Attachment Theory and how we form attachments in adulthood

One of the great struggles of my life is how I form attachments now that I am an adult.  If this were only true for me, I would just continue talking about it with my own therapist, which is where the issue was first brought to my attention more than a dozen years ago.  As it happens, attachment issues are central to the struggles of maybe half of the adults in the US, and almost certainly a much greater percentage of those who seek therapy. What I will try to offer here is a summary of the way attachment issues come up in therapy and how we address it. 

When many of us think about “attachment issues,” we might automatically reference memories of hearing about “Reactive Attachment Disorder,” and may even conjure up images of orphanages from Romania or Russia, in which children are given almost no care at all during early and later childhood, are essentially ignored, and then later have little or no ability to form attachments with adoptive parents or anyone else for that matter. Reactive Attachment Disorder is a diagnosable disorder reserved for children, in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), published by the American Psychiatric Association. 

Reactive Attachment Disorder is a real, and terrible thing.  It is also not what I will be referencing in this blog post. Instead, I will be using some of the ideas in Attachment Theory to explain how various kinds of attachment issues in childhood can cause problems in the relationships people try to have in adulthood.  Instead of referring to any of this as a “disorder” (which I don’t often like due to fears of “over-pathologizing”—making things seem worse than they might really be), I will refer to these issues as “attachment styles.” Attachment Theory, which is the basis for how I think about the ways attachment comes up in therapy, is a very well-researched and powerful way to understand many aspects of why we feel the way we do about ourselves and the people most important to us in our lives, including our parents, other family members, friends, co-workers, and most especially, in adulthood anyway, our romantic relationship and life-partners. 

I don’t often recommend particular self-help books (okay other than the one I wrote) because I am often cautious about the limits of what they have to offer to any particular person—I fear the mirage of a panacea (as in, “this solves everything”).  In a couple of cases, though, I make an exception, where I find a book particularly comprehensive for its intended purpose. For a fairly comprehensive explanation of attachment styles in adulthood and how they are based on early childhood attachment issues (Attachment Theory), which is also a pretty quick and easy read, I recommend: “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-and Keep-Love,” by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller.  Okay, I kind of hate the title, but I encourage you to get past that and read the book, since it will give you a much better explanation of the underlying theory and details than I will ever be able or want to give you in this blog post, or in therapy.  

The basic premise of Attachment Theory, first created by John Bowlby back in the 1950s (more or less), is that humans learn how to become attached to other humans by the way we interact with our primary caregivers (not always but mostly mothers) in the first year or so of our lives—that this interaction pattern becomes an “imprint” for the way we end up attaching to others for the rest of our lives.  In an ideal attachment situation between an infant and their mother, two things happen: the infant feels consistently and reliably safe and secure with the mother and the mother and child mirror healthy emotional regulation.  The first part of this equation is called “a secure base,” which continues to be reinforced throughout childhood. The second part offers the child an entire language and some neuropsychologists suggest also helps us create an essential neurological pathway for self-soothing throughout our lives when we become emotionally distressed. 

The way we interacted with our mothers during infancy (the way she treated us and responded to us) is a very strong predictor of how we will form attachments with our primary relationship partners in adulthood, versions of which are called “attachment styles.” if all went well with our mothers during infancy, we should be able to find adequate security within ourselves and from others and we should be able to rely upon what we learned from our mothers about how to quickly return to a state of “equanimity” (relative calm) even during stressful situations.  Those who had these experiences will very likely end up having a “Secure Attachment Style” in adulthood, in which they mostly feel pretty “secure” about the reliability of their partner, the relationship, and their own capacity to navigate stressors on the relationship.  About 50% of adults in the US could be described as having “secure attachment style.”  The other 50% experience “insecure attachment styles” in adulthood, which are described differently by different people, but fall into some general categories.

