The Science of Relationships
Updated: Aug 27
By Rebecca Parks, MA, LMFT Associate
Supervised by Cristy Ragland, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S, RPT-S™
By now, you may have heard about attachment through the grapevine, or at least through social media. Attachment has become a widely discussed psychological phenomenon in the last few years, with many bestselling books on the topic and influencers discussing their own attachment styles. If you have or haven’t heard about the concept of attachment before, let’s dive into a brief look at what it is, where it came from, and why it is helpful to us as humans.
What is “attachment”?
Attachment science is filled with lots of jargon and theories and psycho-mumbo-jumbo. But at its essence, attachment simply means the way we relate to and experience other humans.
To understand this, we may ask questions like: Do I like or dislike this person? Does this other person annoy me? What is my first impression or gut sense of them? Do I feel loved or dismissed by this person? Do I feel this person’s care for me? Do I feel afraid of this person?
Answers to questions like these make up the nature of my relationship or attachment to another person. We could think of a spouse or a parent and answer these questions, and our answers would likely vary because our attachment varies from person to person.
Where did attachment science come from?
"[Attachment is] the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." - John Bowlby
Attachment science, or more accurately known as Attachment Theory, was developed by John Bowlby in the 1940s. During his career, Bowlby, a trained psychoanalyst, studied the relationship between babies and their mothers to understand how attachment forms. Bowlby concluded that infants depend on their mothers or caregivers to meet their basic survival needs for food, water, safety, and comfort, thus they develop a close emotional and psychological bond. Bowlby’s findings helped us understand that attachment is, both, necessary for survival and begins early in childhood.
Mary Ainsworth built upon Bowlby’s work in the 1970’s with her famous “Strange Situation” experiment. The results of this experiment provided concrete evidence for “attachment styles”. The babies observed displayed sets of distinct behaviors toward their caregivers that were later categorized into four categories, what we call attachment styles. The four categories are:
#1 - Secure
Those with a secure attachment style tend to relate well to others and have healthy relationships of various kinds. They had most of their emotional and physical needs met as a child, and, as an adult, know how to meet their own needs or advocate for their needs to be met. They can manage conflict with healthy communication skills and express their emotions with balance, mutuality and vulnerability.
#2 - Anxious (or Ambivalent)
Those with an anxious attachment style live with the core belief that their needs will not be met by others. Thus, they constantly strive in relationships to get their needs met. They had some of their needs met as a child, but caregivers were inconsistent, becoming unavailable at random times or meeting their needs with high distress. Their child-self could not fully depend on their caregiver to show up for their emotional and physical needs. They tend to be on high alert to any unmet need and pursue others in relationships with high emotional energy to meet their needs. These individuals may be misguidedly labeled as “overly emotional”, “clingy”, or “difficult to please” because of the behaviors they employ to get their needs met and protect themselves.
#3 - Avoidant
Those with an avoidant attachment style, also, live with the core belief that their needs will not be met by others, but they resolve this problem by not needing anyone at all and meeting their needs all on their own. They had few of their needs met as a child, as caregivers were largely unavailable, unengaged, or absent. Many of these individuals suffered neglect, physically and/or emotionally, in their childhood. They learned to take care of themselves, without depending on others. These individuals tend to be labeled as “cold”, “distant”, or “uncaring” because of the distance they maintain in relationships to protect themselves.
#4 - Disorganized
Those with a disorganized attachment style tend to oscillate chaotically between anxious and avoidant behaviors. In childhood, they may have suffered abuse and neglect. Their caregivers sometimes engaged, often with harm, and other times were totally absent. In relationships, they may experience confusion and disorientation on how to be and relate, tossed between feeling dependent on others or totally alone.
Why does Attachment Theory matter?
Many people find themselves in relationships where they or their partners feel utterly confused by their behaviors and emotions. It may feel impossible to fix what goes “wrong” in intimate relationships, whether that is constant conflict in romantic ties or difficulty maintaining friendships or wishing family bonds were healthier. Awareness of and understanding the way we attach to others, the fears, beliefs, and patterns we repeatedly fall into, is the first step to change. It can be normalizing and validating to know there is a name for how you relate and a reasonable explanation for confounding problems. With the help of a therapist or resources available for non-professionals, you can explore your own attachment story and learn about how your attachment style may be blocking you from the connection you desire with others. There is great benefit to growing in our understanding of relationships and ourselves.