Attachment Styles

Recently, I have found myself drawn back to material I studied many years ago.

The issue of attachment style, like attachment theory in general, is central to the psychology of human growth and development.

This page connects closely to the page on attachment-based trauma.

In brief, there were said to be four adult attachment styles:

Secure,

Preoccupied,

Dismissive-Avoidant, and

Fearful-Avoidant.

The different attachment styles, describing our relationship with our key care-givers (usually our parents), emerge from our childhood experiences. These styles, and the commonly-associated behaviours, are summarised in the following diagram.

Bartholomew and Horowitz's (1991) model of adult attachment.  

Any of these ring a bell, at all?

Dan Siegel and others have developed these relatively simple categories into a more sophisticated perspective casting light on both the attachment style and the carer’s behaviour.

Adult Attachment Style and characteristic parenting behaviour

Secure………………………………………….. ……………. Responsive and consistent
Avoidant………………………………………….………….. Rejecting and distant
Ambivalent ………………………………………..………. Inconsistent and intrusive
Disorganized……………………………………….……… Frightening and confusing

It is evident that such categories cannot be applied rigidly to ourselves. Indeed, it is likely that we will demonstrate varying behaviours in different circumstances. That said, when preparing for safe experiments, you may want to consider what appears to be your own favourite style or behaviour.

Another element of information that may help with the design of small, safe experiments is to build a bridge between these categories and a similar matrix found in the transactional analytic model (TA) with its notions of OKness.

Consider this:

Where I-OK and U-OK means my Life Position is I am OK and You are OK (secure); 

I-OK /U-Not OK means my Life Position is I am OK; You are not (dismissive).

By contrast, U-OK/I-Not OK means my Life position is You are OK, and I am not; and we can become pre-occupied (say, with getting it right or pleasing the carer).

Whereas U-Not OK / I-Not OK means the Life Position is You are Not OK, and I am Not OK either so I can become fearful of the other, and the situation we are in together.

The inference here is that our Life Position disposes us to respond in characteristic ways – with our children and other people in our world.

So the characteristically fearful position may lead us to avoid people, and situations generating anxiety.

The characteristically pre-occupied individual will devote energy to the other person, not their own interests and welfare.

The charcteristically dismissive individual will put on a ‘face’, and appear as strong as possible to the outside world.

An understanding of our ‘favourite’ life position we may have developed can help us design small, safe experiments. Of course, we need some sophistication; not to kid ourselves that we have developed a single and clearly-defined relationship with our key care-takers.

One such safe experiment might be ‘acting as if ….’, that is knowing what our common tendency is, and deliberately compensating for it. Acting a different part; preparing to be confident when we do not feel it; practising assertiveness with other people, when that does not come naturally.

‘Acting as if …’ is less helpful for the ‘dismissive’ style who may well be ‘acting as if/….’ already. In that case, a possible experiment is to ask for things from other people – a behaviour that is not very prevalent with individuals less inclined to value the opinions of others.

Much will change over time and we can travel around the matrix according to changing circumstances and over the decades.

Even so, when certain behaviours are repeated often enough, then a patterned way of attaching to our care-takers can emerge. This pattern is likely to shape our style of relating to other people throughout our lives.

There is a useful background account available at:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/communication-success/201507/what-is-your-relationship-attachment-style

There are any number of safe experiments that might emerge from this material – too many to consider here. The experiments you may design will be very personal and very specific to your circumstances.

It is an area of work you will almost certainly want to discuss with a professional. Please be aware of the implicit advice in the Johari Window; we cannot know all there is to know about ourselves. Information and feedback is needed. Some-one trained to help us look in the left field – in different places – can be essential to moving forward. It is too easy to go round in circles and that can become very frustrated.

Consider the perspective offered by Dan Siegel on YouTube. The way we look at the world can mean we become blind to a world that does exist, but remaining out of reach. If that world is out of reach, then it does not exist. Each and everyone of us can be blind to something.

Return to:

Welcome

How do give yourself a nudge

Attachment theory and trauma