If things did not go well between an infant and their mother, that infant will later very likely experience relationship patterns which are often described in psychological literature as variants of “insecure attachment styles,” and include subcategories: “Anxious-Preoccupied, Avoidant-Fearful, and Avoidant-Dismissive.”  At the risk of oversimplification, I will provide a really basic summary of the interactional patterns in infancy that correlate to the insecure attachment styles that often arise from those patterns in adulthood. If an infant experiences their mother as vacillating between attentive, caring, and close at times, but also distant, absent, uncaring, or even hostile at times, as someone who is unreliable, a mother who is not able to soothe her own feelings when the child is distressed, that child may end up suffering from an attachment style in adulthood that assumes that relationships are important, necessary, and a source of great comfort, but also unreliable, easily torn, and also a source of great anxiety to keep it going (Anxious-Preoccupied adult attachment style).  An infant who experiences their mother as consistently unable to manage her own emotions when confronted with the infant’s distress, will often submerge their distress, avoid “rocking the boat” with their mother, and then later end up in relationships in which they continue to wish for comfort, security, but be convinced that they need to submerge their feelings for fear of creating too much distress for their partner (Avoidant-Fearful adult attachment style).  Finally, according to Attachment Theory, an infant who is regularly ignored, maybe outright neglected, whose mother is reliably either absent, or at least uncaring, unattentive, or regularly hostile, who doesn’t mirror the child’s distress with attempts at comfort for the child, may later end up avoiding primary relationships in adulthood altogether, or experience romantic relationships that are relatively short-lived, or even nonexistent, or if they do exist, they are emotionally distant, sparse, with significant and even seemingly impenetrable emotional barriers (Avoidant-Dismissive adult attachment style).

This all sounds pretty bleak, and it can be.  Decades of research on Attachment Theory have shown a very strong correlation and predictability between the way infants and their mothers interact and that infant’s later attachment style in adulthood, even 30 years later (roughly 75% predictability).  It is not 100% though (there are just too many things that can intervene later in childhood that make things better or worse).  An infant who has a very secure and healthy attachment to its mother in infancy can later experience high levels of instability, chaos, violence, during their later childhood, and end up with an adult attachment style anything but secure. An infant whose relationship with its mother is fraught with instability, insecurity, hostility or outright abandonment, can land in a family setting that for most of their childhood is secure, healthy, supportive and stable, and end up experiencing secure and stable adult relationships. 

Perhaps the best news, though, is that we humans are adaptable, and there is pretty good evidence that even those who enter adulthood with an insecure attachment style of one kind or another can and often do move toward a secure attachment style.  A great part of my work with clients is to help them move from insecure to more secure attachments in their primary and other relationships. Nearly everyone wants to have secure relationships (this is probably THE central tenet of Attachment Theory).  Watching clients move from patterns of instability and insecurity (and the pain, fear, grief, self-doubts and loneliness this causes) to more secure and stable relationships (and the calm, security, satisfaction, and self-confidence this can bring) is one of the most rewarding experiences I can have as a therapist. Over the past 10 years or so, Attachment Theory has given me powerful insights and ways to help clients do this many times.

How?  How does Attachment Theory help me help clients move from insecure to more secure attachments?  First, it tells me what we all want: a “secure base.”  We never stop wanting this.  To understand what “secure base” means, think of a toddler, at the playground, maybe they can walk, and even run a little, but not very well. They are their with their mom (or dad or grandma). Their mother pulls them out of the stroller, sets them on the ground in the sand. At first, they hang onto their mother’s hand, look up to her face, scan her, make sure she’s paying attention to them, before they let go. Then, with a kind calm attentive face and a smile, mother softly, gently, lovingly, encourages her toddler to walk in the sand. Toddler sees her face, her smile, hears her words, notes her love, attention, encouragement, so Toddler let’s go of mother’s hand, doubtfully at first, then takes a few steps away from mom, and then (this is really key), turns back to see if mom is still watching, and she is, she is paying attention, in case anything goes wrong for Toddler, in case Toddler falls, or another kid bumps into them, or whatever the child might fear, as yet unidentified. The “secure base” is mom, right there, a few feet away in case Toddler needs her for safety. Toddler takes a few more steps, falls down, is surprised, distressed, mom quickly comes over, helps Toddler up again, offers more words of encouragement, with soothing whispers, a loving caress, and Toddler feels safe again, the “secure base” is reliable, secure, known, seen, experienced, as it has been consistently since birth for the past two years.  

