The science of attachment has been around since the ’60s, and is supported cross-culturally by mountains of research across the fields of social work, criminology, and psychology. It categorizes our experiences with attachment: the experience of forming a deep emotional bond with another human being.
Called attachment styles, these four categories reliably predict:
who you tend to be attracted to
why you have similar fights and problems in every relationship
how your relationships will end
what you have to do, to have a healthy relationship
These attachment styles are mostly decided by recurring themes in our first 5 years of life, though they can still be shifted by major traumatic events throughout life.
But before we get into the separate styles, let’s look at what creates them.
Attachment Trauma = Fear of Abandonment
As children, we are completely dependent on our caretakers to recognize our needs and respond to them in time. Our greatest fear is that our parents will stop responding to us, since for a defenseless child abandonment means death.
Children are also ego-centric: like a child playing hide and seek by covering their eyes, they assume everyone else sees, hears, and thinks the same things that they do. Therefore, children believe that every event that happens to them is caused by them.
The combination of these two beliefs mean that young children believe that every painful event is their fault.
- being ignored when crying or hungry
- being shamed for their actions
- being neglected or ignored
- being hit or yelled at
- being used to meet a parent’s emotional or physical needs
- being abandoned by one or both parents leaving the family
Since children can’t comprehend that their problems are because of someone else’s issues, it creates what’s called toxic shame: the child believes that they are inherently bad and unlovable. Since bad things happen to bad children, their survival strategy is to grow up hiding how bad they are from themselves and others.
When this shame doesn’t get cleared, it becomes an insecure attachment: the child believes they cannot be loved for who they are.
Attachment Styles are Lifelong Patterns Until Broken
Unless we make an effort to change, our attachment issues rear their heads in times of stress. Humans are not designed to survive alone, and life stresses that we are unable to cope with alone reliably trigger attachment issues from childhood.
The deeper the emotional bond we form toward someone (and the more intense the need), the more easily they trigger destructive attachment reactions in us such as:
- unpredictable emotional outbursts
- threatening to leave/end the relationship
- emotional door-slamming/withdrawal
- seeking casual, less threatening intimacy with other people
Since no relationship can survive very long with this kind of behavior, letting an insecure attachment continue unhealed is a recipe for a lifetime of pain and loneliness.