Where do our feelings about intimacy and love come from? When it comes to adult love people have many different ways of feeling and responding. Some people are comfortable, secure, and trusting in relationships. Others are needy, clingy, and jealous. Still others are aloof, distant, and unemotional. Not surprisingly, like so many other things, our feelings about adult love and intimacy can be traced back to our early experiences as infants with our primary caregiver, usually our mother.
“Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.” Robert Browning
As it turns out, the way we “attached” to our mother as infants becomes the basic model for the way we experience romantic love as adults. Psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby conducted groundbreaking research in the 1950s and 60s that led to a better understanding of infant-mother attachment and it’s consequences for future relationships and adult love.
John Bowlby believed that the depending on how attentive, responsive, and loving a mother is towards her infant it has profound implications on how well that child goes on to view himself, others, and will have implications on his ability to form successful adult relationships.
The way in which a mother and infant interact with one another beginning at around three months of age is what makes the infant-mother relationship our ultimate model for romantic love. Bowlby and Ainsworth believed that a mother’s sensitivity and attentiveness to the needs of her infant is what produces what Ainsworth called secure attachment.
Infants who do not receive consistent attentive care and the assurance that their needs will be met by their mothers risk developing what Ainsworth called insecure attachments. Ainsworth identified four types of attachment styles in infants: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-anxious, and insecure disorganized.
Secure: a child is securely attached when his needs have been consistently met by a sensitive caregiver. This of course is the ideal form of attachment.
Insecure-avoidant: An insecure attachment style wherein an infant’s needs have not been met by a disengaged inattentive caregiver. As a result the infant becomes detached and shows little emotion.
Insecure-anxious: An insecure attachment style wherein a child is overly needy, clingy, and anxious. This style comes from a mother who smothers a child and who meets her child’s needs on her own terms as opposed to the child’s. In other words a mother who smothers a child to fill an need in herself.
Insecure-disorganized: The most severe and rare type of insecure attachment wherein a child will act out in a disturbing way sometimes freezing or even hitting himself. This is generally the result of a mother who has been neglectful or abusive.
In the 1980s psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver took Ainsworth’s child attachment styles and developed attachment theory in adults. They identified four styles of adult love: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-anxious, and insecure-fearful. These four styles correspond to the four attachment styles in infants.
Securely attached adults are people who are comfortable with love and intimacy and are fully open to loving relationships. They can give their partners space and yet remain trusting and committed. People who are securely attached have the most ideal and successful adult relationships.
Adults with insecure-avoidant style of attachment are aloof and often detached. They tend to be unemotional and reluctant to engage with their partner. They are emotionally distant and can appear uncaring. This is generally a defense mechanism to avoid being hurt.
Adults with insecure-anxious style of attachment tend to fall in love very quickly. However they are also very needy, jealous, and suffocating. They also need frequent reassurance from their partner.
Adults with an insecure-fearful style of attachment crave love but internally feel very unworthy of it and tend to be very distrustful in relationships. Although they desire emotional closeness they also feel uncomfortable with it. Adults with this style of attachment tend to have the most difficult time in relationships. This style is often found in people with personality disorders.
Studies have shown that securely attached adults are successful in the world of love. They are more often involved in happy relationships and happy marriages. They are responsive to their partners needs yet know when to back off.
So are insecurely attached adults doomed to remain that way? The answer is NO. Studies have shown that despite the fact the individuals do have a tendency to remain in the same attachment style for a period of time many people who are insecurely attached eventually do become secure in relationships. With time and the right partner nearly anyone is capable of developing a secure adult relationship.
What is your style of Adult Attachment?