The most fundamental human need is to be seen. We want our partners to look at us closely, to note the changes in our features and respond accordingly. It can be intoxicating to be attended to so intimately, with such all-encompassing attention. A fundamental aspect of what we call charm is this ability to make others feel completely seen and heard, even if only for a brief moment.
This need to be seen starts in infancy and is initially fulfilled by our caregivers. Not all caregivers have an equal ability to attend to their children, and not all children have an equal need to be attended to closely by their caregivers. Most of the time, the match between caregiver and infant is good enough. However, there are times when this isn’t the case. When severe enough, this mismatch can lead the infant to have difficulties with relationships as an adult.
This idea is the basis of attachment theory, which proposes that our relationships as adults are based on our relationship with our caregivers as infants. The degree to which our caregivers were responsiveness to our needs as infants determines our attachment pattern, and this pattern is then repeated in all later relationships for the rest of our lives.The Strange Situation
The psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed a protocol known as the “Strange Situation”, which was used to study how infants reacted when they were separated from their mothers and then reunited.
Following extensive research with hundreds of infants and mothers, her studies revealed four types of attachment styles: secure, ambivalent/anxious, avoidant and disorganized.
Secure attachment is the healthiest attachment style. It’s created when caregivers are consistently (but not perfectly) responsive to their infant. A securely attached child feels loved by her caregivers while also being free to explore the world independently, knowing she always has a secure base to return to. When her caregiver leaves, she feels briefly distressed, but is easily soothed when her caregiver returns. As an adult, she can feel close to others, is comfortable depending on others and having others depend on her, and doesn’t worry about being abandoned or trapped in relationships.
Most adults fall into this category, further supporting the idea that “good enough parenting” works most of the time.
However, some children develop insecure attachment.
Ambivalent attachment (which is also sometimes named anxious attachment) occurs when caregivers are inconsistent. Sometimes they’re responsive to their child, and sometimes they aren’t. Like slot machines that provide rare and unpredictable wins, this intermittent reinforcement teaches the infant that love and attention are unreliable, but still possible. The hope of hitting the jackpot keeps the infant glued to their caregiver, always on guard for abandonment. These infants react with extreme distress when separated from their caregiver, yet respond with anger when the caregiver returns. They grow into adults who are constantly afraid of abandonment, and as a result hold their partners too close. They doubt their partner’s love for them and are hypervigilant of signs that their partner is lying or cheating on them. They long for a complete union with their partner and do everything in their power to avoid being alone.Avoidant attachment arises when a caregiver is mostly absent. The infant learns that it has to figure things out on its own and cannot depend on others for help. When their caregiver leaves, these infants appear unperturbed, and when their caregiver returns, they don’t seek comfort from them. They appear to hardly notice either way. While the ambivalent child cannot tolerate being alone, the avoidant child cannot tolerate being dependent on others. These children grow into highly independent adults who are uncomfortable with closeness. They are suspicious of intimate relationships and have difficulty trusting others. For them, self-sufficiency is the key to survival, and therefore they keep all relationships at arm’s length. To avoid disappointment, they believe that they can only count on themselves.
Disorganized attachment occurs when there is a complete absence of attachment between caregiver and child. This only occurs with truly abusive and profoundly damaging caregiver relationships.
I have provided extreme examples of each attachment style to demonstrate the differences between them. All people fall somewhere on a spectrum, with certain features of each attachment style arising in different situations. These patterns only become problematic when they interfere with their relationships and causes significant distress or dysfunction in their lives.
Why attachment occurs
Ambivalent or anxious attachments do not occur because of any inherent pathology in the child. They reflect the child’s adaptive response to the behaviour of their caregiver. Every child ultimately seeks closeness, but depending on their caregiver, the child must use different strategies to achieve that closeness, which are reflected in the attachment pattern.
These behaviours were adaptive in childhood. However, in ambivalent or anxious attachments, this previously adaptive behaviour no longer applies to relationships with people who aren’t their caregiver. Through an overgeneralization based on early experience, these assumptions and behavioural patterns lead to problematic relationships in adulthood.
