What are the Different Types of Attachment

What are the Different Types of Attachment

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What are the Different Types of Attachment?

You may think that attachment styles only have anything to do with romantic relationships, but you would be incorrect. Attachment styles were initially studied and researched between caregivers and children. The reason for this is because the attachment styles we develop as children with our caregivers affect the type of relationships and attachments styles we develop in our adult relationships.

Attachment styles are often described and characterized by various ways we behave and interact in our relationships1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085672/. These attachment styles are developed and created during early childhood – based on how the caregiver and child interact throughout that period. As we grow older, our attachment styles can reflect and describe our relationships, particularly romantic relationships with other adults.

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory was developed by psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He created the theory during the 1950s and 1960s and contributed greatly to the work on relationships between children and parents.

Bowlby viewed the first connection established by a child and mother to the strongest of all relationships. He believed that the behaviors infants exhibit to prevent separation from a parent were mechanisms created by evolution. Behaviors such as crying, grabbing and holding, and screaming were extreme ways that had evolved in humans2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051370/. Bowlby hypothesized that these extreme behaviors were reinforced and made stronger through natural selection.

The theory around attachment styles rose out of research completed on attachment theory between the 1960s and 1970s. The foundation of attachment theory and research began with Freud’s idea and concept of love and relationships, but John Bowlby is the researcher that nailed down attachment styles and how it reflects on our relationships. He described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. General definitions of attachment describe it as an emotional relationship centered around the exchange of comfort, care, and pleasure. These attachments become well established during our early childhood by the relationships between us and those taking care of us.

Attachment Theory

The theory investigates the bond between a caregiver and child. It examines how the bond is created and developed. Working with mentally handicapped children in London in the 1930s, Bowlby realized the impact that the relationship between parent and child has on development. Bowlby discovered infants separated from a parent may lead to maladjustment later in life. Through this discovery, he developed attachment theory.

Bowlby’s research found that a child separated from a parent routinely shows signs of distress. Along with colleague James Robertson, Bowlby discovered that when a parent was absent, the child remained in discomfort. This went against behavioral theory, which claimed that children would adapt to a parent being absent if they were fed. Bowlby and Robertson found that being fed or not had no impact on their attachment. Children remained distressed regardless if their parent was absent.

Attachment theory claims that the attachment doesn’t have to be reciprocated by both parties. One individual can be attached to another while the other isn’t attached emotionally or physically.

Evolution of Types of Attachment

Attachment theory states that children and parents have an “attachment gene”. This gene is what influences individuals to protect and take care of their children. Bowlby believed attachment was a biological agent and all children are born with the “attachment gene”.

He created the term ‘monotropy’ meaning that there is one central attachment figure for the child to focus on. Bowlby believed that an unsuccessful bond between a child and monotropy meant that negative consequences may occur later in life.

Different Types of Attachment

 

Different Types of Attachment:  Secure attachment

Secure attachment signifies a loving and caring bond has been created between the parent and child. Children feel cared for and loved by their parent. They develop the ability to have strong, healthy relationships.

Different Types of Attachment:  Anxious-Ambivalent attachment

These children feel unloved in childhood and become emotionally dependent once in adulthood.

Different Types of Attachment:  Avoidant attachment

As children, individuals understand their needs for love and attention will not be met. Once these individuals become adults, they avoid relationships and have difficulty expressing their feelings for others. Individuals also struggle to understand others and their own emotions.

Different Types of Attachment:  Disorganized attachment

Children in this attachment group exhibit strong rage and anger. They may act in volatile ways thus making it difficult to create bonds with others. As adults, these individuals may shy away from intimate relationships. They may also lack the ability to control emotions.

Attachment theory offers an interesting look at the way children develop. By learning more about attachment theory and children, mental health specialists can understand individuals more thoroughly as adults.

The different types of attachment have characteristics of attachment that are used to help identify and describe each style:

 

  1. Separation distress – anxiety and fear that happens when the figure of attachment is absent.
  2. Proximity maintenance – the desire to be around the people we have developed an attachment to.
  3. Safe Haven – the attachment figure is a place for comfort and safety when the individual faces fear, anxiety, or threatening situations.
  4. Secure base – The attachment figure is someone who the individual can always return to after they spend time exploring the world on their own.

 

Different Types of Attachment Styles

 

Secure Attachment Style

Children who have a secure attachment with their caregivers are typically upset when their caregivers leave and happy when they return to them. When they are scared, these particular children seek out shelter and comfort from their caregiver. These children will accept comfort or safety from those outside of their caregivers but prefer it to come from the caregiver themself.

These children easily accept any contact or interaction with the caregiver and typically play more with their caregivers than other children. Much of this is because these caregivers have a much quicker response time when their child expresses a need. The children that grow from a secure attachment have been shown to be more empathetic than children without secure attachment.

