Adult Attachment: What Is It, And Why Does It Matter?
Updated July 12, 2019
Most of the early research on attachment centered on infant and childhood attachment. Yet, attachment happens throughout the lifespan. After researchers started studying adult attachment during the 1980s, they realized that the subject was well worth understanding better. That's because attachment in adulthood is like childhood attachments in some ways, but in other ways, it's strikingly different. What's more, it continues to impact your life for as long as you live.
How Is Infant Attachment Similar To Romantic Adult Attachment?
In 1987, Hazan and Shaver did a study to compare romantic attachment with infant attachment. What they found was that, in many ways, the attachment is attachment, no matter how old you are. In fact, the similarities between infant and adult romantic attachment are astounding. If you recognize the following signs of attachment within your romantic relationship, you aren't alone.
Sense Of Safety
We tend to feel safer when we're with the person we feel an attachment for. We experience a sense of freedom to explore and face difficulties when they're near. When they aren't, we feel more insecure, even if the attachment itself is secure.
Infants reach out to touch their caregivers. They play with their facial features and initiate physical contact. Adults do the same thing in romantic relationships. They touch the person they're in the relationship with and seek to be physically close to them.
Have you ever communicated your romantic love through baby talk? Be honest! Most people who are in love tend to use baby talk just as infants do. No, when you hear baby talk, it isn't necessarily a parent baby-talking with their infant. It's often an adult baby-talking to their romantic partner!
When an infant or child feels a secure attachment, they explore freely, knowing they have a safe base to come back to whenever they feel insecure. Then, they share their discoveries with their caregiver. When an adult feels a romantic attachment to someone, they want to share their discoveries, too. The only difference is the kind of discoveries they share.
What Are The Differences Between Infant Attachment And Adult Attachment?
If there were no differences between childhood and adult attachment, researchers' work would be done. There wouldn't have been much need to separate the two. Yet, researchers did find differences, though, not only in the reasons for attachment but also like the attachments themselves.
Obviously, an infant needs a caregiver to survive. Adults usually don't have such an urgent need to develop an attachment for someone. Most can survive without close attachments. Certainly, a partner can help you pay the rent or get food to eat. The truth is, though, you can probably survive on your own. Yet, adults still form attachments with other adults. Perhaps one reason for that is that adult attachments can also serve biological functions, such as arousal and reproduction.
The Choice Factor
As an infant, you have no choice of who your caregiver will be. Whoever steps in to meet your need is someone you'll form a close attachment to, whether it's a healthy or unhealthy attachment. Almost all adults have a vast pool of candidates for attachment.
You don't have to form an attachment to any particular person if you choose not to do so. You can always opt to break an attachment and choose a different one. That's difficult for an adult or an infant. The difference is that adults can do it by choice. Infants can't.
Differences In Types
The labels for attachment are different if you're an adult. The labeling system for adult attachment reflects the differences between the cognitive and emotional characteristics of infants and adults. The attachments styles in children roughly correspond to the following adult attachment styles.
- Secure infant attachment - secure adult attachment
- Anxious/ambivalent infant attachment - anxious, preoccupied adult attachment
- Avoidant attachments in infants - both dismissive-avoidant and fearful avoidant in adults
- Disorganized infant attachment - disorganized adult attachment
Secure Adult Attachments
Secure attachment is ideal. If you have a secure adult attachment, you find it easy to be close to someone. You're comfortable when others depend on you, and you don't mind depending on others at times. The idea of being alone doesn't bother you, and you aren't concerned about others will accept or reject you. In short, both intimacy and independence appeal to you.
Insecure Adult Attachments
Insecure adult attachment styles are problematic. They usually arise from the attachment you formed long ago with your primary caregiver.
People with anxious-preoccupied adult attachment want to be close to others but fear that others don't want to be close to them. They don't like being without a romantic attachment. When they have one, their neediness kicks into high gear. They want constant intimacy and approval from their partners.
An anxious-preoccupied you may become dependent on the person you're attached to in a relationship. They can suffer from extreme anxiety when their partner is away and only feel better when they return. They tend to worry, act in overly impulsive ways and have trouble managing their emotions. They blame themselves for what goes wrong in the relationship, feeling very little self-worth or confidence.
People with dismissive-avoidant attachments may feel that they don't need anyone else to be happy. Independence is very important to them. They don't want to depend on anyone else, and they don't want others to depend on them.
They see themselves more positively than they see others, and they'd just rather not have close relationships at all. They hide their feelings, sometimes even from themselves. When someone rejects them, they simply delete that person from their life.
If your attachment style is fearful-avoidant, you want close relationships. You have trouble trusting anyone else. You don't want to be vulnerable to being hurt by a partner so that you may avoid intimate relationships completely. They deny their emotions and don't like to show affection.
