Attachment Basics

According to Bowlby and Ainsworth, there are 4 components of attachment that configure in early childhood to create our basic attachment styles, they are:

  1. Secure Base  A person feels secure to have adventures and explore the world and the self outside of relationships, which spurs development.
  2. Proximity Maintenance. A person stays close enough to relationships to maintain feelings of safety in the relationship, but in balance with the need for exploration. 
  3. Safe Haven. When a person feels fear or sadness in the world, s/he turns to loved ones for comfort, this creates a nesting experience that promotes intimacy and empathy building. 
  4. Separation Distress. A person becomes distressed when unwillingly separated from relationships that can lead to hypervigilance,  lack of exploration, stalled development, and damage to intimacy/empathy building. 

When the first 3 components come together harmoniously , we do not experience separation distress but instead feel that relationships are secure regardless of proximity to significant others. However, if the base is insecure, maintenance is not established, or safety cannot be achieved, we experience relationships as insecure in one of three different ways. If you are not sure about our attachment security, read on. Which of the attachment styles below sounds most like you?

Attachment Styles

Anxious Attachment Style (preoccupied attachment)

“I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.”


Avoidant Attachment Style (dismissive attachment)

“I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.”


Ambivalent Attachment Style (fearful–disorganized attachment)

“I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.”

Secure Attachment Style

“It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me.”

Attachment Injuries

Even if you manage to get out of childhood with a secure attachment style, that can change as an adult. When we experience too much or too little of something crucial, or are betrayed in some way emotionally, we can have an injury to our attachment process, even in adulthood. I often use a tetherball analogy to described how attachment works and what might make attachment injured.

Imagine you are the ball, the tether is your attachment style and the pole is your significant other(s). If the you experience enough freedom and excitement to EXPLORE away from the pole/SO, but enough closeness and intimacy NESTING near the SO/pole, you will be securely attached and development of the self continues even in relationships. Now imagine some part of the explore/nesting process is off, what might happen to the tether? Is it too short, making exploration hard? Is it too long, making nesting hard? What kinds of experiences might make us want to stop exploring? What kinds of experiences might make us avoid nesting?

EXAMPLE: Let's pretend a couple comes in for treatment because they are often arguing and do not enjoy each other anymore. It is uncovered that one partner is too controlling and the other has lost themselves in the relationship. From an attachment point of view, they both have attachment insecurities: partner A is "Ambivalent Attachment Style (fearful–disorganized attachment)" and partner B is "Anxious Attachment Style (preoccupied attachment)". In this case, both partners need attachment repair to enjoy relationship again. Partner A must learn to build intimacy instead of fear when close to each other, Partner B must enjoy time away from relationships again to find themselves again. They both must learn to self sooth in the presence of each other and alone, instead of use each other to manage their own distress, which is what secure attachment teaches us to do well. They may or may not be able to do this with each other, but it needs to be done for each of them to be healthy partners to whomever they are engaged with, and a therapist can help rewire attachment style.

Attachment Repair

Emotion focused therapy, radical self acceptance, and trauma work can all help heal attachment injuries. If your attachment style has been injured, or was always insecure, the good news is it can be repaired. These are not disorders, they are brain patterns and respond well to treatment. Why bother? Because your attachment style not only manages how you experience others but also how ou experience yourself! Reach out and get started retraining your attachment style to experience yourself and others.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.

Shaver, P.R., & Fraley, R. C. (2003). Self-report measures of adult attachment.

MANTRA: I trust that it is safe to love and to be loved.

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