Attachment theory: what people get wrong about the latest trend in pop psychology to explain relationships

The conversation

Attachment theory is almost everywhere. In magazines and books, in the news, on social media, and in our conversations with each other.

Originally rooted in developmental psychology, the theory explains how we form and maintain close relationships in order to survive and thrive in the environment in which we were born. It was quickly taken up not only by pop culture, but also by social psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry as well as the practice of child protection.

But some of the most important features of attachment theory get lost in translation. Misunderstandings lead people to believe they have a “wrong” type of attachment that wreaks havoc in their relationships.

Attachment theory is not a measure of whether someone has the “wrong” or the “right” type of attachment. Its purpose is to help people understand what coping strategies they use when the people they are closest to are, or are perceived to be, unavailable or reacting inconsistently.

When psychologist John Bowlby developed attachment theory about 70 years ago, he had two goals in mind. He wanted to create a language that could be used to scientifically formulate and test hypotheses. It worked: Hundreds of studies have since been conducted to explore the many facets of attachment throughout human life.

Bowlby also wanted to develop language that appealed to audiences: evocative and relatable. Attachment theory quickly became the talk of the town and was picked up by other scientists, practitioners, politicians, lawyers, and parents. It gave people a new way to understand infant-parent and adult relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. Unfortunately, the meaning has been diluted.

What Attachment Theory Means

The confusion begins with the term attachment itself. It is often understood by the public to mean a child’s love for their parent or the bond a parent forms with their child. People also use attachment to describe how adults relate and interact with others.

In attachment theory, attachment refers to a more selective type of relationship in which only a few people are sources of support. A parent does not become attached to their baby but acts as the infant’s caregiver and attachment figure.

However, their caregiving may be influenced by their own type of attachment. As adults, we only become attached to a limited number of people, although our type of attachment in close relationships also tends to show up in our social interactions with friends, colleagues, acquaintances. and even strangers.

Father lying on a bed lifting his young son
There is no wrong type of attachment. fizkes / Shutterstock

People also often say that children have a weak or strong attachment to their caregiver or that we are more or less attached to our romantic partner. But attachment theory focuses on how we differ in the quality of our attachment ties in terms of security.

There is consistent evidence of better developmental outcomes in securely attached children and fewer mental health problems in securely attached adults. However, all types of attachment, whether secure or insecure, are significant because they are adaptations. There are no good and bad types of attachment.

It makes sense to develop an avoidant type of attachment — being more self-sufficient and socially distant — if there aren’t responsive attachment figures around when needed. Attachment security does not describe a good and confident psychological state that should be desired by everyone. It reflects one’s perception of the availability and responsiveness of attachment figures.

Attachment insecurity concerns compensatory mechanisms (called secondary attachment strategies). These strategies help us deal with insecurity when we feel others are unavailable or react inconsistently. They are appropriate, often necessary, and should not be called bad or unsuitable.

Two girls in sportswear and with a basketball are talking, sitting on the playground.
Attachment can be seen in friendships and romantic relationships. Sviatlana Yankouskaya/Shutterstock

Many people think of the so-called disorganized attachment, which can develop when the child’s caregivers become a source of distress, to be a chaotic state. In popular culture, disorganized attachment is thought to almost always occur because of negative childhood experiences like abuse or neglect. But developmental psychologists know that there are many possible causes of disorganized attachment, and its links to child abuse are complicated at best.

How to approach the problem

Scientific studies that take an engaging and unusual angle can be a great tool for sharing knowledge with the public. After all, the purpose of psychology is to help us understand ourselves and our relationships with others. For example, a recent study investigated how the lyrics of our favorite songs may be related to our type of attachment.

He found that we tend to return to melodies about relationships that reflect our own experiences. And especially if we are avoidantly attached, which makes us more likely to prefer music with avoidant lyrics. The study also found that the lyrics of more than 800 songs written between 1946 and 2015 overall have become more avoidant and less secure, which may reflect a trend in society.

Attachment researchers also strive to combat widespread confusion. For example, the Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies (SEAS) has created an excellent free online guide that lists many attachment concepts, their common misconceptions, and accessible definitions.

My team’s research takes a different approach. We are building a language to talk about the social neuroscience of human attachment (SoNeAt). This involves studying attachment theory in action by combining psychological attachment methods such as behavioral observation, interviews and questionnaires with neurobiological measures such as heart rate, secretion of hormones (such as as oxytocin or cortisol) and brain activation, structure and connectivity.

We hope that our efforts can help clarify the language of attachment, not only in different scientific fields, but also when communicating attachment research to the public.

Understanding how child-parent and adult attachment works can give us important tools to reflect on our relationships. This only works, however, if we agree on a common attachment language.The conversation

Pascal Vrticka, Lecturer / Lecturer in Psychology, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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