Attachment Patterns

Attachment patterns have been researched extensively in recent years. I feel that there are some useful grains of truth in these studies, as well as the associated theories. I am slowly developing my own concept of attachment patterns, but in this post I seek to outline some of my foundations.

Much of the information I present here is based on the article “Developmental Perspectives on Links between Attachment and Affect Regulation over the Lifespan” by Lisa Diamond and Christopher Fagundes in the 2008 edition of Advances in Child Development and Behavior (vol. 36). The basic summary of this study is that children develop a specific attachment relationship with one of their parents. They will turn to this parent, their “attachment figure”, when they are distressed, and they will also use this person as a way to explore the world. How their attachment figure responds to their need for support and comfort determines their functional attitudes in their adult life; more specifically, attachment behaviour continues in adulthood, but instead of in the parent-child interaction, it develops with a romantic partner. In short, your partner becomes your new attachment figure, and any patterns learned with your original attachment figure will transfer over.

Something that I’ll need to clarify in advance is the difference between “affect” and “emotion”. The word “affect” is much broader in scope, encompassing not only those emotional states which are temporally framed and connected to external events, but also overall disposition and mood; that is, affect includes emotional tendencies over time, as well as those states which are internal and independent of external events. Emotion is a subset of affect.

So there are three basic attitudes that a child may develop: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Children who receive consistent support and affection from their attachment figure develop secure attachment patterns, meaning they develop constructive affect-regulation strategies in their adult lives. This reduces stress and lowers occurrence of psychological and physiological problems.

Children who receive inconsistent responses (that is, sometimes supportive and affectionate, other times hostile or neglectful) from their attachment figure develop anxious attachment patterns. They will repeatedly and excessively seek reassurance from that figure throughout their childhood, and subsequently from their adult attachment figures – their intimate partners. The tend to internalize their problems, which means they blame themselves for everything going on around them. They tend to develop an overall negative affect, and often develop anxiety and depression.

Children who are consistently neglected or exposed to hostility by their attachment figures will develop an avoidant attachment style. These children tend to withdraw in times of distress more and more as they learn that they have no one they can count on outside themselves. As adults, these individuals will externalize their problems (meaning they blame circumstances or other people), and they frequently demonstrate aggressive, violent behavior rather than depression — although depression and anxiety can develop in these circumstances as well. They will generally try to avoid or ignore all negative situations in their lives.

Both anxious and avoidant types will have issues with affect-regulation skills; they will do things that are counter-productive and contribute to a general unhealthiness, both psychologically and physiologically. For example, addiction is common in both of these groups.

I feel, since there is such a strong tie between the two attachment relationships (child-parent and romantic), there must be some validity to Freud’s idea that we seek a companion like our parents. He assumed it was the opposite-sex parent, since that was the case for him and so many he treated; but back then treatments focused on men, and women were the caregivers, so the most likely attachment relationships he observed were mother-son. Regardless of the gender issue, however, I think Freud was observing the pattern of attachment figures in childhood and those in adulthood. You will seek characteristics in a partner that mirror your attachment figure. Of course, this has the potential to create holding patterns if you are not aware of it: if your partner is like your parent, you reinforce the same attachment behaviours.

This also explains why so many patterns get passed on from parents to children. If your attachment figure was an anxious type, they would have given you inconsistent care due to anxiety, depression, and poor affect-regulation strategies. This is the exact environment that cultivates anxious attachment. Similarly, if your attachment figure was avoidant, they would have been neglectful and hostile. This is the same pattern that generates avoidant types.

All is not lost, however. The type of relationships that people have as adults can change their category. There is a gradient present here, with complete neglect at one end, support at the other, and inconsistency in between. A person can therefore slide along this scale (in both directions, granted, but for me I like to think about the potential positive outcome here). If a person finds partners in adulthood who are somewhat more supportive than their parents were, they can slowly work their way up the scale. In so doing, they can learn positive affect-regulation strategies, and develop more constructive relationships. All it takes is a little awareness.

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