We owe what we know about attachment to two great psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby referred to attachment as “a fundamental need to form close affectional bonds,” and saw the role of attachment as the foundation upon which psychological life is built.
The attachment bond is the primary way in which in childhood we learn to regulate our emotions and anxiety. According to Bowlby, the attachment system provides three important functions for human development: to protect life (attachment system), to facilitate growth (caregiving system), and to support learning (exploratory system). This attachment system is believed to be active from “cradle to grave” and is activated throughout our lifespan by fear.
The early attachment system becomes internalized and plays a significant role in the way we relate to others, especially in the context of our most meaningful relationships. It works like a GPS for relationships, guiding us towards safety and alerting us when there are obstacles on the road.
Mary Ainsworth, one of Bowlby’s students, developed attachment theory furthermore, and through a series of experiments with babies and their mothers, she came to see different styles of attachment: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized. In secure attachments, the other person (mother/partner) is perceived as safe, reliable and we perceive ourselves as worthy of being loved, protected and responded to. In insecure attachments, we experience the other as abandoning, unpredictable, and our sense of self is filled with doubt, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. Insecure style of relating leads to habitual detachment, avoidance, and ambivalence (mixed feelings) about getting close in relationships.
Research has shown that patterns of relationships in adulthood, closely resemble the attachment style in childhood. In addition, attachment styles in babies also have shown an important correlation with the attachment style in their mothers.
Having a better understanding of how we are wired for love can help us navigate the complexity of human relationships, and find the safety we seek when we love someone deeply.