For an overview of Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” protocol and film clips demonstrating each attachment style, please see:
Attachment: Mary Ainsworth by Saul McLeod
Note that attachment theory shouldn’t be confused with attachment parenting, a popular interpretation of attachment theory that distorts many of the fundamental aspects of the theory and isn’t based on any reliable evidence.
For a thoughtful and enlightening discussion clarifying the differences between the two, please see:
Attachment vs Attachment Parenting by Tracy Cassels, PhD
It takes a village
Children are cared for by a variety of adults, not only their mothers. For this reason, these same attachment patterns occur with fathers, extended family members, adopted parents, or any adult that is consistently present and attentive to the child. The bond depends on repeated experience with that caregiver rather than biological similarity.
In the classic 1950s children’s book “Eloise at the Plaza”, Eloise is a 6 year-old girl living at the Plaza Hotel, in New York. She has a largely absent mother, only referred to in passing, and a father who is never even mentioned. However, she clearly forms a strong attachment to her nanny.
“She is my mostly companion”, Eloise says. Though one might worry about the consequences of being raised in the absence of attachment to either parent, this story demonstrates a hopeful picture of attachment to a caregiver who is consistent and attuned, but who happens to be her nanny.
How attachment styles affect how we see faces
Insecure attachment styles, such as ambivalent or avoidant attachment, significantly distort how emotions are perceived in others.
Research shows that people with an ambivalent attachment style have a “hair trigger” when it comes to detecting changes in displays of emotion on others’ faces. Because their caregivers were inconsistent, it was adaptive to become hypervigilant to emotional cues in their caregiver’s face. They learned to jump at any hint of responsiveness on their caregiver’s part. This tendency continues into adulthood. As adults, they constantly seek proximity and security from their close relationships, yet constantly fear abandonment.
In these studies, adults with an ambivalent attachment style were able to detect changes in facial expressions of emotion more quickly than securely attached individuals. However, they were also less accurate at identifying the correct emotion. Because their caregiver was inconsistent and unpredictable, it was important to learn to notice even small cues and respond rapidly, even if they were sometimes wrong in their interpretation.
This tendency has major consequences in adulthood. Studies show that adults with an ambivalent attachment style have more negative emotions in their relationships, have more conflict with their partners and were more likely to have relationships that dissolved.
However, there’s a twist to this study. When these individuals were allowed to study a face for a longer amount of time before identifying the emotion, they were more accurate than securely-attached people. In this case, their hypervigilance led to increased accuracy. Ultimately, their attachment style gave them a secret strength, but only when properly harnessed. The key was to resist the urge to jump to conclusions and allow other evidence to temper their initial assumptions.
Avoidant attachment also affects the way emotions are perceived in others. Because their caregivers were largely absent, people with an avoidant attachment style were raised to be extremely self-reliant. They learned to constantly resist the innate need to feel close to others, actively shunning any opportunity for connection because they believed it to be too dangerous and would surely lead to disappointment.
However, as they grow into adults, other relationships begin to provide evidence that counters their assumptions. Though their caregivers were unavailable, this is not true of all the people they come to know. When they are faced with a partner who is connected and responsive to them, it leads to cognitive dissonance. Their assumptions (“I am alone in the world”) contradict what they perceive in others (“This person seems to love and care for me”).
In these situations, their mind must resolve the dissonance. This usually occurs by twisting their interpretation of the situation rather than questioning their fundamental assumptions. So they will conclude: “Though she says she cares about me, she doesn’t mean it. If I get close to her, she’ll let me down. I can’t count on others, I’m on my own.” Their cognitive dissonance resolves instantly.To maintain their incorrect interpretations of others, their mind learns to misread cues of closeness and positive emotion in relationships. They guard against intimacy by perceiving the world in a way that minimizes any evidence that positive relationships are possible.
