Attachment theory aids in relationship understanding, personal growth

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Editor’s note: This story appeared in the February 2022 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

Parents watch their child play with a toy. Children develop attachment styles as they grow up which later translate into adult relationship. Understanding attachment theory has helped people grow in their relationships and within themselves. (Photo illustration by Emma Gadeski)

Michaela Horn first heard about attachment theory in Tammy Hill’s marriage prep class. She took an attachment style quiz and had her now-husband Camren take it as well.

Camren’s result was “secure,” but Michaela’s was “anxious.” “It made a lot of sense afterwards,” she said.

After Michaela took the test, she talked to her mom about why she might be anxious and figured it was related to caregiver inconsistency growing up. In relationships, she felt like if she didn’t completely trust someone yet, she’d worry they would leave or she wouldn’t be good enough.

“So I strive for perfectionism,” she said. “That’s kind of like the hope that if I’m perfect then nobody will leave me type of thing.”

This anxiousness transferred to her adult relationships — the day Camren proposed to her, she had thought he was going to break up with her.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theorists say individuals learn a “working model” of people from a very early age according to Jason Whiting, BYU’s School of Family Life graduate program director and marriage and family therapist. If someone learns as a baby that the world is safe and secure and someone will respond to them if they need something, then they would become securely attached.

This outlook then translates into adult romantic relationships in which a secure person assumes the best, isn’t too easily offended and believes they can count on their partner, Whiting said. However, if someone learns as a child that the world is not safe or they might be hurt, punished or neglected, then they become “insecurely attached.”

Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were key researchers on individual differences in attachment styles.

According to Bowlby’s research, children’s attachment behaviors evolved to ensure they could remain under the protection of their caregivers to survive. Ainsworth later expanded on these ideas and pointed to three attachment patterns: secure attachment, avoidant attachment and resistant (anxious) attachment. Mary Main and Judith Solomon later introduced a fourth style: “disorganized” or fearful avoidant attachment.

Attachment theory covers four main attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant and fearful avoidant. People with different attachment styles have different levels of avoidance and anxiety in relationships. The goal is to become secure with low anxiety and low avoidance. (Graphic made with Canva by Emma Gadeski)

Securely attached individuals have low anxiety and avoidance. They have an easy time opening up in relationships and can articulate what they need from their partners.

Anxious individuals have high anxiety, but low avoidance. They have difficulty trusting their partners and worry about their relationships, needing reassurance. Avoidant individuals have low anxiety, but high avoidance. They can be emotionally distant in relationships and say they fear commitment. 

Fearful avoidant individuals have high anxiety and high avoidance, both fearing and desiring intimate relationships.

‘Strange situation’

Ainsworth’s “strange situation” test revealed these attachment styles in children, which later translate into adult relationships. In the experiment, a 12–18-month-old baby is placed in a toy-filled room with their mother. The researchers look at whether the child goes off to explore the environment or if they stay close to the mother.

After this, a stranger joins the room and the mother leaves. The researchers look for signs of separation anxiety and later their response when the mother returns. The stranger leaves the room, followed by the mother so the child is alone for the first time. The stranger later comes back to the room. The mother enters again after three minutes and the stranger leaves — creating the “strange situation.”

The researchers looked for four interaction behaviors the babies exhibited when their mother returned to the room — the proximity of the child in relation to the mother and whether they sought contact, whether they maintained contact, whether they avoided proximity and contact or whether they were resistant to contact and comforting.

The results revealed different attachment behaviors in children — the same ones later observed in adulthood. Securely attached infants were comfortable exploring when the mother was present, upset when the mother left and could calm down when she returned.

Anxious-ambivalent children did not explore the room, were distressed when the mother left and avoided her, unable to be comforted when she returned. Avoidant children were not upset when the mother left and could be comforted by the stranger and parent. They didn’t show much interest when the mother returned.

How do attachment styles affect relationships?

In adult relationships, people cope with these attachment issues in different ways, Whiting said. They might back off from people, especially when things get tense (avoidant) or pursue a little harder, seeking reassurance by clinging onto someone else (anxious).

Dean Busby is a relationship author and professor in the School of Family Life. In the context of BYU where there’s a lot of energy around dating and courtship, Busby advised individuals to understand their natural attachment tendencies and work on becoming secure.

Anxious people are vulnerable to those who are super accepting even if it’s not genuine. They could get into a relationship that may be helpful for them just because they felt accepted — but it’s not very deep acceptance. On the flip side, avoidant people may find themselves uncomfortable with intense conversations and emotions, Busby explained.

Attachment theory can also help explain some of the baggage people bring into their adult relationships. The average person enters marriage with 7-10 previous sexual partners, Busby said, having had quite a number of adult relationships that were often not very functional.

Principles taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about commitment and fidelity are powerful and show up in research all the time, he said. For example, people with lots of romantic and sexual partners don’t do as well because they are accumulating attachment insecurity across time. 

“I think we have to be careful about how we give our hearts away as adults too,” Busby said. “Attachment says, give your heart away carefully, be wise and then once you give your heart away, give it all, and give it to someone you can trust and you have a commitment with.”

How can someone become secure?