Secure attachment is not uncommon, but it does not always occur. This tends to be caused by the caretaker’s response time to expressed needs of the infant.

Later in life, children with secure attachments grow up to be adults who have more consistent, long-term relationships.

Ambivalent Attachment Style

If a child is suspicious of strangers, even safe ones, they likely have an ambivalent attachment style. They are extremely nervous and anxious when their caretaker leaves them for a period of time and are not necessarily consoled by the return of the caretaker either. They may even ignore the parent’s return and refuse to be comforted by them. Some may also display aggression.

Ambivalent attachment is not extremely common and only 7-15% of infants develop this sort of attachment style in early childhood. This attachment style is often associated with an unavailable mother or caretaker and they have often grown into older children or adults who are clingy and dependent on others.

As adults, they are extremely distraught at the end of relationships and often feel as though partners and those they are in relationships with do not return their feelings. This leads to relationships that feel cold and distant.

Avoidant Attachment Style

This attachment style is almost exactly as it sounds — the child avoids the parent or caretaker. This avoidance is often increased after the caretaker has left the presence of the child for a period of time.

They do not often seek out comfort or contact and may or may not reject that attention or comfort from a parent. There is often no obvious difference between how this sort of child interacts with their established caretaker and how they interact with strangers.

As they age, they often have a difficult time with intimacy and tight-knit relationships. They are not emotional in a relationship, even long-term, and do not show signs of stress or emotion when relationships end. They come up with excuses to avoid intimacy or close relationships. They have a hard time sharing their feelings and thoughts with partners and those they are in relationships with.

Disorganized Attachment Style

This attachment style is also called the disorganized-insecure attachment style. These individuals show a complete lack of typical attachment behaviors and patterns. The way they react and respond to caretakers is a mixed bag. They may appear to be avoidant or ambivalent at different times. They are often confused, aloof, and suspicious when a caretaker is around.

This attachment style is rare and is often a result of a parent or caretaker providing the child with a mixed level of attention and care. They may at sometimes be the reason for their child’s anxiety and at other times the reason for reassurance or comfort.

Life Attachment Style

While attachment styles do reflect and have an impact on our adult and romantic relationships, they are not always identical to the attachment style we had as children. The experiences you have around relationships can affect how you form and maintain bonds into adulthood.

Beware About the Different Types of Attachment

 

Some who may have been labeled as avoidant or ambivalent during their childhood can develop and grow into someone who has a secure attachment in their adult and romantic relationships. Some who were secure as children can develop insecure attachment as adults. Our experiences throughout our life shape the way we interact and while early childhood attachment styles do have a life-long impact in some ways, they do not always guarantee who we will be and how we will form relationships as adults. The life experiences we have and how we respond to them can slightly change the course of our attachment styles.

What is Your Attachment Style?

References & Citations: What are the different types of attachment

  1. Ainsworth MD. Attachment: Retrospect and prospect. In: Parkes CM, Stevenson-Hinde J, editors. The place of attachment in human behavior. New York: Basic Books; 1982. pp. 3–30. []
  2. Belsky J, Cassidy J. Attachment: Theory and evidence. In: Rutter M, Hay D, editors. Development through life: A handbook for clinicians. Oxford: Blackwell; 1994. pp. 373–402. []
  3. Bowlby J. Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Sadness and depression. 2. New York: Basic Books; 1980. []
  4. Bowlby J. Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books; 1973. []
  5. Bornstein MH, Tamis LeMonda CS. Maternal responsiveness and cognitive development in children. New Directions for Child Development. 1989;(43):49–61. []
  6. Clemmens D. The relationship between social support and adolescent mothers’ interactions with their infants: A meta-analysis. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing. 2001;30(4):410–420.[]
  7. Howes C. Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In: Cassidy J, Shaver PR, editors. What are the different types of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press; 1999. pp. 671–687. []
  8. Moore MR, Brooks-Gunn J. Adolescent parenthood. In E. In: Bornstein M, editor. Handbook of parenting. 2. Vol. 4. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum; 2002. pp. 173–214. []
  9. Seifer R, Schiller M. The role of parenting sensitivity, infant temperament, and dyadic interaction in attachment theory and assessment [Electronic Version] Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 1995;60(2–3):146–174. []
  10. Van IJzendoorn MH, Kroonenberg PM. Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: A meta-analysis of the strange situation. Child Development. 1988;59(1):147–156. []
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What are the Different Types of Attachment
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What are the Different Types of Attachment
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What are the Different Types of Attachment? Some who may have been labeled as avoidant or ambivalent during their childhood can develop and grow into someone who has a secure attachment in their adult and romantic relationships. Some who were secure as children can develop insecure attachment as adults. Our experiences throughout our life shape the way we interact and while early childhood attachment styles do have a life-long impact in some ways, they do not always guarantee who we will be and how we will form relationships as adults. The life experiences we have and how we respond to them can slightly change the course of our attachment styles.
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