I was recently listening to a Masterclass called Restoring Relational Resilience by Dr. Diane Poole Heller, who is a psychologist working out of Colorado. Her talk was describing the four attachment styles and how to recognize them in adulthood. Looking at attachment styles informs me what a client did or did not get in their early formative years that dictates their behavior around connecting to others. Dr. John Bowlby and others were early pioneers who focused their studies on infants and young children to study their early emotional bonds, and how these relationship bonds are foundational in the development of emotions and personality later in life. Attachment means attunement. Thus, in healthy attachment, called secure attachment, parents are emotionally present and attuned to the needs of the infant. When a baby cries, the caregiver responds to the baby and finds a way to soothe or address the baby’s need. The infant needs the caregiver to respond for its survival. Human beings are always looking to connect to a secure attachment figure. If we do not receive reliable caregiving early on, it impacts our ability to trust others who want to be close to us, like an intimate partner. Human nature dictates that we are always searching for a way to connect to a secure attachment.
Below are the names of the attachment styles for each age group. Dr. Heller states that humans orient towards secure attachment, and some people struggle more when they have had adaptions away from secure attachment, which are the avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized. Diane’s universal belief is that humans are wanting to learn to connect to another person in a meaningful way.
Avoidant Dismissive (Fear of closeness)
Ambivalent Pre-occupied (Fear of abandonment)
Disorganized Unresolved Trauma (believe Relationships are dangerous)
Our biology is wired to have secure attachment. It deepens our connection to our first primary caregiver and primes us to connect to others as we grow and develop. Secure attachment is the optimal connection as the caregiver is responsive to the needs of their child. The caregiver responds in a way that lets the baby/child know they are safe and that they matter. In securely attached families, you will see playfulness, predictable responses to behaviors and a family who knows how to repair after a disagreement. Parents are present and attuned to themselves (regulate their own mood well) and to their children. There is safety in their choice of words, and in their touch. Dr. Heller states that a parent only needs to be attuned to their child 30% of the time for the child to develop healthy relationships throughout their life.
Avoidant children have had caregivers who are rarely empathic. Their home does not welcome emotions. The child feels that there is no one to help them. This is frightening, and the child distances themselves emotionally from caregivers and tries to meet their own needs. Often people will say “I am independent,” or “I rely on no one.” This is the language an adult uses when a caregiver was not attuned enough to them. In this type of household, a child may get attention around a task, like help with homework, or riding a bike. The child begins to feel anxious because “they get some attention” but it is not enough.” They can’t rely on their parent for emotional support. As the child grows into adulthood, they feel more stress when a partner or a friend wants to be emotionally close. This person often avoids eye contact. The person feels safer when they are alone.
For the ambivalent child, there is a history of on again/off again love from parents. The child does receive love, but it is inconsistent. The child feels they can’t rely on their parents for love, resulting in the child feeling anxious. Their biggest fear is abandonment, and they anticipate abandonment or even betrayal before it happens. This stance becomes their safeguard to enduring more hurt and disappointment. This child often feels sad and disappointed. As adults, they need a lot of reassurances, especially if their partner is going away for a trip or even to work. The ambivalent adult worries that “good things won’t last.” They view relationships through a negative lens, for example, “you never support me” or second guessing a partner’s good intentions. The ambivalent adult needs a lot of reassurance, especially when their partner leaves for work or goes on a trip. The ambivalent adult struggles to feel fulfilled in a relationship. They often do not know how to receive love and affection.
When a baby or child has developed a disorganized attachment, their caregiver hasn’t created a safe secure relationship. It is the most complicated profile, as it does not follow a pattern. The child behaves in a disorganized manner when they have a parent who is too dysregulated, scary, chaotic or abusive. This child cannot relax in the “relational field.” This could be a parent who is always yelling or angry and uses harsh language. Adults with a disorganized attachment style go from one mood to another. They can be angry one minute and then the next minute, super sweet to a neighbour. This can be confusing for their child. The child does not trust their own parent. Disorganized attachment is often the result of unresolved trauma that the parent suffered in their childhood. Therefore, parents are responding to their children in the same ways their own parents responded to them. Having a disorganized attachment style makes it difficult to form intimate relationships later in life. Closeness is often seen as a threat.
Is Healing Possible?
Diane directs much of her work to corrective experiences for people who desire a meaningful relationship. She advises to move slowly, to not flood or trigger the fear response. Diane teaches clients secure attachment skills. Stay tuned for my next blog where I will share some of her strategies.
If you are curious about what your attachment style is, you can take a free test on Diane’s website: