“Like father, like son.” We sigh after watching yet another news report on domestic violence; or, perhaps, this is one of the most nonchalant comments we could give to our ex- ensuing the unhealthy relationship. Last time, in To Love or Not to Love is a Matter of Parent-Child Attachment Styles, we talked about how two twenty century psychologists—John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999)—categorized three attachment styles through observing toddlers’ interaction with their parents while the fourth attachment style was discovered by psychologists after them. Following an introduction on the attachment theory, this article presents a detailed analysis of individuals with the four attachment styles.
All set? Let’s take an objective look at ourselves in intimate relationships through the eyes of these social psychologists!
What are the childhood life and behavioral characteristics of the four attachment styles?
The four different descriptions of attachment styles below can be attributed to Mary Main (1943—), a student of Mary Ainsworth. Main combined Ainsworth’s child attachment theory with adults’ manifestation within intimate relationships. Through a series of Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), she examined the similarities between an adult’s love life and childhood life. Psychologists afterwards then expanded Mary Main’s theoretical model.
I. Secure Attachment
i. Childhood for the Securely Attached
A child who is raised in a stable and healthy environment will exhibit a secure attachment style and will be able to recall experiences growing up in a positive and coherent light (Bretherton, 1992; Main, & Goldwyn, 1995). This is because parents with securely attached kids always attend to their children’s physiological and psychological needs in a timely manner. For example, maybe it is walking them to school when their child is still too small for independence so that he/she does not need to face the strange environment alone; or, maybe it is patiently listening to and helping out the minor when he/she feels incompetent of facing the highly pressured situation; or perhaps, it is offering warm hugs and cuddles when the child needs one. When parents or primary caregivers are able to provide timely response to a child’s anxiety under survival threats, the child will start to recognize them as dependable persons, someone who could bring safety to his/her life. This way, the child begins to build a secure attachment style and can possibly take it into his/her future social life.
i. Behaviors of the Securely Attached in Relationships
The intimate relationships of securely attached individuals are generally very pleasant, since they can maintain the relationship without acting too needy or too aloof, even in a marriage. Meanwhile, they feel secure toward the relationship itself and are able to stick to promises they made. If, fortunately, their significant other happens to be a person with secure attachment as well, they will be showing this trait through constant communication and compromises in a positive manner during relational conflicts. In terms of positive communication, the securely attached individual is comfortable sharing with the other person his/her feeling toward the current circumstance, which in turn makes the lover perceive the sense of trust given and could then offer a fair amount of support and company. In addition, a highly secured person is more likely to offer sincere apologies during relational disputes (Pizzano, Sherblom, & Umphrey, 2013).
II. Anxious Attachment
i. Childhood for the Anxiously Attached
Do you still remember the Strange Situation experiments? Kids who are overly anxious had a hard time calming down even after their parents or primary caregivers have returned to the room. Moreover, oftentimes children with an anxious attachment tend to exaggerate their emotions by crying louder upon the return of their attachment figures. These behavioral patterns can be discovered in their early childhood years. Family experiences for the typically anxious person can be volatile, in which parents act clingy toward the child at times while ignoring him/her at other times (Joyce, n.d.). In the long run, toddlers with an anxious attachment base start to build the illusion that “gaining attention from others is a luxury”, falsely believing that one’s value can only be proved through tremendous efforts. This makes it the reason why anxiously attached individual normally seek the common value or others’ acceptance in their early peer relationships. Strangely, however, upon establishing a rapport with others, the anxious person becomes over-worried and eventually strains his/her friends.
ii. Behaviors of the Securely Attached in Relationships
As anxiously attached individuals feel incompetent and insecure of themselves, they tend to be the one chasing after their significant other. For instance, they may need constant attention from their lover, or may keep on checking the whereabouts of their partners when they are not around. Thus, it has often be reported that partners of anxiously attached individuals are more likely to receive non-stop calls from them and spend an extended period of time trying to soothe and calm them down afterwards. Undoubtedly, non-anxious individuals may experience burnouts in a relationship with an anxious partner and often decide to end the relationship in terror.
III. Avoidant Attachment
i. Childhood for the Avoidant Attached
Earlier we discussed about the importance of parents or primary attachment figures providing timely support to the child’s physical and/or psychological needs. Hence, it seems easy to image what the childhood of an avoidant person is like. Family life for avoidants are rather cold, i.e. their parents may be busy working, socializing, or trapped within their own traumatic past that they are careless when giving their child the response required of them. Although some parents satisfy the children’s physical needs from all aspects, they rarely offer them the intimacy or emotional connection fundamental for every human being; eventually, the youngster recognizes this attachment figure as the “food supplier”, gradually becoming emotionally indifferent and defensive toward the parent-child relationship. However, the avoidant individual has, in fact, a rather clear conscience of what the attachment figure means to him/her, while being fearful of exhibiting any signs of concern since this makes them feel vulnerable. This is why avoidants are constantly in a contradicting state between apathy and distress.
ii. Behaviors of the Avoidant Attached in Relationships
Since people with avoidant attachment styles are afraid to express their most inner emotions, they are usually the passive one in an intimate relationship. Typically, they act as if they are good all by themselves even when they enter a serious relationship. Yet, what these individuals seem puzzling to us is the reason for a relationship after all, if they do feel fine being alone. As discussed earlier, the inner emotions of avoidants are quite contradictory; after all, it is highly suspected that one could possibly live without the reliance on someone else. Hence, it is certain that avoidants also need emotional bonds with others, but with the hurt experiences in early life, they tend to enter an ambiguous relationship holding back their affections. As long as the attachment figure remains, they are satisfied with the relationship.
IV. Disorganized Attachment
i. Childhood for the Disorganized Attached
The experiences of growing up for someone with a disorganized attachment are a blend of experiences from the anxious and avoidant types. That is to say, disorganized attached individuals have parents who are sometimes unusually passionate and yet at other times pretty aloof. To illustrate, some parents may buy tons of presents to their child when they act well while turning into monster dads and moms throwing away stuffs when they are in emotional distress. Hence, we may see this form of parent-child interaction among disorganized individuals: showing a certain level of fear and anxiety when the attachment figure leaves the room, and running immediately to the parent upon return while halting before they actually get to the adult (Firestone, n.d.). This paradoxical manifestation reflects their fear toward the relationship, since they rest unassured of whether the attachment figure is a threat to them or not.
ii. Behaviors of the Disorganized Attached in Relationships
You may have figured what an intimate relationship would be like for disorganized attached individuals. These types of people are those whom we often wonder, “Apparently, her husband keeps on hitting her and her child and she knew it! But why is it that every time her husband comes begging for her forgiveness, she falls back into it all over again?” For those without a disorganized attachment style, we may be puzzled by the sight of this. Yet, for those with a disorganized attachment style, the intimacy serves as the last surviving base for them; they are fearful of the pressure experienced within the relationship, meanwhile dreadful of the unknown destiny without this agent. The early lives of disorganized individuals are just too turbulent for them to master. Sometimes their attachment figures are overly protective, whereas at other times they turn into violent and cruel creatures. At last, these individuals perceive intimacy as, “He/She loves me but just has too much to suffer themselves. I should be the one supporting them out.” Due to this misapprehension, disorganized individuals are constantly falling in a frightful relationship unable to withdraw.
After reading this article on the behavioral characteristics of the four attachment styles, are you feeling rather frustrated and disappointed about your own relationships? “Like father, like son.” Is the happiness for our future relationship really a dream untrue? Be disappointed but not desperate, because what I am about to tell you is a joyful herald of all times: our attachment style can be transformed through serious efforts. In my next column, I will share with you how “the old has gone, the new has come” is possible! Please stay tuned!
- Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment. In B. Cardwell & H. Ricciuti (Eds.), Review of child development research (Vol. 3, pp. 1-94) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. New York: Basic Books.
- Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775. doi: 10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1689
- Firestone, L. (n.d.). Disorganized attachment: How disorganized attachments form and how they can be healed. PSYCHALIVE. Retrieved from https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment/
- Joyce, C. (n.d.). Anxious attachment: Understanding insecure anxious attachment. PSYCHALIVE. Retrieved from https://www.psychalive.org/understanding-ambivalent-anxious-attachment/
- Main, M., & Goldwyn, R. (1995). Interview-based adult attachment classifications: Related to infant-mother and infant-father attachment. Developmental Psychology, 19, 227-239.
- Pizzano, P. A., Sherblom, J. C., & Umphrey, L. R. (2013). Being secure means being willing to say you’re sorry: Attachment style and the communication of relational dissatisfaction and disengagement. Journal of Relationships Research, 4(7), 1-13. doi: 10.1017/jrr.2013.7