• Jesse Thornton

Attachment in Relationships

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

In the 1950s John Bowlby changed our view of psychology when he demonstrated that a chimpanzee prefers maternal comfort more than food.  No longer were humans bound by survival instincts of evolutionary theory striving only to feed and procreate.  Instead, we discovered that we form a unique bond with a few specific people in our lives and that these bonds supersede other drives.  So what exactly is attachment and how is it formed?  Are all attachments good attachments, or can they be problematic?   If so, how do we change them?  I will attempt to talk briefly about these questions in this article.

Parent-Child Attachment:

The first evidence of attachment stems from parent-child relationships.  Children form an almost immediate and unique bond with their parents and distinguish them from all other people.  Secure attachments are fostered when parents respond appropriately to the needs of an infant.  The infant develops an instinct that the world is safe when parents are around, and when scared, they can reach their parents for comfort.  Securely attached children explore their surrounding and use parents to recuperate.  This leads to ideal development.  Insecure attachments develop when parents are unable to meet the needs of a child adequately.  Insecurely attached children remain fixated on their parents watching for rapid changes or ignore them altogether.  Either way, these children do not explore their world nearly as much and often have stunted development.

Maternal vs Paternal Attachment:

Children attach to their parents differently.  Attachment with mothers stems from the sensitivity with which moms meet the internal needs of the child, such as feeding and emotions.  Attachment with fathers stems from the sensitivity with which fathers play with their children, whether they overly challenge or respond to their distress during challenges.  This is not strictly gender specific.  It merely provides a traditional way of describing two styles of attachment.  Moms and dads can form attachments with their children of the opposite “gender.”

Adult Attachment:

We carry our attachment styles into our friendships and romantic relationships.  An insecure wife may be constantly hypervigilant to any cues that their husband is leaving.  Even when making healthy levels of separation, she may react negatively.  Or an insecurely attached husband may ignore the pleas of his wife for more emotional engagement due to an instinct to protect himself from being vulnerable.  Securely attached adult relationships maintain a healthy balance of closeness and independence, using each other as supports in exploring and developing in their life journeys.

Oxytocin:

Oxytocin is the “bonding” chemical.  When this chemical is released, we form an attachment with the person or creature we are sharing the experience with.  Caring or comfort can release this chemical in our brains.  Caring for an animal such as a dog can release this chemical resulting in an attachment.  Sex also releases this chemical, especially for females (sorry, not trying to be sexist).  This is one of the many reasons why cheating is taboo.

Forming Secure Relationships:

About 1/3 of our society lives with insecure attachments.  They have poorer relationships, achieve less in life, and experience worse health outcomes and earlier death.  Insecurely attached people are also lonelier and less happy in life.  People don’t choose to be insecurely attached.  They are taught they need to behave this way in order to survive.  The problem is that attachment is instinctual.  It is not a verbally learned skill like plumbing or electrical work.

In order to develop a secure attachment, an insecure person needs a secure base to “stand on.”  An insecure attachment may feel like perpetually treading water.  A secure base would be the helping hand that pulls the person onto solid ground.  And like moving from water to land, the shift in lifestyle is dramatic and fundamentally different.  The rules of engagement are different but difficult to describe without being on land to practice.  I have heard insecurely attached people describe the change as feeling like a crisis.  Through this crisis, they open to new ideas and are able to shift their world views.

There are several ways to find a secure base to develop a new attachment style.  Sometimes insecurely attached people find securely attached partners.  Through this experience, they establish a new form of attachment.  Be careful!  Securely attached people can get pulled into the insecure waters when trying to help someone from drowning.  Groups such as churches or treatment groups also can provide a secure setting.  Ideally, a therapist can provide a secure setting where they are able to explore new ways of relating.  This requires an investment of time and emotional energy, but the results can be life changing.

For more reading consider these articles:

How to Forgive

Three Parenting Styles

Grief and Loss



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