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Attachment Dramas

In this four part series I talk about attachment styles and how they create so much pain and confusion in relationships

Attachment is a word we use to describe the way we form bonds of intimacy with other people. The one that we would all like is called secure attachment, which means that a person is secure and strong in their sense of self and is therefore able to enter into relationships with others that have appropriate levels of both vulnerability and boundaries.

A person with secure self-attachment has no fear of intimacy because it does not threaten their sense of their own individuation, but the also have no fear of abandonment because they know that they can take care of themselves. That's not to say that they will not feel sad or grieve over the loss of a relationship, only that it will not bring up unhealed childhood pain for them, so they will also not tolerate being disrespected or mistreated.

A secure adult attachment style starts with a secure childhood attachment experience. An infant or toddler is essentially helpless, which means they are relying on their caregivers, usually their mother, to meet all their needs. They signals those needs to others through the expression of emotions using behaviours such as distress, sadness, screaming, laughing or crying.

If those signals are accurately interpreted and responded to, which is called an attuned attachment response, the child gets its needs met. More importantly however, they learn how to understand and respond to their own emotional signals, which creates self-attunement and helps them to be able to engage with their own emotions later in life without fear.

More importantly again, in the first two years of life, which is known as the attachment phase, secure attachment experiences will also give them positive self-beliefs such as I am lovable, worthy, important and deserving of what I need. This sets a person up to treat themselves as valuable and respect themselves in later life.

If a child does not get a secure attachment experience, and research tells us that about 45% of people don't, they miss out on these important experiences of learning to self-respond, to tolerate emotional distress and to have positive beliefs about their worth. This is called an insecure attachment experience, and it leads to insecure adult attachment styles and behaviours.

There are three insecure types of attachment experience called aloof, dependent and disorganised. These give rise to the adult attachment styles of avoidant, dependent and ambivalent attachment.

An aloof attachment experience is when the parent either does not respond at all or does not respond empathically to the child's needs. For the child this leads to overwhelming intense feelings and eventually to shutting down, known as emotional dissociation. The child learns that their needs are not important to others, so they had better become self-reliant. They also learn that emotions are overwhelming and unresolvable, so they learn to avoid them if at all possible.

They also learn that relationships are unsatisfying and dangerous and this gives rise to an 'engulfment wound' where intimacy is experienced as the loss of self and feels like a trick to drag them into vulnerability, which is terrifying.

This becomes avoidant attachment in later life, which is also known as anti-dependent or aloof, and in the extreme becomes narcissism. I talk about in the 2nd part of the series, but for now lets just say that having a relationship with an avoidant attachment person is very insecure as they constantly avoid intimacy, vulnerability and commitment. This means the other person can never rely on them, especially if there are strong emotions involved.

The second type of insecure attachment is called dependent attachment, though this title often confuses people, because it is not the child but the adult who is the dependent one. Children are meant to be dependent on adults for their emotional and physical needs, but sometimes it is the adult who is depending on the child for their emotional needs to be met. So the child is getting responded to, but not the way they need to be.

This means that the child's needs are often misinterpreted or are subsumed by the needs of the adult. This leaves the child feeling insecure, undeserving and emotionally abandoned. It also leaves the child to figure out that they had better get pretty good at understanding and responding to their caregivers needs, which is sometimes referred to as parentification, because the child is now in the parent role. So even though the child is being responded to, it is also being abandoned, which is confusing because what looks like love doesn't feel like love.

A dependent childhood attachment experience leads to a dependent adult attachment style, which is also known as love addiction. An adult with a dependent attachment style becomes the caretaker of their partner emotionally, often abandons or ignores their own needs and boundaries, and lives in constant fear of abandonment by their partner. This becomes a type of addiction where they are constantly needing attention, validation and reassurance and if they do not get this they become very distressed.

By the way, people with dependent attachment are usually attracted to people with avoidant attachment, because life is nothing if not ironic. Actually, this has to happen if either of them are to achieve healing as we cannot heal until we are triggered into our wounds. These two form co-dependent relationships where one person is dependent and the other is anti-dependent, but the truth is that they are both dependent on each other and both terrified of abandonment.

The third type of insecure attachment experience is called disorganised attachment. Essentially, the parent is unpredictable and possibly dangerous. One minute they are overly responding, the next they are absent and the next they are rejecting or abusive. This unpredictable mixture of neglect, abandonment, abuse and rejection is terrifying for a small child, who has to adapt by becoming hypervigilant to their parents moods and hyper reactive.

If the situation is disorganised but not dangerous it is likely to lead to the adult attachment style of ambivalent attachment. Ambivalent attachment is mixture of dependent and avoidant attachment. The person is afraid of both abandonment and engulfment, which leaves them with a very narrow window of tolerance in relationship.

Too close and they start to feel engulfed. Too far away and they start to feel abandoned. Both are terrifying at a deep level that the person is usually unaware of. Ambivalent attachment is a constant battle for safety, trying to balance autonomy and connection, but never really being able to relax into a relationship, because the needs of the other person are unpredictable, and the ambivalent person does not feel secure in their boundaries or their self-worth.

Unsurprisingly, people with ambivalent attachment are often attracted to other people with ambivalent attachment, which is difficult indeed but it certainly keeps things interesting.

If the disorganised attachment situation is dangerous it is likely to result in an adult who is also disorganised, abusive and neglecting. Unfortunately attachment wounds move between generations until someone decides to find healing.

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