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4 November, 2019 00:00 00 AM

Attachment and our relationships

If you have suffered from anxiety, depression or relationship problems, “attachment theory’ can help you get to the root cause of your difficulties and give you a greater understanding of what’s going on
Attachment and our relationships

We all have probably heard of 'attachment styles' when it comes to relationships. They begin to develop as part of our early experiences with parents and affect our relationships throughout life.Research across many years and many cultures have found around 35-40% of people say they feel insecure in their adult relationships. While 60-65% experience secure, loving and satisfying relationships. How secure or insecure we are with our romantic partners depends, in part, on how we bonded with our parents at a young age. From the day we were born we turned to our parents (or guardians) for love, comfort, and security, especially in times of distress. For this reason, we call them “attachment figures”.

When our attachment figures respond to our distress in ways that meet our needs, we feel comforted and supported, our distress is reduced, and we learn our attachment figures can be counted on in stressful times.

But if parents often respond to a child’s distress by downplaying their emotions, rejecting their pleas for help, or making the child feel foolish, the child will learn not to trust their attachment figures for help, and to suppress their worries and emotions and deal with them alone. These downplaying strategies are called “deactivating attachment strategies’.For others, parents respond to a child’s distress by being inconsistent in the support they provide, or not providing the right kind of support. Perhaps they sometimes recognize their child’s distress; other times they don’t acknowledge the distress or focus on how the distress made them feel rather than helping the child manage their feelings.

Or, some parents might provide support but it’s not what the child needs. For example, a child might need encouragement to deal with a challenge, but the parent tries to be sympathetic and agrees the child can’t deal with the challenge. Regular exposure to these kinds of parenting experiences means those children can experience excessive worry, especially when stressed, and go to a lot of effort to be very close to their attachment figures. These strategies of increasing worry and seeking excessive closeness are called “hyper activating strategies”.

If you have suffered from anxiety, depression or relationship problems, “attachment theory’ can help you get to the root cause of your difficulties and give you a greater understanding of what’s going on. Attachment theory was developed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1960s. The theory explains how our brains are programmed to help us survive and thrive in the environment we are born into.

Our self-esteem, ability to control our emotions and the quality of our relationships are all affected by our attachment style. We’ve known for over 50 years that attachment styles can predict and explain children’s behavior. More recent research has shown that attachment styles also continue to affect our behavior in adulthood.

Four attachment styles:Infants develop one of four main attachment styles in response to the care they receive from their parents or other carers during infancy. Carers who are sensitive to children’s needs foster a “secure attachment style”. Carers who become distressed and retreat when their children are upset to create an “avoidant attachment style”. Carers who respond sensitively but are often distracted from their caregiving create an “anxious attachment style”. And carers, who harm their children through neglect or abuse, create a “disorganized attachment style”.

As children, we develop an attachment style that keeps us safe by programming us to behave in certain ways towards our carer when we are anxious or afraid. These behaviors elicit a response from our carer that, ideally, should be protective.

Our brains are programmed through the relationship with our main carer. During this process, we learn to recognize and control our emotions and we create a “template” that guides our social interactions and informs us whether and how we are valued by other people.

Faulty template:Someone with a secure attachment style feels valued by others, can rely on them to be helpful and is able to control their emotions. At the other end of the spectrum, someone with a disorganized style does not feel valued by others, easily loses control of their emotions and resorts to manipulative behavior to coerce others into providing help.

When we feel anxious or fearful, the template created during infancy tells us how to respond. The world we live in now is often different from the one we were born into when our attachment style was forming, so our response to life’s events may be unsuitable. For example, someone with an anxious attachment style who constantly talks about their latest problem may lose friends who become frustrated by their inability to help.

Research shows that attachment style affects our performance in many areas of life, including physical and mental health, finding a compatible romantic partner, and our behavior in family, social and work contexts. Attachment style even affects the type of religious belief we hold, our relationships with pets and whether our home feels like heaven.

Once you know your own attachment style – which you can easily discover by completing an online survey – you will be able to predict what your response is likely to be in different circumstances. For example, if you have an avoidant attachment style, you fear rejection and may decide not to go for a promotion at work.

When you realize that your fear of rejection is caused by your carer’s own difficulties when you were little, it may help you change your own mindset. Taking such positive steps can help you develop a more secure attachment style. So take steps to find out your attachment style is – it can only be of benefit.

If a parent consistently ignores a child’s distress, the child will grow to learn they can’t trust their attachment figures to help them. from

 What are the attachment styles?These strategies, along with people’s thoughts and feelings about relationships, form the basis of a person’s attachment style in adulthood.Our own attachment style is the result of how we rate on two actors – attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Attachment anxiety ranges from low to high, with people high on attachment anxiety exhibiting a high need for approval, an intense desire to be physically and emotionally close to others (especially romantic partners), and difficulties containing their distress and emotions in relationships.

