We often wonder to what extent the experiences we had in childhood, especially those we were able to share with our parents or other relevant figures, could condition our way of being and relating to each other in adult life.

The human being arrives at the world submerged in the most absolute vulnerability, since he needs several months to conquer a minimum autonomy. That is why we depend on others to survive, forging a necessary bond of attachment with our close environment.

These figures of attachment will not only guarantee the necessary resources to survive, but also those essential to live, since they will be the first source of love and understanding on which the child will deposit his expectations and desires.

This is why attachment contributes decisively to building the basic foundations of the private sense of security , in a critical age period for emotional and social maturation. Knowing it, then, is important for understanding who we are and why.

Attachment: what is it?

Attachment is a concept widely studied in the scientific literature, especially from John Bowlby’s theories on the construction of our first relationships during childhood.

As a term it refers to the particular way in which people tend to interact with those with whom they establish a relevant bond, including the feelings of intimacy and commitment upon which the subtle bonds of a human relationship are built.

Attachment would be the pentagram on which the social melody would develop , and would sink its roots in the dawn of the first relationships. In the brief period that comprises the childhood of any human being, the feeling of availability of the parents (or other people who could be comparable in affective terms) in the face of eventual damage or threat, would positively shape the vision of a changing environment in its very nature, to make it predictable and comfortable to be explored without fear inhibiting curiosity.

Attachment theories maintain that the particular characteristics of the nervous system in this evolutionary period would propitiate neuroplastic changes on which the adult brain would be built a posteriori, despite the fact that it is impossible to chisel out memories that can be deliberately evoked (since the hippocampus matures after almost five years of life). Fear in this evolutionary period would turn vulnerability into helplessness, extending to all corners of the subjective experience of the years to come.

In order to evaluate the way in which children interact with their attachment figures, which is the measure from which information can be extracted to determine the integrity of these bonds and their emotional consequences, Psychology has the procedure of the “strange situation”. Through this technique, the child is exposed to a structured sequence of encounters and misunderstandings with his or her primary caregiver and an unknown subject, evaluating his or her reactions to the approach and distance of both.

Through the application of this strategy, four different styles of attachment have been identified, which describe particular modes of feeling and behavior that arise during the interaction. All of them play an essential role in understanding how we tend to establish attachments, not only in childhood, but also during the rest of the life cycle. We will now stop to outline a brief description of each of them and their possible personal or social implications.

1. Secure attachment

Children with secure attachments perceive their parents (or analogues) as reliable figures , to whom they can turn in the event that their enquiries about the environment accidentally imply a situation of potential danger. Children with this particular style tend to seek out their caregivers when they experience some difficult emotion, thus achieving relief from it. When parents disappear they feel uncomfortable only at first, regaining contact naturally when they return.

Adults with this style of attachment experience a sense of general satisfaction in their relationships with others, and are able to establish a relational framework that facilitates the healthy development of all involved. Honesty and trust rise up like the fabric with which the seams of friendship or the relationship are embroidered, being able to establish a deep emotional bond with those they consider worthy of it. It is the most common form of attachment, and acts as a protective factor against psychopathology.

2. Worried or anxious attachment

Children who have this style of bonding with their parents are not assured of having the help they might need in case of need . This uncertainty means that the interest in the environment is conditioned by fear, so that exploration is limited by a latent but constant insecurity. This feeling is exacerbated in those cases in which parents resort to the threat of abandonment as a mechanism to control disruptive behaviour.

Adults with this style of attachment tend to avoid their emotions, considering that they could be overwhelmed by their intensity, which makes it difficult to acquire essential resources for the regulation of internal experiences. Often, everyday life is lived from an ambivalence between approach and rejection, since both generate such a degree of discomfort that the person wanders in the swaying of the grey spaces that border one another. The fear of abandonment and the feeling of inadequacy can be recurrent.

3. Fearful or avoidant attachment

The child with this pattern of attachment perceives that any attempt to seek the comfort that his care figure can provide will end up in a situation of open mockery or contempt, which will also be followed by a total absence of protection and security along with a harmful feeling of learned helplessness. This circumstance contributes to the child trying to adopt a position of self-sufficiency, in an attempt to build scenarios in which he or she feels safe without the contribution of others.

In adulthood, this style of attachment is characterized by the deliberate search for solitude and by discomfort in personal relationships . Independence acquires a capital importance, and a certain fear arises when faced with the expectation of commitment to other people in the areas of friendship or partnership. The search for lonely jobs and the lack of interest in forging new relationships may also be common.

4. Disorganized attachment

Children who develop this particular style have lived through multiple situations with their explicitly threatening attachment figures , since these adopt a negligent or even abusive attitude (in the broad sense of the term). Because the infant cannot assume a physical or emotional emancipation, he would necessarily remain close to the pernicious influence of his caregivers, showing himself to be anxious both in their presence and in their absence (chaotic and disorganized).

This style of attachment generates deep traces in the personality and self-image, being therefore the one that presents a closer relation with the psychopathology of the adult and the child. The following is a brief review of the available evidence regarding the consequences on mental health attributable to the modalities of insecure attachment (worried, fearful and disorganized).

Attachment and mental health issues in adult life

There are several studies that aim to explore the possible relationship between childhood attachment and the development of psychological disorders during adult life. Even so, the multiplicity of influences that converge to shape an individual makes it difficult to accurately isolate the role of these early interactions on health, despite the availability of numerous data suggesting such a connection.

There is scientific evidence that insecure attachments are associated with a higher prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, as well as the clinical expression of obsessive-compulsive symptomatology. The presence of jealousy within relationships is also more frequent among those with an insecure pattern of attachment, and often has its roots in an intimate sense of insecurity and fear of abandonment.

Other authors consider that anxious attachment could be the germ of a later personality structure disorder, both of cluster B (histrionic or borderline) and of cluster C (dependent), while avoidant would be related to the homonymous personality disorder (avoidant). In any case, the difficulties in regulating emotional experience stand out as the common factor underlying this extensive psychopathology.

The impact of attachment style on mental health is a hotly debated topic in the field of scientific psychology, since it could be a tremendously valuable explanatory element for understanding the distant risk factors for many mental disorders that limit the population’s quality of life. This is an area in continuous expansion, from which we have barely begun to unravel its surface.

It is also important to consider that many studies point in the direction that attachment does not have to be erected as a rigid and immutable reality, but can undergo transformations during the development of life as a consequence of personal work and the establishment of relationships that provide spaces for emotional repair.

A child’s mind holds the potential to build a happy life . Despite the vulnerability that accompanies him at the time of his birth, the first years are elementary in defining who we will be and what paths we will take in the exciting journey of existence. The first social relations are, in this sense, the key to channel development towards biological, social and emotional fullness.

Bibliographic references:

  • Levy, K., Ellison, W.D., Scott, L.N. and Bernecker, S. (2011). Attachment Style. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(2), 193-203.

  • Mikulincer, M. and Shaver, P.R. (2012). An Attachment Perspective on Psychopathology. World Psychiatry, 11(1), 11-15.