What is Attachment?

My work with both individuals and couples is informed by attachment theory. Our expectations of others' ability to understand and meet our needs create the foundation for relationships. 

Foundations of Attachment

- We are a relational species. Humans evolved to exist in the context of communities and relationships, and we seek closeness and contact with others. Experiencing isolation or being cut-off from significant relationships is traumatizing.

- Close, secure relationships with others help promote independence and exploration. If we perceive ourselves to have meaningful and dependable connections with others, we are more capable of taking risks to grow and develop our own sense of self. 

- Secure relationships are defined by accessibility and responsiveness- we can rely on being able to reach or access this person, and can rely on this person to respond to our need.

 What do different attachments look like?

Types of attachments were identified and studied in a series of tests known as the “Infant Strange Situation”, in which trained observers studied children’s responses to separation and reunification with their mothers. 

- Secure

o Children whose attachment was described as “secure” appeared to miss their mother when she left, often crying. When the mother returned, the child greeted the parent, appeared settled, and then returned to other activities.

o Ongoing observation of these children and parents showed that these parents were accessible and responsive to child’s bids for attention- the parent recognized and was able to effectively respond to the child. 

o In adult relationships, a secure attachment manifests as an individual being able to experience a range of emotions without being overwhelmed by these feelings; communicate needs clearly and directly to a partner; and trust and take comfort in a partner’s ability to provide connection.

- Avoidant

o   Children whose attachment was characterized as "avoidant" did not appear significantly upset when their mother left the room, and they often ignored or avoided the mother when she returned.

o   Ongoing observation of these children and mothers showed that the mother was unresponsive to the child’s attempts to access or elicit a response from the parent. The child begins to stop making bids for attention because they have learned that the parent will not respond.

o   In adult relationships, this may manifest as an individual appearing to not care about the distress of a partner or problems in the relationship- “I couldn’t care less.” Individuals have come to expect that others are not capable of noticing or meeting their needs.

- Ambivalent

o   Children whose attachment was described as “ambivalent” often appeared anxious or distressed before the parent even left the room. When the parent returned, the child did not appear to be easily soothed or comforted by the parent.

o   Ongoing observation indicated that these parents did not consistently recognize or meet their child’s needs; children were left uncertain as to whether their caregiver could regularly recognize and meet needs.

o   In adults, an ambivalent attachment may include an individual’s attempts to make his/her partner respond to their needs- this may look like “upping the anti” or turning up the volume on attempts to get a partner’s attention. 

- Disorganized

o   Children with a disorganized attachment style have not developed effective coping strategies to respond to distress. When a parent returns after leaving the room, the child may appear fearful; may initially approach but then withdraw from the parent; and is not comforted.

o   Ongoing observation revealed that these parents had a significant lack of attunement to their child. Often times the child is afraid of the person from whom he/she also wants to be comforted by, which creates a serious dilemma. 

o   In adults, disorganized attachment may appear confusing; an individual may seek out comfort from the partner, but then push the partner away- “come close to me, get away”.

In therapy, I work with clients on exploring their attachment history and how this may be informing current relationships. With couples, these attachment histories inform how each partner is able to connect with the other during times of distress; we can work together to create a more secure attachment between partners.

To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.