Secure Attachment in Adults [34]

By Dr. Keith Witt
November 2, 2011
iStock_000018901377XSmall-150x150 In the last blog we looked mostly at attachment in children. We ended with the hopeful news that secure adults raise secure kids, and all humans are programmed for secure attachment in healthy intimate relationships. First, what do adults with secure attachment styles look like? What Securely Attached adults look like. Securely attached adults are those well-put-together people who are aware of—but don’t get lost in—their emotions, memories, and impulses. Their lives make sense to them. They understand that hardships they’ve experienced (childhood trauma, failures, relationship disasters, disease, or any kind of emotional pain) are parts of a larger, more comprehensive and positive life story. They tend be empathic, concerned, and patient with family and other people. They’re good listeners. They make friends more easily and can take on professional challenges better than insecurely attached adults. They’re more likely to appreciate and cherish their children for who they are, rather than who they want them to be. When their kids have emotional reactions, they acknowledge the emotion, label it, validate it, and engage in constructive problem solving and boundary setting. These kinds of parents are called “emotionally coaching” parents by John Gottman, who has studied them extensively, and contrasts them with “emotionally dismissing” parents who exhibit more of a “suck it up and carry on” attitude towards negative emotions. You can tell the attachment style of someone by asking about his or her life stories. Researchers often use the AAI (Adult Attachment Inventory), developed by Mary Main and Eric Hess at the University of California at Berkeley. During the process, a tester asks questions about the person’s life for over an hour, transcribes everything, and the transcript is rated on what the person said and how he or she said it. AAI transcripts show how the lives of securely attached people fit together well for them. They have coherent, autonomous, autobiographical narratives. Is this really how you talk in conferences? Yes, I know! This is really how we talk at conferences. It’s like another language—sometimes desperately boring and incomprehensible, yet often pure pleasure if you’re fluent. In plain English, a coherent, autonomous autobiographical narrative is a life that makes sense—you understand with compassion how your past helped shape your present, and you have a confident sense of creating a future you want. So while it might seem astonishing that a tester can interview you for an hour and then someone reading the transcript can determine with startling accuracy how good a spouse and parent you’ll be, believe me, it’s true. Those trained in this system can read an AAI transcript and predict what kind of attachment style someone has with amazing accuracy and detail. Such testing has spotlighted how many adults are not securely attached. This makes perfect sense. Avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized children are likely to end up having similar attachment styles as adults—who of course are more likely to have insecure attachment with their own children. Let’s take a look at adult types of attachmen—but, remember, everybody can be securely attached if they decide to grow in their ability to love:
  • Secure Autonomous Attachment styles: Adults with this form of attachment live mostly in the present, can maintain stable relationships, and generally stay attuned to family members. Their lives make sense to them in that they experience their various life stories (their stories about themselves as infant, child, teen, lover, worker, parent, etc) as fitting together into a good overall life they have some control over. They’re much more likely to raise securely attached children.
  • Dismissive Attachment styles: These adults tend to discount emotion and aren’t particularly aware of or concerned with their own feelings. They’re likely to raise children with avoidant attachment—kids who don’t pay much attention to emotion and can tune others out pretty easily.
  • Preoccupied Attachment styles: These adults are easily distracted by bad memories, painful feelings, and intrusive thoughts. They have trouble maintaining attunement with children and other adults. They tend to raise children with anxious/ambivalent attachment—children easily alarmed, clingy, and hard to soothe.
  • Unresolved/Disorganized Attachment: These adults are deeply disturbed, have trouble staying oriented to reality, and are more likely to neglect and abuse their children, who will in turn are likely to develop disorganized attachment styles of their own where they dissociate (space out), engage in random behaviors, or go crazy in other ways.
No one system tells the whole story of human development, because each of us is too complicated to ever be fully understood. On the other hand, attachment relationships provide incredible insight into healthy and unhealthy parenting, relating, and living. We can reliably predict attachment style in infants by as early as nine months. Attachment researchers can do this using a mother/baby test called the Strange Situation Test, or the Ainsworth, named after it’s originator, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth. In the Ainsworth, a mom plays with her infant in a room full of toys, leaves her with a researcher for a few minutes, and then comes back in. How the baby reacts to mom coming back in the room reveals the infant’s attachment style. Findings from the Ainsworth tend to hold true for a lifetime, in the absence of therapy or other healing intimate relationships. So how can we help people move from insecure to secure attachment styles? The way to do this is by having at least one successful, positive, securely attached relationship with another adult in your life. That’s right, certain high-quality intimate relationships (with people with secure autonomous attachment themselves) can help us change from insecure to secure attachment styles. This healing relationship doesn’t have to be an intimate love interest. It can be with a parent, teacher, friend, or therapist. I’ll be talking lots more about attachment, but for now, the take-home message is that love heals—even if the way you were raised was deeply painful and insecure. Healthy intimacy can help even the most troubled child or distressed adult. This is one of the foundation tenets of the School of Love—love heals.

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