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Connected: Understanding Attachment Theory and How It Shapes Our Relationships

Human connection is the sense of closeness and belongingness a person can experience when having supportive relationships with those around them. Connection is when two or more people interact with each other and each person feels valued, seen, and heard. There is no judgement, and you feel stronger and nourished after engaging with them.

Human beings are inherently social creatures, having thrived in social groups for as long as we can imagine. Social groups provide us with an important part of our identity and teach us a set of skills that help us prosper in a complex environment. Feeling socially connected is important because it provides us with a myriad of benefits to our health and wellbeing:

Mental Health Boost

Social connections can help boost our mood, reduce stress, and improve self-esteem. Social isolation can contribute to depression, insomnia, and cognitive decline, as well as increase chances of death by at least 50%. Therefore, a lack of human connection was found to be more harmful than even obesity or smoking.

Improved Quality of Life

Studies show that a lack of social connection may be associated with obesity, hearty disease, and smoking, and can increase chances of stroke and heart disease by 30%. Social isolation can also contribute to a lowered immune system, increasing vulnerability to viruses and disease.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a psychological theory that explains how early relationships with caregivers shape an individual's ability to form and maintain relationships throughout their life. The theory was first introduced by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s and has since been widely studied and applied in various fields such as psychology, social work, and education.

According to attachment theory, infants have an innate drive to form a close and lasting emotional bond with their caregivers, which provides a secure base for them to explore the world and cope with stress. The quality of these early relationships, particularly with primary caregivers, can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual's ability to form and maintain relationships later in life.

Attachment theory proposes that caregivers who are attentive and responsive to their child’s needs allow them to form a sense of security. The child learns that their caregivers are sensitive, protective, and dependable, building confidence and security for them to feel safe enough to explore their world. Bowlby suggests that children raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be responsive to their needs are less likely to experience fear than those who are raised with caregivers who were not as responsive to their needs. This confidence is forged during the years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence – critical periods during a child’s development – and tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of their life.

Understanding attachment theory can provide insights into how individuals form and maintain relationships, why some individuals may have difficulties with emotional closeness, and how to foster healthy relationships. It can help individuals recognize their own attachment style and work towards developing more secure attachment patterns, as well as provide professionals in various fields with tools to help clients who may be struggling with relationships.

Attachment Styles

Another attachment theorist named Mary Ainsworth conducted experimental studies with infants and identified three attachment styles that expanded on Bowlby’s work on attachment theory. A fourth attachment style, known as disorganized/fearful-avoidant attachment, was later added on to Ainsworth’s initial conclusions. These attachment styles develop in early childhood and can help predict how you build relationships and behave in them as an adult.

1. Anxious/Preoccupied

  • High anxiety x low avoidance

  • Children with an anxious attachment become very distressed when a parent leaves. As a result of poor parental availability, these children cannot depend on their primary caregiver to be there when they need them.

  • People with this attachment style typically have a negative self-image while having a positive view of others, thus they value their relationships highly but are often anxious of rejection or abandonment. They develop their confidence and self-worth based on the approval and acceptance of others, and may rely heavily on their partner for emotional support.

2. Avoidant/Dismissive

  • Low anxiety x high avoidance

  • Children with an avoidant attachment may appear indifferent when a parent leaves, but their behavior is a result of learning to suppress their attachment needs. These children often have parents who are emotionally unavailable or rejective, causing them to learn that expressing needs or emotions is ineffective.

  • People with this attachment style often have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of others, leading them to prioritize independence and self-reliance. They may avoid intimacy and emotional closeness, and can be dismissive or aloof in relationships.

3. Secure

  • Low anxiety x low avoidance

  • Children with a secure attachment style feel comfortable exploring their environment with their parent present, and show moderate distress when their parent leaves. Their parents are responsive and consistently available, helping children learn that they can trust their caregivers to meet their needs.

  • People with a secure attachment style have a positive self-image and view of others, allowing them to develop close relationships with ease. They are comfortable with intimacy and can express their emotions in a healthy manner.

4. Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant

  • High anxiety x high avoidance

  • Children with a disorganized/fearful-avoidant attachment style may display inconsistent or contradictory behaviors in response to their caregiver leaving or returning. This attachment style is often the result of experiencing abuse, neglect, or trauma from their primary caregiver.

  • People with this attachment style may have a negative self-image and view of others, leading to difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. They may have fears of abandonment and rejection, while also struggling to trust others and themselves.

Understanding your own attachment style and how it impacts your relationships can be helpful in developing more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. Therapy and self-reflection can be useful in identifying and addressing any negative patterns or behaviors that may be influenced by your attachment style.

How to Cultivate Stronger Connections

  1. Be Present: Give your full attention when you are with someone. Put away your phone and other distractions.

  2. Active Listening: Listen with the intent to understand the other person. Ask questions and clarify what they are saying.

  3. Show Empathy: Try to understand the other person's perspective and feelings. Validate their emotions.

  4. Be Vulnerable: Share your own thoughts and feelings. This can help to build trust and deepen your connection.

  5. Share Experiences: Participate in activities with others. Shared experiences can create strong bonds.

  6. Be Reliable: Follow through on commitments and be dependable. This can help to build trust and reliability in relationships.

  7. Express Gratitude: Show appreciation for the people in your life. This can help to build positivity and deepen relationships.

In conclusion, human connection is a vital part of our lives. It can bring us joy, comfort, and support. It is important to cultivate strong relationships with others to experience the benefits of human connection. By being present, active listening, showing empathy, being vulnerable, sharing experiences, being reliable, and expressing gratitude, we can deepen our connections with others and improve our well-being. So, take the time to nurture the relationships in your life and enjoy the benefits of human connection.

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