Attachment & Connection in Quarantine

A Three Part Series

Part Two: What is your Attachment Style?

Background: A little background…

~Excerpted from upcoming book set: Treating Complex Trauma: Beyond Competency

Strange Situation is an experimental procedure developed by Mary Ainsworth to observe the variety of attachment styles exhibited between mothers and infants. Conducted with children between the ages of nine-months-old to about five-years-old, it is set in a playroom specifically outfitted for this purpose. Neither the mother nor the child has been in the setting before, so it literally presents a strange situation. The procedure consists of eight episodes.

The first and second have the mother and baby come into the playroom, get comfortable, and begin to play. The third episode starts when a stranger comes into the room. After one minute,  the stranger begins to talk to the mother and, at around the three minute mark, the stranger attempts to play with the baby. In the fourth episode, the mother hears a signal from the researchers and gets up and leaves the room. After three minutes of separation, the mother calls out to the baby as she comes back into the room, and consoles the baby. After the baby has calmed down, the fifth episode has the mother leave again, leaving the baby alone. The sixth episode begins after another three minutes of separation, but this time instead of the mother coming in, the stranger comes in. In the seventh episode, the mother comes back, consoles the child, and they begin to play again. The attachment styles below were created based on the babies’ reactions to the Strange Situation.
  • Secure
  • Insecure
    • Avoidant/dismissive
    • Anxious/preoccupied
    • Disorganized* (Further developed by Mary Main, a student of Ainsworth)

What is your attachment style in close relationships? (Note: attachment styles may vary across relationships, e.g., a person may display secure attachment strategies within one relationship, avoidant strategies in another, and anxious strategies in still another.)

Click here to take the quiz to determine your attachment style in each of your close relationships (including the therapeutic relationship).

Secure Attachment: Signal cry consistently met by attuned caretaker (Adult Attitude toward attachment: Secure/Autonomous

Securely attached infants in the Strange Situation become distressed when the mother leaves the room; when the mother returns, the baby runs to her, is easily soothed, and begins to play again. These children feel confident that their caregiver will be available to meet their needs. Securely attached adults tend to be balanced in their relationships and independence. These adults tend to describe varied childhood experiences, with not all being good or bad. 

Securely attached children perceive their caregiver as a secure base from which they can endeavor out on their own to explore the world, knowing that they can return to their attachment and will be welcomed back. Similarly, securely attached adults are able to experience close connection with their partner, as well as appreciate that they and their partner will sometimes need space. Securely attached adults offer support when their partner feels distressed and are able to ask for and accept comfort when distressed. Generally, secure relationships tend to be egalitarian, open, and honest, with both people autonomous, independent, satisfied, and loving toward one another.

Securely attached people agree with the following statements: 

  • “It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others.” 
  • “I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me.”
  • “I don’t worry about being alone or others not accepting me.” 

Securely attached people tend to have positive views of themselves, their attachments, and their relationships with others. They generally report greater satisfaction in their relationships than people with other attachment styles. Securely attached people feel comfortable both with intimacy and with independence. 

Shorthand: Feels good/safe with self and others.

Insecure Avoidant Attachment: Signal cry consistently unmet by caretaker. (Adult Attitude toward attachment: Dismissive) 

In the Strange Situation scenario, infants with avoidant attachment present as though nothing really bothers them; they don’t cry when their mother goes away and they ignore her when she comes back. However this does not mean that they are unaffected, in fact, when measured, their physiological states mimic that of every other stressed baby, which is hyperarousal. They have learned that displaying their distress does not lead to consolation from their particular caregiver.  

Avoidantly-attached adults were unable to integrate experiential memories as as children and therefore have difficulty recalling specific experiences. Instead, their memories tend to be vague and non-specific. They tend to deny any early attachment relationships or consider them of little importance. Individuals with this avoidant-dismissive attachment style tend to seek isolation. They detach from themselves and others with relative ease. These individuals establish and maintain emotional distance from their partner and have the ability to completely shut down emotionally, regardless of the relational circumstances.

Adults with a dismissive style of avoidant attachment tend to agree with these statements: 

  • “I am comfortable without close emotional relationships.”
  • “It is important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient.”
  • “I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.” 

