mental health, therapy, counseling and psychology terms glossary

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory in a nutshell is the understanding that humans develop certain styles of attachment based on the level of care they received in early infancy. “Attachment” is defined as a deep emotional bond between two people seeking closeness and security.

Attachment styles refer to the way people relate to other people – and there are commonly 4 styles: Anxious, Avoidant, Disorganized, and Secure. The style a person associates with is formed in early childhood. Once imprinted, this style is known to affect how you respond to relationships.

Four Stages of Attachment

1. Pre-Attachment Stage: From 0-3 months, newborns do not show a preference or a difference in attachment to a specific person. Crying and fussing are what the baby uses to draw the attention of the caregiver and keep them nearby.

2. Indiscriminate Attachment: Between 6 weeks – 7 months, babies begin to show a preference for their most immediate caregivers, such as mom and dad, grandma, etc. This attachment is formed through trust that the infant develops when caregivers respond to their needs. Infants will accept care from strangers but they begin to understand the difference between familiar and unfamiliar people.

3. Discriminate Attachment: From 7-11 months, infants will form a strong attachment to one specific caregiver. When a child cries when separated from their bonded caregiver, they are displaying separation anxiety and/or stranger anxiety.

4. Multiple Attachments: Around 9 months of age, children will also create strong bonds with a secondary tier, including siblings, another parent, etc.

However, not every child has the same level of access to caregivers. A parent being unavailable due to illness, work, or other circumstances, may leave an infant with multiple strangers or alone in some cases for more than ideal lengths of time. This can hinder the level of bonding and trust the infant is able to develop – and this early imprinting carries forward into adolescence and adulthood as it shapes the view of the reliability of the people around them. 

Four Attachment Styles

1. Anxious (Preoccupied): Individuals with this attachment style hold a negative self-image and a positive image of others. This belief contributes to their sense of unworthiness. For a person who has an anxious attachment style, the thought of being alone can often appear as the worst outcome, therefore being without a partner can cause high levels of anxiety. This person seeks approval and support from their partner but is at times worried that their partner is not as invested in the relationship as they are. Adults who have an anxious attachment style may have a strong fear of abandonment and safety is the priority. The idea of “safety” hinges on the attention, care, and responsiveness of their partner, so they may seek higher levels of contact and intimacy than the other attachment styles.

2. Avoidant (Dismissive): Adults with this style of attachment hold a positive self-image and a negative image of others. They may avoid close relations with others as they value their independence and autonomy. People with this attachment style do not want to be tied down by depending on others or having others depend on them. Adults with an avoidant attachment style may avoid emotional closeness and might not share their feelings or will want to hide them when faced with emotional challenges. When faced with a stressful situation, they may appear unsupportive or withdrawn but could feel pressure to give or receive support, to become more emotionally available, or to share deep and personal emotions, which is how the avoidant behavior presents.

3. Disorganized (Fearful-Avoidant): A person with a disorganized attachment style may fear closeness and intimacy. These individuals may see their partner and their relationship as both a blessing and a curse. Fearful-avoidant people do want intimacy and closeness but struggle with trust and depending on others. These individuals may have a difficult time regulating emotions and opening up to others to discuss feelings, and they may lack healthy coping strategies for stress.

4. Secure: A secure attachment is the healthiest attachment style. As adults, securely attached people have little to no issues with creating trusting, long-term relationships. The key characteristics of a securely attached human are high self-esteem, the ability to emotionally regulate, enjoy intimate relationships, seek support, and share their feelings with others as well as set boundaries.

Attachment concerns can be addressed by several different types of therapy that will help you reach your goals, work through trauma, and identify the habits that are not working for you. EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) was developed around the principles of attachment and teaches strategies to increase self-awareness to recognize maladaptive coping strategies created for survival, however, that may prevent meaningful emotional connection and secure attachment.

At Claibourne Counseling, we offer support for individuals seeking to better understand and manage their attachment styles!