Attachment theory (John Bowlby 1907-1990) is a psychological developmental theory that describes the dynamics of long-term interpersonal relationships between humans. It helps us understand both child and parent and adult relationships and intimacy. It therefore has profound implications for understanding mental health and well-being.
Attachment states that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver (often the maternal mother, father or any reliable person who meets the child’s important needs and related social interaction) for the child’s successful cognitive, social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings and therefore behaviour.
In the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver, the infant will use the caregiver as a “safe base” from which to explore their environment. This ‘safe base’ will provide protection, soothing, responsiveness and be reliable toward the child therefore giving the child a relationship with which to feel secure. This then leads to the development of trust in another person and the generation of confidence with which to make decisions.
However, “even sensitive caregivers” get it right only about 50 percent of the time. Their communications are either out of sync, or mismatched. In other words, attuned interactions can break down regularly but the key to sensitive caregiving is that the ruptures are managed and repaired. The other issues with “sensitive interaction” include the importance of approval and modelling appropriate emotional responses to reinforce the child’s behaviour.
Prevention and treatment
On-going research has led to a number of individual treatments, therapies, prevention and intervention programmes. Attachment theory has also promoted interest in parenting programmes. Theses include one to one individual therapy to public health programmes and supports designed for foster carers. For infants and younger children, the focus is on increasing the responsiveness and sensitivity of the caregiver, or if that is not possible, placing the child with a different caregiver. Modern prevention and intervention programmes have proven successful.
Attachment in adults
Four styles of attachment have been identified in adults:
Secure,Securely attached adults tend to have positive views of themselves, their partners and their relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy and independence, balancing the two.
Anxious preoccupied adults seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners, becoming overly dependent. They tend to be less trusting, have less positive views about themselves and their partners, and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsiveness in their relationships.
Dismissive avoidant adults desire a high level of independence, often appearing to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. They tend to suppress their feelings, dealing with rejection by distancing themselves from partners of whom they often have a poor opinion.
Fearful avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, both desiring and feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend to mistrust their partners and view themselves as unworthy. Like dismissive avoidant adults, fearful avoidant adults tend to seek less intimacy, suppressing their feelings.
There are a number of different measures of adult attachment, the most common being self report questionnaires and coded interviews based on the Adult Attachment Interview.