People with this attachment style desire a high level of independence, which often appears as an attempt to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient and invulnerable to feelings associated with being closely attached to others. They often deny needing close relationships and may view close relationships as relatively unimportant. Not surprisingly, they seek less intimacy with attachments, whom they often view less positively than they view themselves. They tend to suppress and hide their feelings, and they tend to deal with rejection by distancing themselves from the sources of rejection (e.g. their attachments or relationships). 

Shorthand: Does not feel good/safe with others. 

Insecure, Anxious/Ambivalent: Signal cry inconsistently met by caretaker (Adult Attitude toward attachment: Preoccupied

In anxious or ambivalent attachment, the infants in Strange Situation continuously draw attention to themselves by crying, yelling, clinging, or screaming; they seem to have concluded that unless they make a spectacle, nobody will to pay attention. They become exceedingly upset when their mother is absent but derive little comfort from her return and are often inconsolable. Even though they don’t seem to enjoy her company, they stay passively or angrily focused on her, even in situations where most children would rather play.

Like avoidantly attached adults, anxiously attached adults have also failed to integrate and assess the meaning of experiential memories. These adults tend to display confusion about past experiences and ruminate over painful experiences that lack resolution. Current relationships with attachment figures are marked by active anger or passivity. Rather than love, these clients experience the intense, painful longing of emotional need. Anxiously attached individuals tend to maintain their signal-cry or need for attention even when their needs are being met. This is often done out of fear that, if they turn off their signal cry, attention will no longer be paid. Due to the inconsistency of the caregiver, these individuals tend to have a difficult time trusting that their needs will continue to be met.

Adults with anxious-ambivalent attachment type tend to agree with the following statements: 

  • “I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like.”
  • “I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.” 

People with this style of attachment seek high levels of intimacy, approval, and responsiveness from their attachment figure. Compared with securely attached people, people who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment tend to have negative views about themselves. They may feel a sense of anxiousness that only recedes when in contact with the attachment figure and need consistent reassurance that they are loved and worthy. They often doubt their worth as a person and blame themselves for the attachment figure’s lack of responsiveness. 

Shorthand: Does not feel good/safe with self.

Disorganized (fearful-avoidant/unresolved/can’t classify): Signal cry inconsistently met by frightened and/or frightening caretaker (Adult Attitude toward attachment: Disoriented/Disorganized)

A modest percentage of children (15% in studies conducted by Mary Main) appear unable to figure out how to engage with their caregivers – seemingly because the caregivers themselves are a source of distress or terror to the children. Children in this situation have no one to turn to, and they are faced with an unsolvable dilemma: their mothers are simultaneously necessary for survival and a source of fear. They “can neither approach (the secure and ambivalent ‘strategies’), shift [their] attention (the avoidant ‘strategy’), nor flee.” In the attachment laboratory, these children look toward their parents when they enter the room and then quickly turn away. Unable to choose between seeking closeness and avoiding the parent, they may rock, appear to go into a trance, freeze with their arms raised, or get up to greet their parent and then fall to the ground. On the Origins of Disorganized Attachment and Internal Working Models: Paper II. An Empirical Microanalysis of 4-Month Mother–Infant Interaction, Beatrice Beebe wrote:

Lowered maternal contingent coordination, and failures of maternal affective correspondence, constituted maternal emotional withdrawal from distressed infants. This maternal withdrawal compromises infant interactive agency and emotional coherence. We characterize of the nature of emerging internal working models of future disorganized infants as follows: Future disorganized infants represent states of not being sensed and known by their mothers, particularly in moments of distress; they represent confusion about both their own and their mothers’ basic emotional organization, and about their mothers’ response to their distress. This internal working model sets a trajectory in development which may disturb the fundamental integration of the person.

People with this type of attachment tend to agree with the following statements: “I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to completely trust others, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to other people.” They tend to feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness, and the mixed feelings are combined with sometimes unconscious, negative views about themselves and their attachments. They commonly view themselves as unworthy of responsiveness from their attachments, and they don’t trust the intentions of their attachments.

Shorthand: Does not feel good/safe with self or others.

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