Humans are born with physical and emotional needs. While physical needs cater to our survival, such as food, water, and sleep, emotional needs provide meaning to our sense of self. Emotional needs are best understood in the context of attachment styles.
Attachment styles, as founded and developed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Bowlby et al., 1956), form in the infancy stage, within the first 18 months of life. Based on Bowlby’s theory of attachment (Bowlby, 1958), babies and young children have inherent needs to feel safe, secure, and loved. They rely on their primary attachment figures, usually their mother, father, or other primary caregiver, for their physical and emotional needs to be met.
When these needs are sufficiently fulfilled, children develop a secure attachment style. They view themselves as being safe, worthy, important, and loved and view others as safe, secure, and trustworthy. When their needs are not sufficiently fulfilled, children develop insecure attachment styles where they perceive themselves as being unsafe, unworthy, unimportant, or unloved while perceiving others as being unsafe, unstable, and unreliable to be around.
Essentially, how a parent responds to their child’s needs, that is, their patterns of behavior towards the child, determines what the child comes to believe about their own self-worth and influences their perceptions of the world around them from a young age:
- Is it safe to be with another person?
- Can I trust people?
- Am I worthy of love?
- Do my needs matter?
- Am I rejected or abandoned?
- Can I be close to someone?
- Does it feel safe to express myself openly?
- If no one responds to me, should I stop expressing my needs?
- Can I depend on others reliably?
Depending on how a parent responds to a child’s physical and emotional needs, children display one of the following attachment styles:
- Anxious-Avoidant (also known as Disorganized)
These four are the same attachment styles which children tend to carry forward into adulthood. Each style of attachment can be identified by a set of characteristics that are common among people who display that particular attachment style in their adult relationships.
It is important to highlight that attachment styles are not permanent. As a result of ongoing life experiences and relationships one has, a person with a secure attachment style can develop an insecure attachment style, and vice versa. For example, a securely attached person can evolve into an insecurely attached person if they repeatedly experience a lack of safety, trust, and stability through experiences in their life. This includes abusive relationships, incessant workplace harassment, bullying, sexual trauma, discrimination, infertility, multiple losses, infidelity, loss of motor functioning due to injury, prolonged medical issues, and other such difficult experiences. On the other hand, an insecurely attached person can grow into a more securely attached person through consistent positive experiences of safety, trust, reliability, and connection, which affirm their sense of worth.
If you are in a relationship where you recognize unhealthy patterns of relating to and interacting with each other, it would be a good idea to consider seeking help from a therapist who is trained in helping couples develop secure attachments.