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Attachment Theory and Trampolines: An Introduction To Attachment Styles

In my last post, I proposed the starting point for understanding family violence is to learn some basic-level attachment theory, explained the theory in an 'elevator pitch', and covered a brief history of the theory. In this post, I’ll introduce the attachment styles and sketch out secure attachment in more detail.


Back to the systems-thinking point that everything flowing from a solid foundation, the solid foundation of attachment theory is that human beings develop “deep and enduring bond[s] that [connect] one person to another across time and space”.


You can think of a secure base like a like a trampoline. When you try to do something out of your depth, it should be able to catch you if you fall; when you’re doing ok, knowing that spring is beneath you, you should be able to rely on it to gain speed, height, and momentum.

What this means is that we basically are psychically tied to other people (queue that beam visual again), and a person we’re tied to serves as a ‘base’. These people are referred to as our ‘attachment figures’ and our first ones are our primary caregivers. When children are securely attached to an attachment figure, they feel comfortable exploring the world, safe in the knowledge that they have someone who will care for and protect them should things go downhill. Adult attachment theory suggests securely attached adults experience the same things with our loved ones, especially our romantic partner.


When we attach in an intimate adult relationships, we form beyond just a strong bond: we form a physiological unit. Levine and Heller discuss a study that “demonstrate[s] that when two people form an intimate relationship, they regulate each other’s psychological and emotional well-being.” Our relationship with our partners influence our heart-rate, breathing, blood pressure and the levels of hormones in our blood. When we securely attach with another person, we can achieve what is called the ‘dependency paradox’.


The 'dependency paradox' basically espouses that if we have someone who we can reliably depend on, we are able to act independently and explore the world, because we’re secure that there’s a safe space / person to return to when all goes wrong and this is reflected in our physiological responses to our experiences. However, when we are not securely attached to our partners, our physiological regulation does not reap the same benefits as couples who securely attach to one another.


Most texts on on attachment will explain that there are two attachments styles: secure and insecure. They will then go on to explain that within the insecure camp, there are 3 sub-categories. Here is a table laying out commonly used language and what they refer to. (Levine and Heller use slightly different language to the majority of texts but I’ve chosen to include their choice of language in rounded brackets because their work is very accessible and easy to absorb, so you may find yourself using their chosen labels more than the formal, academic language.)

Table 1: Attachment Styles At A Glance

As I noted above, Bowlby referred to an attachment figure to whom a child is securely attached as ‘a secure base’. (This became his book’s namesake.) You can think of a secure base like a like a trampoline. When you try something cool but out of your depth (and sometimes arguably stupid), it should be able to catch you when you fail and fall; and when you’re doing ok, knowing that spring is beneath you, you should be able to rely on it to gain speed, height, and momentum and be able to work towards achieving the cool stuff you were attempting to do in the first place!


Dr. Daphne de Marneffe compares and contrasts parent-child attachment and how it forms in her book, The Rough Patch:


“Human attachment unfolds in the first fifteen months of life […].
When a caregiver is sensitive and responsive to the child's attachment-seeking behaviour, it fosters a secure attachment bond. When a parent ignores or exaggerates the child's communication, the child responds by distorting's his own attachment behaviour accordingly. Children whose caregivers reject their attachment bids become avoidantly attached; they avoid seeking proximity and turned their attention to other activities. Children with resistant / ambivalent attachment responded to the caregiver’s oscillating insensitivity and unpredictability by failing to be soothed. Children whose caregivers display simultaneously frightened and frightening behaviour develop a disorganized attachment style because they lack a clear strategy for seeking safety.”

Levine and Heller describe the impact of having a romantic partner as a secure (or insecure) base:


“As adults we don't play with toys anymore, but we do have to go out into the world and deal with novel situations and difficult challenges. We want to be highly functional at work, at ease and inspired in our hobbies, and compassionate enough to care for our children and partners. If we feel secure, like the infant in the strange situation test when her mother is present, the world is at our feet. We can take risks, be creative, and pursue our dreams. And if we lack that sense of security? If we are unsure whether the person closest to us, our romantic partner, truly believes in us and supports us and will be there for us in times of need, we’ll find it much harder to maintain focus and engage in life.”

So to re-cap: a secure attachment allows you to feel well tethered to someone, and knowing that they are there for you will enable to you to go forward, discover the world, and try new things – because if you fall, your secure attachment figure will psychologically have your back. (Remember when Alec Baldwin made that comment about a man knowing that his wife loved him, he could do anything?[1] He’s probably referring to feeling securely attached to his own wife.) A secure attachment style is also attractive for a variety of other reasons:

“Many of the first children studied in the Infant Strange Situation [Test] have now been followed for more than a quarter of a century. […] In general, the securely attached children were found to meet their intellectual potential, had good relationships with others, well respected by their peers, and could regulate their emotions well.”

In short, securely attached individuals have better life outcomes. This article points out nine ways in which secure attachments benefit children; and O’Connor and Elklit carried out a study, the results of which “suggest[ed] that secure attachment may have a protective effect on the development of PTSD.”[2] As I work through this puzzle, I’m sure I’ll come across even more advantages and when I do, I’ll let you know!


Insecure attachments aren’t more sinister – they exist for a reasons I’ll delve into in my next post - but they do result in the fact that some of our attachments operate like faulty trampolines…and as you can imagine, no matter how attached, no matter how much you love your trampoline, if you fall, it’ll likely hurt; and if you try to rely on it to spring upwards, you might not get the support you need to gain the momentum you’re looking for. An insecure attachment isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it can be under the wrong set of circumstances, and it won’t lead to very much emotional stability.


I’ll start to deal with insecure attachments in more depth in my next post. For now, remember that many perpetrators of family violence (and other forms of interpersonal violence) suffer from emotional instability and this could be a result of an insecure attachment. It may seem like a weak tie for now, but we’ll get there.


In the meantime, stay tuned, and if you’d like to jump ahead and explore more before the next post, you can check out the links in this post for some articles and books to explore attachment at your own pace.


Footnotes


*The fourth column in Table 1 quotes directly from this article.

[1] Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Season 10, Episode 11

[2] pg. 66, Attachment Styles, Traumatic Events, and PTSD: A Cross-sectional Investigation of Adult Attachment and Trauma, Attachment & Human Development Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2008, 59–71