Attachment Styles
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Attachment Styles

Psychologists know that the first two years of a child’s life are extremely important.  This is when the child learns to walk, talk, demonstrate personality and establish some independence.   But there is much more that happens during that timeframe when it comes to learning how to have relationships with others – styles and skills that can last a lifetime.


John Bowby, a British psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist is credited for his work in the area of child development.  He pioneered what is known as attachment theory.  This is based on the idea that the way one bonds with their primary caregivers in childhood determines the way that they form social, intimate and work relationships throughout their lives.


Relationships with others during infancy form schema or patterns of rules in the brain which are used to build and interpret relationships in adulthood.  The ways in which primary caregivers (usually parents) interact with a child can result in one of four different attachment styles as follows:


  1. Secure - Most people in western society have developed an attachment style that radiates self-contentment and easy connectivity. They can build deep, meaningful and long-lasting relationships because they are aware of and able to express their feelings, so they easily become well-liked due to their social skills and warmth.  This occurs because of the positive interactions they learned through their childhood with primary caregivers.
  2. Anxious ambivalent attachment or Preoccupied – This is one of the three insecure styles. Low self-esteem, strong fear of rejection or abandonment and clinginess are often developed due to misattuned and inconsistent parenting in childhood.  The child is never sure if the parent will be there to meet their needs or listen to them, so they are in a constant state of worry.
  3. Avoidant or Dismissive (also known as anxious-avoidant) – Although these children can appear to be confident and self-sufficient in childhood, they don’t tolerate emotional or physical intimacy. This can prevent them from being able to build healthy relationships.  Their parents might have been strict, emotionally distant, intolerant regarding expression of feelings or have had high expectations that the child be independent and tough.  The child learns to ignore their feelings which, when they do arise, become overwhelming and scary for them.
  4. Disorganized or Fearful Avoidant – This is the most difficult type of insecure attachment. It can develop when the child has been physically, verbally or sexually abused and/or when their caregivers (the only source of safety) become a source of fear for them.  As adults, the person becomes extremely inconsistent in their own behaviours and has great difficulty trusting others.  Some might suffer from mental health issues or substance abuse.


Over the years of working with Veterans I have learned that, in order to do their jobs safely in the military, recruits were conditioned from the first day to ignore their own feelings.  Priorities are always mission first, team next and self last.  “Big boys (girls) don’t cry”.  The worst things that someone could admit is weakness or failure.  Appearing unable to do what is required can risk losing respect, promotion and career advancement.  So, the way to serve is to deny self.


But it isn’t just the person who is serving who can suffer from attachment issues.  Their families are also vulnerable, especially the children.  Thankfully, the military is aware of this and develops supportive programs to help.


Popular speaker Florence Littauer, who has written more than two dozen books primarily on personality, repeatedly states “Strengths carried to extreme become weaknesses”.    


What might work in war zones likely won’t work in civilian life – especially when it comes to repressing feelings and then trying to connect with loved ones.


When Veterans return home, unfortunately they often cannot build or maintain their relationships.  They don’t want to share the trauma of what they have been through and cannot emotionally connect, especially if they are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The result, sadly, can be divorce and isolation, when what they really need is to be engaged in healthy and supportive relationships.


Do not be disheartened!  Even though it can take a great deal of effort and support, it is possible for those individuals with any of the three insecure attachment styles to change and develop a secure attachment style. 


Therapy is important but they also need people who are willing to reach out a kind and loving hand of friendship and connection. 


Remember, we are all in this big, messy world together!


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