We’ve all seen a version of this, and maybe mostly ignored it.  Its just what is supposed to happen at the playground, and we expect it. We should.  We also know, even if we don’t see it, that lots of kids don’t experience this, or if they do, they don’t experience it regularly, consistently, reliably.  A “secure base” is hardly “secure” when it it is intermittent, unpredictable, and sometimes feels safe and sometimes feels very unsafe.  Compare the playground story with the kids whose parents never take them to the playground, and their first encounter with a playground is when they are with daycare workers, who are basically strangers, who might be great, but are also contending with 8 or more other kids, who are not reliable, who do not feel secure, or loving, even if they are kind and mostly patient.  Or consider the kid who gets almost no attention from their mother, whose mother seems mostly annoyed with them most of the time, who pays far more attention to their phone, the TV, or cans of beer, than their infant or toddler, who gives their child candy at Target just to get them to stop whining while they are texting.  That child probably does not experience those interactions as much of a secure base—a base, sure, but not very secure. And of course, this is only what we see at Target, and we have to imagine, or try not to imagine, what kind of care these kids get in private, at home, where they are likely ignored, or worse, when the child is crying, needing, wanting maybe nothing more than the same kind of secure base Toddler received from their mother at the playground, but it is rarely if ever really there, and cannot be counted on, not then, not ever.

Not surprisingly, it can be very difficult and often actually impossible for clients to know in adulthood what kind of care they received from their primary caregiver during infancy.  I mean, most of the time, unless a client’s mother is already dead, they can ask their mother, but that is no guarantee they are going to get an accurate answer.  Though there are cases in which a client’s mother has taken their child’s question as an opportunity to reconcile their own misgivings about their capacity to provide the kind of care they might have wanted to give, but for some reason were not able to do so. In one case, Carrie, a client who was exploring these questions with her parents discovered that she was born to parents who were living outside the US at the time of her birth, working as aid volunteers, then war erupted, and they couldn’t leave before the child was born.  Carrie’s parents had to give their infant to local strangers, to avoid the risk of discovery and possible danger to the child, while they stayed in hiding. After roughly a year, thankfully, Carrie was reunited with the parents, who then returned to the US, and from that point on the child lived what by all appearances was an idyllic family life bounded with secure attachments.  Another client’s mother asked to come into a few therapy sessions, and laid out for her adult child, Jamie (and me) the ways in which she felt terrible guilt for leaving Jamie in the care of a stepfather who had physically abused her and the child from a very early age, much of which my client hadn’t previously known. 

I do not lightly or casually pry into the deep recesses of early childhood situation. These two clients asked their parents for more information about their infancy precisely because their experiences in primary relationships in adulthood indicated serious attachment issues, so it was worth exploring whether these issues might have had some original sources in their childhoods. Carrie found herself distant, shut down, and often just absent from her spouse and children, and wanted to know why this might be happening, since she had what was otherwise a very secure, reliable, healthy relationship with her parents and siblings. We determined that she exhibited some fairly clear signs of Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment Style. We had no specific information about the kind of care she received while outside the care of her parents, whether Carrie was overtly neglected or in any way abused, but it seemed possible that she was not able to form the kind of bonds an infant normally forms with their parent, at least in light of the way she had difficulty forming consistently deep bonds later in life with her partners. The other client, Jamie, knew he had some difficulties in his childhood, but hadn’t previously known their extent, or how early in his life they’d begun, which helped explain his difficulty in trusting primary partners, and his own insecurities as a father who wanted to avoid the mistakes of his own parents. He was very present with, but also fearful of, his spouse.  We could see clear signs of Avoidant-Fearful attachment style.

In exploring possible sources of insecurity in their adult relationships, clients can often find ways to recognize patterns that pre-date the relationship itself, and then can foster change by working with me and their partners to change their assumptions about themselves, the relationship, and the partner.  Carrie learned that her almost automatic assumption was one of mistrust about the depth of the bond she had with her partner, often mistakenly thinking it wasn’t there, when in fact it might very well exist, which was exacerbated in part by some of the relationship choices and experiences she had earlier in her adulthood.  Later, she paid more attention at the beginning of relationships about her assumptions of trust, was more vocal to relationship partners about these issues, and did great work on choosing partners she thought she could trust, and then intentionally building more trust as the relationship grew. Carrie also became increasingly aware of the way her bonds were thwarted by her own distance, not necessarily the lack of interest by her partner, that this was her issue, and likely the result of failure to bond with caregivers during infancy.  Knowing about this helped her avoid mistaken assumptions, and avoid leaving relationships that were actually worth saving. Likewise with Jamie, he was able to understand how his relationships with his mother and stepfather strongly shaped his self-doubts about being a father himself.  Knowing that much of his self-doubt was not really about him, but was about his parents, helped him feel more secure in the decisions he made with his children, and exclude behavior patterns with them which were based on the poor role modeling he’d received as a young child.

It is often not possible, and also not necessary, for a client to know with any kind of certainty or detail the ways their early childhood interactions might have created various kinds of attachment issues for them.  Sometimes it is enough to identify the attachment patterns they have experienced and created in their adult lives, over time and relationships.  Someone who has been avoidant, who has been distant, whose been told by multiple partners that they are distant, or cold, or absent, who are emotionally shut down, might know they were pretty neglected as children, or even if they don’t know this, might suspect it, and without further information about their childhood, might still be able to work toward greater openness, perhaps first with me, and then slowly, over time, with their relationship partner.  

Max is a client who has done really good work in the other direction. Max was prone to episodes of great emotional distress and acting out in ways that were destructive to him and his relationships, frequently forecasting in his mind, and to his partners, all the ways the relationship he was in was going to collapse, doing everything he could to prevent it, and then often creating the reasons for the collapse by his strong desire to maintain the relationship. Max was inadvertently pushing the other person away, when that was the exact opposite of his intention.  He and I determined that he showed clear signs of “Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style.” Max learned over time how to identify within himself the ways he was not able to self-soothe, likely the result of not having learned this from his mother, and instead learning that any disruption in attachment necessitated great emotional outbursts, which he noted his mother was prone to do throughout his childhood and even during our time in therapy when he was well into his own adulthood.  Through repetition in therapy, going over these outbursts after they occurred, and discussing various less harmful reactions and new messages that would replace assumptions leading to his emotional reactions, we were able to help reduce Max’s mistrust about the relationship itself and his relationship partner. He was increasingly able to see that his assumptions were often incorrect and based on inaccurate perceptions and interpretations of interactions and the intentions of his partners.  Max was also eventually able to find a partner who was open to discussing these outbursts, and the mistaken assumptions they were based upon, so he could verify with his partner and seek their assurance that there was no need to fear the end of the relationship and that whatever kind of issue had come up was resolvable without resort to “protest” behaviors.  Over time, Max was able to dramatically reduce the frequency and intensity of the outbursts, and was able to prove to himself that the relationship was more secure than he feared and that he had the capacity to self-soothe in order to avoid causing further destruction to the relationships he wanted to have.  

For the 50% of the adult population that find themselves in secure relationships as adults—those who were probably lucky enough to have experienced secure relationships with their parents as children, Attachment Theory might not have much to offer. As to the other 50%, who find themselves consistently dissatisfied, lonely, in pain, avoidant, or going from one relationship to another, without necessarily understanding their own contribution to these patterns, Attachment Theory offers both a compelling and powerful explanation for why this might be happening and a doorway to new ways to find more secure attachments. If a client is able to explore these issues in therapy, and hopefully also explore them with their primary relationship partner openly and with acceptance, Attachment Theory can help them find the secure base we all want to have when we come home, when we have self-doubt, when we’ve had a hard day, when there is at least one place they can return from the “playground of life” and if they fall, feel assured that someone is watching, who cares, and supports and encourages them, reliably reminding them they are not alone.

My main focus in this blog post has been the way Attachment Theory can provide really important information about the ways we enter into and engage in our primary relationships as adults are often directly related to the kind of relationships we had with our primary caregiver as infants and children. I haven’t spent too much time on the issue of “self-regulation” in this blog post, even though it is a very important part of Attachment Theory and an important way to view how our reactions to relationship patterns are based on what we learned or didn’t learn from our primary caregiver during our infancy.  This is something I will probably write about it in a second, related, blog post.  Also, it isn’t always easy, possible, or necessary to identify a specific “Adult Attachment Style” you may fit into.  If you do your own research and thinking about how you are attached in your adult relationships, you may find that you don’t easily fit into one category. That’s fine. What’s important is to recognize ways that you might find attachments difficult, and then begin to look for new ways of perceiving and reacting to your relationship partners that offer feelings of security, whether that’s your spouse, child, friend, or co-worker, so those relationships are less likely to continue causing you (and them) unwanted emotional distress and insecurity.

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)