Disorganized Attachment In Adults
Adults with a disorganized attachment act in unpredictable ways. They keep trying different to get what they need in a relationship in various ways, none of which tend to work. Their partner can't make sense of what they're trying for, and they can't either.
How Can I Know My Attachment Type?
Since attachment style is still a part of your life now that you're an adult, perhaps you'd like to learn what your adult attachment style is. There are two main ways you can find out. You can try to find out for yourself, or you can talk to someone who has studied adult attachment.
The Limitations Of Personal Research
There's plenty of information out there on attachment theory and adult attachment styles specifically. Whether you're researching online or in your college library, you can get a good basic understanding of different attachment styles.
What you won't get from this research an objective assessment of your attachment style. You can guess at your attachment style based on what you've read, of course. Even if you get it right, though, you won't know for sure. You almost certainly won't know what to do about it.
The Value Of Therapy
A therapist can help you overcome attachment issues. First, though, they'll need to find out what type of attachment style you have. They are familiar enough with attachment theory and attachment assessment tools to identify your predominant style.
Yet, knowing your style probably won't help you much unless you have a secure attachment. If it turns out that you have an insecure attachment style, the information might even cause you distress. The best thing you can do if you have attachment issues is to seek help from a therapist because they can not only help you deal with the reality of an unhealthy attachment style; they can also help you deal with it.
The Adult Attachment Interview
When Ainsworth conducted her Strange Situation study, her emphasis was on the attachment styles of the infants. Her successor, Mary Main, became concerned that adults had attachment issues of their own that were not only harming them but their infants as well.
Main wanted to know about the attachments of parents with their infants. In 1982, this concern resulted in a test to identify adults' attachment styles and their current way of thinking about their childhood attachment. It's called the Adult Attachment Interview.
In the AAI, the person being interviewed tells their story after being given these rules:
- Be truthful and have evidence for what you say.
- Be succinct, yet complete.
- Be relevant to the topic as presented.
- Be clear and orderly.
The interviewer questions you, guiding you to tell the story of your lifetime attachments. After your interview is scored, you can find out whether you have a secure or insecure attachment style. If it's insecure, you'll also find out what type of insecure attachment it is.
How Your Adult Attachment Style Impacts Your Life
Your attachment style can affect your life in ways you may not realize. It impacts your choice of romantic partners as well as the relationships that come from those choices. It can change the way you interact with your children, which then influences your children's lives, too. It can even affect your casual relationships and your career success.
If you grew up with an insecure attachment and still carry that style with you, romantic relationships are difficult for you. You tend to choose romantic partners who have the same unhealthy attachment style that your primary caregiver did with you when you were a child. If you do get into a relationship, it's often a troubled one.
When you from an insecure attachment with your child, you create attachment problems for them, too. You feel anxiety when you're caring for your child, which children pick up on quickly. Or, you feel disconnected with them. Your children will probably grow up with attachment problems of their own. You won't enjoy their childhood or the act of parenting them.
Having a secure attachment as an adult allows you to feel free in meeting and interacting with others. The way you are with your main attachment figure impacts the way you are with friends and with social acquaintances. Thus, you have a hard time building a social support system.
Your work relationships also depend on your adult attachment style. Secure adult attachment helps you get along with others in a job setting without becoming dependent on them, fearing what will happen if you don't have a good work relationship, or dismissing the need to develop work relationships. Because of this, a secure attachment can help you achieve greater success.
Do Attachment Styles Ever Change?
There is some evidence that attachment styles can change, although it doesn't happen very often. These changes usually happen after a traumatic or emotionally painful event. However, the fact that you might not be able to change your attachment style needn't be a cause for giving up on relationships. Instead, you can learn to deal with the attachment style you have in more positive ways.
Resolving Attachment Issues
A therapist can help you identify your attachment issues.
Dealing With The Past
First, you need to deal with traumas and the effects of unhealthy childhood attachments. In one type of attachment therapy, you do this by telling your story and feeling the emotions you suppressed in your childhood. You create an organized story of your life, which helps you understand how you arrived at this point.
Evaluating And Changing Thoughts About Self And Others
The way you think about yourself and others is one of the most important hallmarks of attachment. These thoughts are associated with different attachment styles.
- Secure attachment - you think positively about yourself and mostly positively about others.
- Anxious-preoccupied attachment - you think negatively about yourself and positively about others.
- Dismissive-avoidant attachment - you think positively about yourself but negatively about others.
- Fearful-avoidant attachment - you think negatively about both yourself and others.
Fortunately, you can examine these thoughts and decide whether they're helpful to you. If they aren't, you can change the way you think, which will affect both your feelings and your attachment behaviors to some extent.
A therapist can help you with the process of dealing with attachment issues. You can talk to a licensed counselor at ReGain.us to work towards establishing better relationship skills and attitudes. Online therapy is convenient, affordable, and private. You don't have to suffer from the results of an unhealthy attachment style as much when you understand yourself and others better. You really can live a better life with more positive personal relations!