Attachment Theory

The Foundation of Human Relationships

By Dario Martinez

As a relationship-focused therapist, my work is informed by one of the most widely researched, scientifically validated models of Psychology called Attachment Theory. I stress the fact that Attachment Theory has been widely researched because it's main tenets are deceptively simple, but they provide a great deal of insight into many common relationship “issues” such as “fear of intimacy,” communication problems, loneliness/isolation, social anxiety, etc.

According to Attachment Theory, these and many other “issues” are manifestations of “strategies” that people develop over time to promote two important things:

  1. Close “attachment” or connection with others.
  2. A sense of safety in relationship.

In a nutshell, Attachment Research has shown that close physical and emotional “attachment” to early caregivers is highly critical for healthy human development. Early relationships are especially critical because they occur at a point in our development when we’re most dependent on our caregivers for basic survival needs.

As babies, we “understand” that we’re going to die if we're unable to connect with our caregivers. This high level of vulnerability creates a deep internal need for connection coupled with a profound sense of terror if connection is lost. In an attempt to understand how babies learn to manage the terror that naturally arises when they lose connection with their caregivers, Attachment researchers created a study called The Strange Situation.
As part of the study, mothers brought their toddlers into a room. Each mother was instructed to be fully engaged with their child: playing with them and attending to all of their needs.

After several minutes, mothers received a signal to leave the room. When mothers got up and started to separate, most toddlers became agitated and started to cry. Sometimes a “stranger” (someone the child didn’t know) came into the room and attempted to soothe the child. In most cases, toddlers continued to cry out for their mothers.
After a short absence, mothers were instructed to go back into the room. The "reunion" between mother and toddler was the primary focus of the study. Researchers were trying to answer two questions:

  1. What specific behaviors or "strategies" did toddlers employ to manage the agitation and terror that they experienced after being abandoned?
  2. How did toddlers go about "reuniting" with the person who abandoned them and caused them so much pain?

In the study, researchers found that toddlers did one of three things when reunited with their mothers:

  • Group 1 cried for a short period of time, but quickly returned to a calm place and went back to playing with their mothers.
  • Group 2 cried after their mothers left, but basically collapsed after a short period of time. They remained in this collapsed state, and often looked sullen when their mothers returned. Many held their heads down and didn’t appear to want to want to engage with anyone—even when mothers attempted to comfort them. These toddlers took much longer to come out of their collapsed state and return to play with their mothers.
  • Group 3 became even more agitated and angry when mother returned. They actively engaged with their mothers in an attempt to express frustration and rage. When mothers tried to comfort them, they remained inconsolable. Like the second group, it took these toddlers a long time to feel safe enough to go back to playing with mother again.

Do any of these behaviors sound similar to the ways in which our friends or romantic partner(s) respond when they get angry at us?  To clarify how these findings apply to adult behavior, I’ll explain what’s happening on a very fundamental level. The toddlers in each group are doing following:

  • Group 1 has a "balanced" combinationof reaching outward and going inward for support when faced with a stressful situation. They've learned how to effectively utilize both internal and external support systems to manage stress.
  • Group 2 goes inward and actively turns away from the potential supportof an external relationship with mother. They rely instead, on internal resources to manage distress. For a variety of reasons, these toddlers don’t feel “safe” enough to rely on relationship with mother for support. So they go inward.
  • Group 3 primarily reaches outward for their mother’s support in stressful situations because they have a lot less access to internal resources than toddlers in Group 2. They reach out with anger and hostility toward mother because she is the cause of their stress. Like Group 2, these toddlers don’t necessarily feel “safe” with mother, but they’re forced to reach out for external support because they lack internal resources.

As toddlers grow into adulthood, these three “strategies” for managing stress obviously “mature” and become much more “sophisticated” over time, but the fundamental behaviors of either going inward or reaching outward for support remain the same. It can be difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that most of us are still responding to stress in our adult relationships in the same way that we responded as toddlers, but that’s exactly what Attachment Theory has shown us.

The behaviors observed in the Strange Situation form the foundation of what researchers call “Attachment Style.” Each of us has a dominant attachment style that basically dictates how we establish connections with others and manage stress in our relationships. Because our style is established when we’re babies, it becomes completely automatic, and most of us have little awareness of the profound impact that it has on our adult relationships. 

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Copyright © 2020, Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.

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Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist