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Understanding Adult Attachment: How Anxiety and Avoidance Combine to Impact Our Relationships

Attachment theory was conceptualized by Dr. John Bowlby, a British psychologist, in the late 1940s and has been tested and validated for well over 70 years in a variety of research fields. Attachment is used to explain the bond between a child and his or her caregiver(s). Attachment bonds with primary caregivers can help or hinder an infant's ability to down regulate stress.

Infants experience all kinds of mild, moderate, and severe distress. Infants are not born with the ability to cope with this stress. Instead, they need a caring adult to help them get through the difficult feelings they are experiencing. Based on the sensitivity and consistency of caregiver responses, attachment bonds are developed.

Around 18 months of life, the patterns of behavior that created bonds with primary caregivers help babies develop an attachment style. Children carry this attachment style with them through out life, impacting how they start, maintain, and end peer, family, and romantic relationships with others. In addition, our attachment style affects how we communicate, positively (or negatively) view the intentions of other people, and react to everyday stress or severe trauma. Thus, the interactions that babies have with their caregivers during the first 18 months of life are indicators of social and emotional development throughout life. 
This anxiety and avoidance combine in different ways to create a person’s adult attachment style, which researchers typically identify as four styles: secure (low anxiety, low avoidance), anxious preoccupied (high anxiety, low avoidance), dismissive avoidant (low anxiety, high avoidance), and fearful avoidant (high anxiety, high avoidance). Most people do not actually fit nicely into one of these groups. Instead, many have a primary attachment style with some behavioral tendencies from one (or more) of the other styles. For instance, you might be securely attached with some dismissive tendencies. This would mean that in most situations and with most relationship partners, you feel secure. But sometimes, or with certain relationship partners, you might feel less secure. If you have dismissive tendencies, you might feel like you need more space or independence from your partner or you might go as far as feeling like you don’t even need your partner.


Below are some general descriptions of people with each of the four adult attachment styles (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). (Note: as the video in this post explains, some researchers believe that there are only three categories of adult attachment- secure, anxious, & avoidant)

Securely attached adults...
·      are comfortable with both intimacy and independence
·      do not often worry about their partners accepting them or about abandonment
·      have positive images of themselves and others
·      tend to be highly sociable
·      are open to expressing emotions in relationships

Fearful-Avoidant adults... (click HERE to a more in-depth description)
·      want close relationships, but have trouble trusting others
·      are torn between a desire for intimacy and a fear of sharing their emotions
·      have negative images of themselves and others
·      are hypersensitive to social approval, but avoid social situations
·      tend to emotionally retreat or fail to express their feelings

Dismissive-Avoidant adults...
·      crave independence and claim that they do not need a relationship
·      seek less intimacy when in relationships
·      have a positive self-image, but a negative image of others
·      prefer to spend time away from the social scene
·      do not openly express their feelings with their partners

Anxious-Preoccupied adults (click HERE to read a more in-depth description)...
·      want intimacy in relationships, but tend to become way too dependent on others
·      can become obsessive when in a relationship
·      have a low opinion of themselves, but a high opinion of others
·      have a strong desire for approval from their mates
·      are extremely comfortable with their emotions and usually desire high levels of emotional disclosure, yet they consistently worry about whether their partners are accepting them

At this point, you probably know where you fall on the avoidance and anxiety spectrums. If you’d like to know for sure, you can take this anonymous online survey: http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl

Lastly, here's the Facebook Live Mini Lecture I (Dr. Jennie Rosier) gave on this subject:

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.

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