To a person struggling with their mental health, maintaining healthy relationships can feel daunting. Attachment Theory is a powerful tool to help us build better connections.
Attachment Theory begins with the idea that humans have a basic need to form emotional bonds with others.
The psychologist John Bowlby proposed the theory in Attachment and Loss (1969), where he argued that children form patterns of attachment with their primary caregivers, and these act as a blueprint for a person’s attachments later in life.
We are therefore disposed to re-enact patterns of attachment formed in childhood in our adult relationships.
As a popular survival strategy in the wild, our need for attachment has evolutionary origins.
In Lost Connections (2018), Johann Hari describes the way one of our closest relatives – baboons – practice attachment.
Baboons live in strictly hierarchical societies which number into the hundreds. Members of the troop call out when a predator is on the loose, groom each other, and nurse each other’s offspring.
Life gets better the higher one climbs on the social ladder – if the top baboon wants another breakfast, he can take it from the second, who can take it from the third, and so on.
Interestingly, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s research discovered that baboons at the bottom of the pecking order had higher levels of hormones associated with anxiety and depression.
What’s more, these baboons exhibited submissive body language – if they weren’t a threat, then others might allow them to stick around.
Much like our baboon relatives, evolution primed our brains to seek communion with others, and so our brains are designed in such a way to push us towards attaching to others socially. Fortunately, human relationships rarely hinge on the same violent and physical struggle of baboon hierarchies – but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to compromising our wellbeing for the sake of social inclusion.
In their book Attached (2010), researchers Amir Levine and Rachel Heller say, “the need to be near someone special is so important that the brain has a biological mechanism specifically responsible for creating and regulating our [relationships].”
This mechanism, known as the attachment system, prioritises attachments over the means of their formation. In prehistoric times, social inclusion was the difference between food and hunger, shelter and exposure to the elements, hunter and prey – it was the difference between life and death.
But today’s world is different. We are rarely compelled to endure toxic relationships for the sake of food and shelter. We now have the freedom to choose relationships that nourish our emotional wellbeing.
Now comes the tricky part: The world has changed, but our biology remains the same. Learning about Attachment Theory may help us reduce the risk of accepting relationships that hurt us emotionally.
To create the best relationships, it helps to understand the attachment styles of ourselves and others.
Everyone has an attachment style. It describes our default patterns of behaviour in relationship settings: how we relate to others, and what we expect in return.
There is no wrong or right attachment style. They are simply patterns we evolved to survive.
Attachment styles are most pronounced in intimate relationships, and there are three main types:
People with anxious attachment styles are often preoccupied by their relationship. They are highly attuned to moods and become easily distressed when others don’t reciprocate their need for intimacy. They avoid conflict because they fear it could end the relationship, preferring passive tactics to get their message across. People with an anxious attachment style require additional reassurance in a relationship. They make up 25% of the population.
People with an avoidant attachment style tend to suppress their need for attachment. They have a relatively low tolerance for intimacy, which they view as a threat to their independence. Seemingly counterintuitive, we can see how this might be advantageous in survival settings where one’s closest attachments might perish at any moment. Avoidants still feel loss but are better able to move forward than people with other attachment styles. They make up 25% of the population.
People with a secure attachment style are comfortable with intimacy and open communication. They are skilled at identifying others’ needs and letting them know what they need in return. Secures know they are worthy of love, so they don’t fear confrontation ending a relationship. At 50% of the population, most people have a secure attachment style.
Bowlby was interested in how patterns of attachment formed in childhood persist throughout our lifetimes. Attachment Theory has since developed to include additional factors. Genes play a role, but that doesn’t mean our attachment styles are set in stone. A host of social and experiential inputs shape our attachment styles.
Childhood is still important. Most of us take the family as our basic model for attachment. For example, children who are constantly reminded they are loved will usually develop a secure attachment style, whereas those who must fight for parental attention might develop an anxious attachment style.
As we get older, each new life experience shapes our attachment style. For example, if we are bullied at school, we might develop avoidance as a coping strategy – we begin to mistrust others’ intentions and learn to rely only on ourselves. Alternatively, if our first romantic relationship is with someone who is uncomfortable with intimacy, we might be plagued by concerns that they will leave us. One day, our concern becomes reality. We decide we must fight for intimacy to protect future relationships – we might develop an anxious attachment style.
As put by Levine and Heller, “Attachment styles are stable but plastic.”
What does it mean to have a plastic brain? It means our brains can change, can adapt, and can be moulded by new experiences and different habits. In relationship settings, we tend to default to our preferred attachment style, but that doesn’t mean our preference can’t change.
Our life experiences can reinforce our preferred attachment style or push it in another direction.
One of the most valuable pieces of information Attachment Theory has to offer is how attachment styles can exacerbate or placate each other.
Anxious-avoidant relationships often come to resemble a kind of cat and mouse game that goes something like this:
Joanne has an avoidant attachment style and needs a lot of space in a relationship. Her partner Mark has an anxious attachment style. He craves intimacy and is highly attuned to any changes in the relationship.
Mark and Joanne both work from home. Joanne feels cramped and decides to go away for the weekend. This activates Mark’s anxious attachment system. Mark senses Joanne distancing herself and responds by constantly texting her while she’s away. Joanne resents Mark’s neediness and turns off her phone. She deactivates her attachment system – an avoidant response.
Joanne makes Mark more anxious, and Mark makes Joanne more avoidant.
Finding a way out of the cat and mouse game can be tricky for people in anxious-avoidant relationships, but Attachment Theory has some helpful tips.
People with a secure attachment style are skilled communicators, not only when it comes to their needs but also the needs of others. As a result, they tend to moderate anxious and avoidant behaviours.
The good news is that people with anxious or avoidant attachment styles can practice secure communication, leading to more fulfilling relationships.
Let’s say Joanne and Mark decide to practice secure attachment.
Joanne tells Mark she’s planning on going away for the weekend. This time, Mark says he will miss Joanne, but that he thinks it’s great she’s spending time with friends.
Mark’s encouragement surprises Joanne, and she doesn’t feel there’s any threat to her independence.
Joanne happily reassures Mark that she’s available and that he can call her at any time. She says she’s looking forward to telling Mark about the trip when she gets back.
This relaxes Mark’s anxious attachment system, and he doesn’t even feel the need to call Joanne over the weekend – they’ll catch up later.
Joanne returns feeling refreshed, and Mark enjoys hearing about her trip over dinner.
There are, of course, some relationships that you might be better off without. What’s certain, is that secure communication can take any relationship to a better place, even when that means ending it.
Remember, attachment styles are stable but plastic. It might not feel natural at first, but secure communication is naturally reinforced over time. As you experiment, the positive feedback you receive will serve as encouragement, making you increasingly comfortable with secure communication.
Attachment Theory is a powerful tool for your mental health toolbox. The people in our lives have a major impact on our emotional well-being. If we can find a way to improve our interactions with the people we care about, then it’s likely we will feel more fulfilled overall.
We’ve covered a lot, so here are the key takeaways:
Many of our therapists who work with individual or couples relationship counselling are informed and trained in attachment theory as a method for giving their clients new tools to build healthier, more satisfying relationships.
Noah Grundy is a freelance writer with a special interest in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Since completing an Honours thesis in Political Theory, Noah has become invested in the intersection of politics with mental health. He is passionate about encouraging both the public and private sectors to consider mental health impacts in their decision-making.