What is Attachment Theory?

I wrote a previous blog post explaining attachment theory and the secure base relationship. Check it out here! To summarize briefly, attachment theory explains how we relate to the most important people in our lives. 

Attachment is a Cycle

One of THE most difficult things in life is regulating our emotions. When we get hurt, scared, embarrassed, sad (depressed), nervous (anxious) — in other words, when something happens to disorganize us emotionally, what can we do? What are we going to do to try and cope with those feelings and get feeling good again? HEALTHY ATTACHMENT IS THE MOST EFFECTIVE ANSWER! Research has consistently shown that NOTHING works more effectively or quickly to help us get reorganized emotionally than a functioning secure base — NOTHING! Attachment, and especially the relationship with the secure base, is a cycle of getting our needs met. All people have two fundamental needs: self-worth (feeling like they matter to who they should matter to) and love and belonging (feeling safe with the people they should be safe with). These needs are met through the secure base attachment relationship, generally with a parent or spouse. 

This is how that cycle plays out. When we are disorganized emotionally (upset, sad, scared, etc.), the only thing that we can control is whether or not we are going to do our part to try and cope in a healthy way, or not. We can either choose to vulnerably turn toward (the healthy option) or away (the unhealthy option:) from our secure base. After we have done our part to cope well, it is now up to our attachment figure to decide if they are going to cope well or not. If they are there for us (availability) and respond sensitively to us seeking them out, we get re-organized emotionally. THAT’S IT! If that simple process has occurred, you have done the very best thing possible, to regulate your emotions, and IT HAS WORKED. Then, we are able to return to living our lives, taking risks, and exploring the world, allowing us to progress and grow. If they are not there for us or they respond insensitively, we will do something to try to correct, like maybe seeking help/comfort in a different way. They may be there and respond better after that, leading to the rest of the healthy cycle. Or, they may not, leading to an unhealthy cycle of us trying different things to get our needs met and our secure bases failing to respond well, which leads to our two primary needs not being met over time.

If that cycle goes the healthy track 80% of the time in infancy/childhood with our parents, we develop a healthy framework and healthy ways of engaging in our future adult romantic relationships. We expect our needs to be met, and we look for partners who will meet them in healthy ways. If that cycle doesn’t go well at least 80% of the time, we develop an unhealthy framework and unhealthy ways of engaging in adult romantic relationships. We don’t expect our needs to be met, and we generally choose partners who will treat us the way our parents did.

We will pull this cycle and process apart and dive in more deeply in future blog posts.

The good news is, even if you didn’t have a healthy attachment relationship with your parents, you can develop one in your adult relationships!

In My Life

I am constantly thinking about attachment in my relationships. “Safe Environment” is a frequent refrain heard around our house. I don’t want anything going on that creates an unsafe environment that would make it more difficult for us to vulnerably turn toward each other. I try hard to have the courage to do that when I am emotionally disorganized (I am worse at this than I am at being a good secure base when people come to me). And I try really hard to recognize attachment moments and to respond with sensitivity and availability; putting my phone down, turning off the TV, turning to face the other person, and listening to and validating what they are feeling.  

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