What is attachment and why is it important

What is attachment?

Attachment refers to the way in which we typically relate and build emotional bonds to others. The typical way we attach (i.e., our attachment “style”), develops in early childhood but then continues to evolve through adolescence and then adulthood.

Attachment has four components: seeking proximity when distressed, feeling distress when separated, relying on the relationship as a safe-haven of comfort, and using the relationship as a secure-base for exploration (Zeifman and Hazan, 2008). While “true” attachment has been argued to only occur in the context of long-term relationships with affectional bonds (i.e., parents and long-term romantic partners), it can be influenced by many people. We can also have secondary attachments to our friends or other important adults whereby the relationship has two or three of the qualities of true attachment.

For many people, their attachment style remains stable throughout their life as they unknowingly recreate relationships that serve to perpetuate their belief system. For others, there can be movement between having a secure and insecure attachment because of the influence of other secure and insecure people (e.g., a grandparent, teacher, therapist, romantic relationship).

Why is attachment important?

To live a good life, we want to build and maintain psychological maturity. For this to occur, we need to develop both our need for relatedness and our need for self-definition/autonomy(Blatt, 2008). When we purposely attempt to balance these seemingly dialectic positions, we build our capacity to have the psychological resources to manage our suffering.

The concepts of relatedness and autonomy tie closely to principles of a safe-haven and secure-base found in child attachment theories such as Circle of Security. The safe-haven represents our innate need to have a person (an attachment figure) to be therewith us and to help co-regulate us in times of stress/fear (i.e., our desire for relatedness). The secure-base represents the knowledge there is safety to come back to as we explore the world independently (i.e., our desire for autonomy).

When we have experienced a history of consistent caregiving, whereby the caregiver was both available for us in times of stress/fear and gave us space to be in and explore the world, we are most likely to develop a secure attachment. However, experiences of inconsistent caregiving (i.e., will I be responded to today?) can lead to anxious (ambivalent-resistant) attachment and experiences of a consistent lack of caregiving (i.e., I do not expect to be responded to today) or emotional distance between caregiver and child can lead to an avoidant attachment.

When attachment is working and we have solid integration of a safe-haven and secure-base, we have a feeling of safety and security that permeates through our experiences. Our capacity to build secure attachments, therefore, influences many other psycho-behavioural systems such as our emotional regulation, our caregiving, our exploration, our view of ourselves, and our internal working model (i.e.,our internalised map of the world and how we expect the world to operate).Understanding your attachment patterns including the beliefs and biases you hold regarding both your emotional needs and your expectations of other people’s capacity/desire to meet them, may hold the key to understanding the unique way you suffer.

Dr Daniel Brown

Back to blog posts