Attachment avoidance also ranges from low to high, with people high on attachment avoidance exhibiting a distrust of others, a discomfort being intimate and emotionally close to others, excessive self-reliance, and a tendency to suppress their worries and emotions.

People who rate low on both attachment anxiety and avoidance have a secure attachment. They’re trusting of others, comfortable with sharing emotions and being close to others, and tend not to downplay or exaggerate their distress. They also feel confident in problem-solving challenges and life stressors as well as turning to others for support.

Can they change over time?Our attachment styles are thought to be moderately stable throughout life, although some people do manage to change from an insecure attachment to a secure attachment style. But this doesn’t just happen, it takes a lot of effort. Research suggests that although attachment styles can become harder to change as e age, life events and experiences that challenge our pre-existing beliefs about relationships can bring about changes in our attachment style.

Getting married and developing shared goals that reinforce love and commitment towards another have been found to reduce attachment insecurity. But events that are viewed as threats to one’s relationship or the loss of connection (such as experiencing partner rejection) can increase attachment insecurity.

Most parents would agree that parenting is extremely complex and challenging. What works for one child, might not work for another – even within the same family.

Attachment theory explained:John Bowlby formulated his ideas on attachment theory during the 1950s. He worked as a child psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic in London during World War II – noting the devastating impact of maternal separation and loss on child development.

Working with Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist, Bowlby provided support for the idea that mothers and children are mutually motivated to seek proximity to one another for survival. He argued that a mother’s sensitivity to her child’s desire for closeness and comfort was a critical factor in shaping attachment and child development.

This sensitivity relates to a mother’s ability and capacity to detect, understand and respond appropriately to her child’s cues around distress and threat. If her baby is distressed, a securely attached mother is attuned to the distress – she detects it, she is motivated to alleviate it, and she offers a set of soothing responses to do so.

Leading attachment researchers have argued that a consistent lack of such maternal sensitivity in infancy and early childhood results in a belief that the world is unsupportive and that one is unlovable.

Since Bowlby’s initial volume, Attachment and Loss, in 1969, there have been more than 20,000 published journal articles on the topic of attachment. The literature strongly suggests that if we deny children sensitive care during the early years, there can be significant negative consequences for their emotional and relational life.

The key principles of attachment theory have become embedded in contemporary Western ideas about parenting. And the language of attachment theory underpins the “attachment parenting movement” – which advocates methods such as co-sleeping – where babies and young children sleep close to one or both parents – and feeding on demand.

Attachment theory has also influenced policies bout time spent in daycare and time away from parents during the early years – such as the generous maternity and paternity leave entitlements that ensure Swedish parents are able to care for their children up to the age of eight. And it has also influenced guidelines on early yearly years educational practice – in the UK for example, the role of a child’s “key person” (their main contact) within early years education is informed by attachment theory.

This cultural tide reflects a profound movement towards a “child-centered” approach to parenting, which puts the needs of the child at the center of their learning and development.

Some argue, however, that this has shift has negative consequences. US writer Judith Warner suggests that attachment theory has fuelled a culture of “total motherhood”, in which mothers are placed in a demanding position of “total responsibility” for their child’s needs. Attachment parenting, she says, pressures working mothers (particularly) towards a life where they must perpetually work a double shift – both at home and in the workplace – in the interest of their child’s development.

Parenting values:Other researchers have identified similar cultural differences. Anthropologist Courtney Meehan’s work with the Aka, a Congo Basin tropical forest foraging community, revealed that infants have about 20 caregivers interacting and caring for them on a daily basis.

There’s also anthropologist Susan Seymour’s work on Indian parenting, where exclusive mothering is the exception:India provides an excellent case study for examining multiple childcare. Even in a context of rapid change and modernization, my research and that of others indicate that exclusive mothering is the exception, rather than the rule and that the concept of maternal indulgence – that is, a mother focused solely or primarily on responding to and nurturing her child – is itself problematic.

German researchers have also suggested that mothers and fathers may have unique ways of developing a secure attachment bond with their children. The pathway to secure attachment for mothers may be through sensitive caregiving responses in times of distress. But they identified that fathers were more likely to build secure attachment bonds through sensitive play – a play that was harmonious, attuned to the child, and cooperative.

These studies show that child-rearing values are a reflection of our culture. They are not universal. And they are vulnerable to generational changes.

In the contemporary Western world beliefs about attachment and parenting have a strong connection to Bowlby’s original framework. These ideas and beliefs have played a critical role in the move towards a healthier society for child development and well-being. But given the historical and cultural diversity in parenting and broader social values, there should be caution about advocating attachment theory as the “only” way. In the end, perhaps it is comforting to know that parenting is so diverse and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model.

The writer is  former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)

Dhaka, Bangladesh



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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