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  • Raheena

Attachment Theory: An Introduction to Insecure Attachment

In my last post, I introduced the attachment styles, likened them to trampolines, and started to explain why an insecure attachment to a loved one is a bit like relying on a faulty trampoline – you can love it, it might be the only one you have, you might be strictly limited to one (when it comes to romantic relationships in monogamy-valuing societies) - but you might not get the support you need when you're trying to fly; falls may hurt, and it can get dangerous.

Today, we’ll explore insecure attachments in more depth – just enough to get a grasp of the picture.

As with any issue, there are 6 questions to address using the W5H1 formula, ie. “who, what, when, where, why, and how”? In my last post, I answered the questions of ‘who’ (everyone); ‘what’ (forming attachment bonds); ‘when’ (the first fifteen months of life); and ‘how’ (securely or insecurely). I also set out a table with some features of secure and insecure attachers, adding to the ‘what’ discussion. I touched a little bit on the question of ‘why’ (seeking and maintaining safety) and in this post, I’ll delve deeper into it.

We know we attach because it is evolutionarily advantageous to do so. So why don't we all attach securely? Why do insecure attachments exist? Levine and Heller argue, in Attached, that the answer lies in evolutionary adaptation:

“An extremely important aspect of evolution is heterogeneity. Humans are a very heterogeneous species, varying greatly in appearance, attitudes, and behaviours. This accounts to a great extent for our abundance and for our ability to fit into almost any ecological niche on Earth. If we were all identical, then any single environmental challenge would have the potential to wipe us all out. Our variability improves the chances that a segment of the population that is unique in some way might survive when others wouldn't. Attachment style is no different from any other human characteristic. Although we have a basic need to form close bonds, the way we create them varies. In a very dangerous environment, it would be less advantageous to invest time and energy in just one person because he or she would not likely be around for too long; it would make more sense to get less attached and move on (and hence, the avoidant attachment style.) Another option in a harsh environment is to act in the opposite manner and to be intensely persistent and hypervigilant about staying close to your attachment figure (hence, the anxious attachment style). In a more peaceful setting, the intimate bonds formed by investing greatly in a particular individual would yield greater benefits for both the individual and his or her offspring (hence, the secure attachment style).
True, in modern society, we are not hunted by predators as our ancestors were, but in evolutionary terms we’re only a fraction of a second away from the old scheme of things. Our emotional brain was handed down to us by Homo sapiens who lived in a completely different era, and it is their lifestyle and the dangers they encountered that our emotions were designed to address. Our feelings and behaviours in relationships today are not very different from those of our ancestors.” [1]

The literature I've read is in agreement that:

  • The avoidant attachment style uses distancing one's self as a coping mechanism to suppress the underlying anxiety a person feels about the insecurity of their bond with an attachment figure.

  • The anxious attachment style does not have the benefit/detriment of the avoidant coping mechanism and is deeply pre-occupied with the instability of the bond, sometimes to the point of not being able to dedicate full attention to other important tasks.

  • The disorganized attachment style is often trauma-informed to some extent. Understanding this may help us understand the impact of intergenerational trauma.

It can be helpful to view attachment styles plotted on an x-y axis. In Professor R. Chris Fraley’s article, A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research, he provides this X-Y attachment axis:

Figure 1: Attachment Axis, credit: R. Chris Fraley

So what does this mean for family violence? When an insecure attacher worries about the security of their attachment to a given figure they exhibit what is called 'protest behaviour', as opposed to effectively communicating their thoughts and emotions in order to solve the problem. The type of protest behaviour (or secure relating) looks different depending on one’s attachment style. (Cue back to the visual in my earlier post: insecure attachment manifests itself as worrying that the beam will fail - and if one forms insecure attachments, the beam is often and consistently de-stabilized, so an insecure attacher either constantly feels the need to address or actively ignore this concern.)

Levine and Heller point out a number of protest behaviours and actions that are common to different attachment styles, I’ve listed many of the protest behaviours and actions that they set out in their book [2] with some minor modifications in the table below. It is important to remember that attachment styles develop, as Dr. de Marneffe characterizes them, as strategies for seeking safety. [3] As such, I've summarized the 'safety strategy' used by each attachment style in the table as well.

Figure 2: Protest Behaviour & Safety Strategy Table

Understanding protest behaviour helps us understand why people we have relationships with act in less than ideal ways. Being able to view 'bad behaviour' from an attachment lens helps us understand both the relational dynamics at play and the needs of protesting individuals. Protest behaviour isn't necessarily abusive or violent, but it can be.

In my next post, I'll explore the relationship between protest behaviour and family violence. Until then, I invite you to consider how frantic attempts to re-establish connection might result in stalking and / or harassment; or how inflating one's self-importance and self-esteem while putting their partner down can result in emotional abuse. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


[1] Pgs. 13-4, Attached

[2] Pgs. 170-4 Attached

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