Whiting and three other researchers set out to find just that answer, creating a model of change to help people become secure. The study looked at 15 women and five men who had a self-reported history of attachment insecurity but showed evidence of earned security. They interviewed the participants and asked questions about their journeys to becoming more secure.

After analysis of each participant’s background and experience of attachment change, the researchers found a model of change for becoming more secure based on three interrelated categories: meta-conditions of earning security, making interpersonal changes and making intrapsychic changes.

One condition to earning secure attachment the participants demonstrated was being intentional about the change, which is also something Whiting noticed with his therapy clients. Recognizing behavior is a start to change, he said.

“If I see someone and they’re saying ‘I know I can get reactive, I know I can say mean things. I don’t like that about myself. I recognize that that’s not helpful. How do I become better?’ Then that’s the start,” Whiting said.

“Relinquishing a victim mentality” was one of the intrapsychic changes participants made. It’s empowering and helpful for someone to recognize they have the power to let go of resentments, Whiting said.

Interpersonal changes participants made included making peace with the past. This began with participants “changing their views, expectations and feelings toward their parents or primary childhood caregivers,” according to the study. This leads to revisiting caregivers with a new lens.

One of the ways to look at caregivers with a new lens in therapy is asking a lot of questions about what caregivers may have gone through in their own growing up years. “It’s just almost always the case that an unhealthy caregiver had their own unhealthy treatment of themselves,” Whiting said.

“Exonerating” a parent means an individual puts themselves in their parents’ shoes — letting them be a person rather than a figure to resent and blame, Whiting explained. This doesn’t mean to allow someone to cause damage or be unhealthy, but rather to forgive and let go, maintaining boundaries at the same time.

Surrogate attachment figures

Michaela and Camren Horn visit the Oakland California Temple. Michaela used to have an anxious attachment style, but with the help of her husband she has become secure. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Horn)

Another way the participants became secure was by having “surrogate attachment figures.” According to Whiting’s study, these figures included adults who acted as parent figures, college mentors, friends, church communities, spouses and therapists.

Some people need those figures, Whiting said. If someone’s mother, for example, isn’t reassuring or helpful, it helps to find somebody who is.

“It’s difficult, especially if there’s been pretty serious abuse or neglect,” Whiting said. He’s done studies on kids in foster care and found that even when placed in therapy or in a foster home with loving parents, those kids are often still going to struggle with believing they are lovable because they weren’t treated that way.

Not every case is this extreme, but Whiting said it’s always good to find other healthy relationships. An example of this is using romantic partners as a surrogate attachment figure and secure base.

Michaela, for example, hasn’t struggled with any anxious attachment problems in a long time, and she thinks it was easy to transition to a secure attachment style because her relationship with her husband was a secure-anxious mix.

“I’m here to support her and everything. I don’t feel worried about anything and I just make sure to understand her,” Camren said.

BYU student Nick Larsen takes a selfie with his girlfriend Alicia. Larsen had an anxious attachment style but became secure with the help of Alicia, who already had a secure attachment style. (Photo courtesy of Nick Larsen)

The ability to become secure with help from someone who is already secure is a pattern in relationships. BYU student and marriage prep teaching assistant Nick Larsen had a similar growth experience. He had an anxious attachment style and became secure with the help of his girlfriend Alicia, who already had a secure attachment style.

“Having her example and working with the boundaries that we’ve set in our relationship have helped us grow in a way that has helped me overcome that anxiety,” Larsen said. Through Alicia’s commitment and patience and him going to CAPS for professional, psychological help, he’s become securely attached.

The starting point in helping a partner become securely attached is knowing what side they’re on — secure, anxious or avoidant — as those styles have different responses. For example, Larsen said his anxious attachment meant he feared the relationship was ending if something was going wrong, whereas an avoidant person would close off and withdraw instead of being clingy.

“It’s helpful if you’re secure, because the clinginess or the avoidance is very taxing on the partner. And so taking time for yourself and making sure you’re in a good place, so that whenever your partner has those needs you can be there to meet them, is another good starting point,” Larsen said.

Larsen also advised establishing clear boundaries about personal space, being good about having vulnerable conversations, praying for patience and help to love one’s partner, and being willing to just work things out both together and with professional help.

He and his girlfriend went to counseling last year together. Getting a professional perspective of what they should be doing in their daily lives to help with mental and emotional health was helpful.

Differentiating is also key. In a relationship with an anxious person, Larsen advised individuals to make sure the person knows that while they might have anxiety, they are not an anxious person — that’s a big difference.

Hope and improvement

Though it’s sometimes challenging, Busby said with patience and time most people get a little more secure.

“This is adult attachment. And your childhood attachment matters, but it doesn’t matter more than your adult relationships,” he said. Even if someone came from a bad environment as a child, they can have trusting relationships as an adult and aren’t “doomed” for the rest of their lives to be anxious or avoidant.

“You can earn attachment as an adult even if you didn’t have it from childhood,” Busby said. “That’s pretty hopeful stuff in my opinion.”

Larsen also emphasized the improvement factor in attachment theory as observed in his personal experience — being on the anxious, “process” side and now the more secure side with one person.

“It’s been wonderful to grow together in that way,” he said. “You really can learn to be secure and have healthy and happy relationships before, during and after the process of that change.”

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