganized attachment style is usually more severe. (I would like to dedicate a blog post to it; but the books I read and the podcast I listened to informed me that this style, being extremely complicated, was mostly outside the scope of their discussion. Please consult with a psychologist if you need help with this or any other attachment style.)

What Does Attachment Theory Mean for Parents?

I don’t have kids myself, but I hear through the grapevine that it’s not easy to be a parent. I respect and salute you, parents!

The key, as I understand it, is to spend quality time with your kids, from birth all the way until adulthood. After adulthood is good, too. But those early years are especially important.

You don’t have to be perfect. I would say that understanding attachment theory would probably only benefit you, as you parent your kids. But the main thing is, pay attention to your kids and show them that you love them. Show them that you love them all the time, no matter what. That should do it. Oh, and work on any psychological issues you may have yourself. (That could be the hardest part.)

But don’t listen to me. I’m not an expert on this. I’m just a blogger who read a couple of great books and listened to a fabulous 18-hour podcast special. So none of the above constitutes advice, but rather a collection of intriguing ideas that merit further investigation and greater societal awareness.

What do you think about attachment theory?