An Introduction to
Attachment Theory,
with a dash of music

That’s the shortened blog post title.

Attachment Theory is continuing to gain popularity in the world of psychology. The origin of Attachment Theory is rooted in John Bowlby’s (and later Mary Ainsworth’s) work regarding the primary importance of bonding and attunement in children’s development. The bonds we build in these early relationships mold an attachment pattern: a strategy of establishing/maintaining connection, getting our needs met, expressing our autonomy, and handling the pain of unmet attachment needs.

(Note: I give broad examples of the different styles of attachment. In reality, attachment styles are dynamic and generally fall somewhere on a spectrum between secure and insecure.)

Attachment patterns can be thought of as relational blueprints that extend beyond the parent-child bond to all relationships, most notably to romantic love attachments. Attachment based modalities (such as Emotionally Focused Therapy and PACT), help couples to create “secure attachment” bonds where they can turn towards each other for support, be gentle with each other’s raw spots, share openly and vulnerably, and be playful and spontaneous.

Healthy-dependence and healthy-independence can be understood as two sides of the same coin, and not-at-all exclusive. A securely attached child feels safe to explore the world precisely because they know they have a reliable and attuned parent (a secure base) to return to when it gets too scary. The child naturally wants to return back to the caregiver when they have explored the edges of their world. Jason Mraz’s 93 Million Miles captures secure attachment beautifully:

Son in life you’re gonna go far
And if you do it right
You’ll love where you are
Just know that wherever you go
You can always come home

Looking deeper through the telescope
You can see that your homes inside of you.

When a parent is not present (physically and/or emotionally) it is more likely that an “avoidant attachment” pattern will form. Avoidant attachment is a survival strategy. It says, I have tried and tried and no one was there to hold me, so I learned to take care of myself. It’s a way of handling the pain of feeling unseen. Here I think of Fiona Apple’s Left Alone.

It hurt more than it ought to hurt,
I went to work to cultivate a callus
And now I’m hard, too hard to know
I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore, no, no

How can I ask anyone to love me
When all I do is beg to be left alone?

Avoidant attachment patterns can also take shape when connecting with a parent becomes an obligation (i.e. a child having to regulate a parent’s emotional state). The belief here is that intimacy is suffocating; if I am dependent on you, you’ll devour me and there will be nothing left, so I’ll keep to myself.

If this is what is going on with whoever Sara Bareilles is singing Brave to, she might want to add some background harmonies… I just wanna see you be brave (but take your time!).

Avoidant attachment is typified by a cutting off from one’s feelings, having difficulty reaching out for support or “leaning on” others, a preference for the auto-regulation of distress (leave me alone!), and an underlying fear of being inadequate.

Ambivalent attachment, on the other hand, is characterized by emotional overwhelm, seeking to be regulated by others (lets talk it out!), and an underlying fear of being “too much”. You can imagine there might be some conflict when avoidant and ambivalently attached people pair up (and of course they often do).

When I think of a song that captures ambivalent attachment, I think of none other than Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball.

I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you, you wreck me

I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in

Ambivalent attachment patterns generally arise when there is inconsistent parenting. The belief is I can’t tell when you’ll be there or not so I’ll do what I have to to get your attention and establish that sense of connection.

Attachment Theory is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that one person can fix another by responding to their attachment needs, as in Ne-Yo’s Let Me Love You (until you learn to love yourself). A key word in secure attachment is ‘capacity.’ Secure attachment involves the capacity to regulate with another — the willingness to share and be vulnerable, to be there for your partner when they need you, and to let them be there for you. It also involves the capacity to be aware of and explore one’s own self, to take responsibility for your feelings and reactions, and to stay rooted in yourself. It involves both healthy dependence and healthy independence.

Can you think of any songs that capture this sentiment for you?