How is this done? First, their mind impairs their ability to perceive positive emotions, because these tend to signal interpersonal closeness and connection.
Using standardized expressions of emotion developed by Paul Ekman, researchers found that avoidant participants were less accurate at perceiving joy on faces, compared to other participants.
People with avoidant attachment styles also devalue positive emotions in general. They rate positive social images as less pleasant than people with secure attachment. Even at the neurophysiological level, they have less activation of brain reward circuits when looking at positive emotional displays in others. In this way, they actually see the world in a way that supports their flawed premise.
Their mind is also always on guard for relationships that have the potential to lead to closeness. In the cleverly titled study “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up“, researchers demonstrated that when there is a potential for intimacy, people with avoidant attachment styles perceive relationships more negatively.
Researchers found that avoidantly attached individuals perceived a lower opportunity for connection and intimacy with their current partners than with ex-partners. Thus, when there was a risk for closeness (as is the case with current partners), they rated their relationships as having less connection or intimacy. When they looked at their ex-partners, who were less likely to threaten their fear of closeness, they rated these relationships as having more connection and intimacy. This is paradoxical, of course, since it would drive a wedge in relationships that have the highest potential for meaningful connection.
In the next part of their study, participants were shown 2 different dating profiles. The first profile showed someone who was high in responsiveness, demonstrating validation and caring with statements such as “I am quick to respond to my girlfriend’s needs and do my best to help her fulfill those needs”. The second profile was low in responsiveness, with statements such as “As a boyfriend I figure girls should be able to take care of themselves.” Avoidantly attached individuals were found to have less romantic interest in the first profile, and more in the second. They were not interested in a partner that was validating and caring, because it activated their fear that they might form a connection. Yet, paradoxically, this kind of partner would lead to a happier, more connected relationship. When they chose unresponsive, unvalidating partners, which would likely lead them to feel disconnected and alone, they could point to the disappointing relationship and say it confirmed their fears– they knew all along that being close to others was dangerous and should be avoided. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Positive facial expressions, such as happiness and joy, are signals of affiliation and connection, and increase the odds of approach by others. Thus, these displays would be seen as “threatening” to avoidantly attached individuals. They might defend against the risk of intimacy by being less accurate when decoding positive social and emotional stimuli in others.
This idea was tested by asking participants to identify positive and negative facial emotion expressions in standardized images of faces. They found that avoidantly attached participants who were in a romantic relationship were less accurate at decoding positive emotions, when compared to singles. This confirmed that being in a relationship increases the stakes of being disappointed by others, motivating them to unconsciously ignore signs of positive emotional connection. Those who weren’t in relationship, even if avoidantly attached, didn’t have the same pressure to ignore these positive signals and were equally accurate at reading positive emotion expressions in others. Yet again, this highlights the danger of seeing the world through a clouded lens: when it’s most important to perceive connection in others, their fears blind them to what they are most desperate to see.
Why attachment matters
The patterns learned in childhood carry over into adulthood. The relationship with your primary caregiver becomes the template for all later relationships, and particularly romantic partnerships. A sensitive, attuned caregiver paves the way for mostly healthy relationships and generally accurate, balanced reading of emotions in others. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. This is true for most people.
However, a caregiver whose attunement is inconsistent (leading to ambivalent attachment) or absent (leading to avoidant attachment) powerfully shapes adult relationships. While ambivalently-attached adults have trouble because they jump to conclusions too quickly, avoidantly-attached adults struggle with positive emotions in others. Both mistakes are based on incorrect assumptions about others, which made sense with their caregivers in infancy but no longer apply to their adult relationships.
Yet the repeated patterns in childhood are powerful, leaving deep ruts which are difficult to resist falling back into as adults.Developing a healthy attachment in adulthood comes from rewriting these childhood assumptions by first having sufficient openness to identify and name them, opening the door even slightly to the possibility that they may be wrong.
By challenging these assumptions through new relationships with attuned and caring individuals, everyone has the ability to perceive the world more as it is, rather than as they believe it to be.