Attachment Styles: A Blueprint for Relationships Dr. Carol Ann Conrad, EdD

What is your attachment style? Why would this be important to know about yourself and your partner in your relationship?

Would any contractor ever begin to build a home without first creating a blueprint? Of course we know that the blueprint is an outline, a design, carefully thought out about everything that will be pertinent to building a home from the foundation to the walls, ceiling, lighting, plumbing, outlets, materials to be used etc. A well organized and drawn blueprint is essential and necessary for creating a home that will stand against the storms and vicissitudes of weather and life.

An attachment style is like a blueprint for an intimate relationship.

Our attachment style is a blueprint or template that is unconsciously shaped, based upon our early life experiences of how our needs are met by our caretakers. It begins in utero and is formed by the time we are 2 years old. Research indicates that our amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain, is fully developed prior to birth. It is our emotional life, or our emotional experiences that shape our early life and thus our early blueprint for intimate relationships. This template tells us how safe it is to reach for our emotional needs, how we must reach in order to increase our chances of getting a response from others, and how to most effectively avoid painful encounters or rejection of our needs from others.

A Secure Attachment Style

Human infants learn very quickly that they are extremely dependent for life and sustenance upon their parents. How the parents respond to the infant’s needs determines the level of trust or security that the child feels with their caregivers. If the child comes to trust that when they call, when they have a need, and their parents meet or respond to that need consistently and effectively, that the world is a fairly safe and predictable place. The child is able to move into their world responding to others from a place of confidence and trust that validates their perspective and reinforces that they are safe and capable. When their experience with others reinforces their template or blueprint that says, “the world is fairly predictable and safe and I can get what I need from others,” they continue to see the world through a lens of safety. Their expectation, set with their caregivers, creates a feedback loop of validation and reinforcement of their perspective as they continue to move into their world. This is called a secure attachment style, or secure blueprint of the world. Researchers have done longevity studies and discovered that securely attached children do better in school, have more friends, better grades, are more successful in their life. Most importantly, children with secure attachment styles grow up to have happier and healthier relationships.

An Insecure Attachment Style

If, on the other hand, a child does not have a caretaker that responds readily and/or consistently to the child’s needs, the child begins to feel fear, or what some attachment researchers call, “primal panic.” The child will feel less-secure with caregivers who are not as accessible or responsive. A less-securely attached child will seek and cling to the parent, or avoid and dismiss their need for parental attentiveness, or a combination of both.There are only 3 strategies that human beings develop in order to cope with their primal panic. Click here to learn more about attachment styles and take a quiz to discover your own attachment pattern. Again, a child will base their perspective of contact, connection, and intimacy with others, upon the experience with their caretaker.  This will then set a feedback loop where the child has unconsciously developed an intimacy blueprint which creates either anxiety or the need to shut down their need expectations. As the insecure child moves out into the world their expectations of others will generally bring them what they fear.  A confirmation bias loop begins to reinforce the individual’s beliefs about others in the world; either they can’t count on others, or they just don’t have needs for others in their life.  While these strategies allow the insecure child to grow and manage their lives, they are less successful in life in general, and in particular less successful and happy in relationships.

Childhood Attachment styles predict adult attachment styles

Researchers have more recently discovered that we can predict with fairly high accuracy, up to 80%, the attachment style of an adult based upon their attachment style as a child. In other words, this blueprint for relationships once set by the age of 2 years old is fairly stable. Click here for more research-based information about attachment stability across time.  We know that about 50% of the population are more secure, leaving the other half of individuals to be in the less or insecure categories–set up for more relationship issues in their life.

So Here’s the Good News about knowing your attachment style or blueprint

Attachment styles are malleable!  That’s right!  While attachment styles are stable across time, if we know our attachment style, what were the likely contributing factors to it and are willing to work at it, we can actually change our attachment style!  Yes, we can have an “earned secure attachment.”  Daniel Seigel, a well-known psychiatrist and researcher says that it is not what has happened to us in our lives or growing up, but the sense we make out of it, that makes the difference. It is how we come to understand ourselves, our lives, and our parents, that helps us change our attachment style. By coming to see how we formed our attachment style, understanding our emotional needs and owning them, we are well on our way to redesigning our blueprint!

This is great news for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be in that 50% category where our parents gave us a more secure blueprint to live by!  And by the way, this isn’t a knock against our parents. They were doing the best they could based upon their own attachment style and resources they had at the time to raise us.  But the best news of all, is that we have choice over our relationship blueprint!  We didn’t get much choice about how our original strategy to stay close to our caregivers developed, after all the strategy we developed worked and helped us survive the best we could. However, as adults, we have the capacity to understand what happened to us, the ability to make sense of it, and to actively change our actions and reactions in our current relationships!

Change the Intimacy Blueprint, Change the outcome!

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, the basis for the Hold Me Tight workshop designed by Dr. Sue Johnson, is specifically focused on giving couples a new experience and changing the landscape of their attachment styles to be more secure.  In fact, that is really the primary goal of EFT, to create security in their relationship so the couple feels a stronger emotional bond with each other. When fear is shared and diminished, more security allows us the capacity to stop those negative expectations and patterns that create disconnection. We can learn how to reach, to touch our needs and ask more effectively to get them met, which sets up a positive reinforcing cycle. With understanding and new experience as a couple we can learn to be accessible, responsive, and engaged with each other.  More security reduces distress and increases loving feelings.  We can create new patterns of security that we know from the research brings the greatest chance for lasting love and happiness within our relationship.  Today, thanks to Sue Johnson and EFT, we have a map of how to create love and emotional bondedness in a relationship even with couples that have NEVER had a sense of security with anyone in their life! This is the greatest news of this century!  For more information about EFT and/or to find an EFT therapist close to you, Click Here.