Love and attachment can be complex topics, which can be further obscured by misuse of each term. For example: Many people use the term "attachment" colloquially to refer to a feeling of connection to someone that is distinct or different from a feeling of love.
Many may also have varying definitions of attachment, many of which might come from attachment theory. This theory can describe how individuals might form bonds with one another. Many may find, however, that while concepts presented by attachment theory can significantly impact romantic relationships, the attachment described by the theory can be substantially different from love.
Read on to explore the differences between love and attachment, as well as the role that therapy can play in helping someone establish their preferences in both areas.
How Does Science Conceptualize Attachment?
Much of the research surrounding adult relationships, both romantic and otherwise, is thought by many to be rooted in attachment theory. John Bowlby is theorized to have first conceptualized attachment theory in the mid-20th century. He was regarded by many to be a British psychologist and psychiatrist, applying his ideas to explain behavior he observed in children he treated at a psychiatric hospital.
Bowlby documented significant differences in how certain children attached to their caregivers. Some children were noted to be distant and avoided contact with authority figures; while others appeared to require near-constant attention from caregivers. Bowlby then was thought to have theorized that the need for attachment may be innate in humans—and when a child's need for attachment is not met, the child can feel threatened. He then hypothesized that this occurrence can cause any underlying aberrant behavior to increase.
In the 1980s, many found that researcher Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver argued that the classifications presented by attachment theory could be applied to romantic relationships as well as parent-child relationships. They were thought to have theorized that significant relationships in a person's life could possibly result in an attachment bond, which could be categorized in alignment with attachment theory.
Modern research suggests that the attachment bond a person experiences with their parents can strongly influence the attachment bonds they may form with future romantic partners.
We do want to note: While today's researchers may believe that secure attachment can be necessary for a healthy relationship, it is not generally considered necessary for love. It can be possible to be in love with someone—no matter what their or their partner's attachment style may be.
The Four Attachment Styles And Their (Possible) Impact On Romantic Relationships
Many have found that modern researchers recognize four primary attachment styles when considering romantic relationships. These attachment styles can be related to and developed from the original attachment styles considered by Bowlby, but they are generally regarded as distinct and are generally designed to be applied to adult relationships.
The first category listed below, secure attachment, generally describes a healthy, functional attachment style. The other three categories, disorganized, avoidant and anxious, conversely, can all describe attachments that may interfere with romantic relationships. Many consider them forms of “insecure attachment”.
Secure attachment can occur when a child has warm, nurturing and healthy relationships with their parents. If someone aligns with this style, they may have been allowed to express emotion, and explore freely—possibly promoting feelings of safety with their caregiver.
Adults with a secure attachment style may have relationships based on trust, tolerance and emotional closeness. Securely-attached adults may also thrive in their relationships, as they may have a positive view of themselves and others. This mindset can lead to an absence of attention-seeking behavior or a strong need for external validation.
Disorganized attachment can be a form of insecure attachment. It can be characterized by inconsistent behaviors and difficulty trusting others. It can frequently appear in children who witnessed or experienced trauma, abuse or instability in relationships during their upbringing.
The effects of this attachment style can manifest in many different ways, with many experiencing conflicting thoughts and behaviors possibly relating to security and safety.
Children living with disorganized attachment may seem to oscillate between avoidant and attached behaviors and may experience difficulty interacting with unknown or “new” people in their lives.
Adults living with a disorganized attachment style may view their partner and relationship as a source of both nervousness and desire. They may desire intimacy and closeness, possibly associating both with strong emotions, nervousness and fear. Online therapy and other supportive strategies can support adults who align with this style in maintaining healthier relationship patterns.
Children experiencing an avoidant attachment style may downplay their emotions or dismiss them outright. They might seem to be independent, capable and self-reliant—but may fear intimacy and vulnerability simultaneously. They may withdraw when adults or other children approach them, and may find it difficult to develop strong bonds with others. Avoidant attachment can appear when parents or caregivers are emotionally distant from their children.
The themes of avoidant attachment can carry into adulthood. Adults with avoidant attachment may avoid romantic relationships and might believe they don't need a relationship to feel complete or satisfied. They may not depend on others, have others rely on them or seek approval from social peers. They may feel as if they have to hide or suppress strong emotions, which can lead to communication difficulties. Therapy can be useful for couples experiencing this type of attachment, as it can open channels of communication and support.
Children living with an anxious attachment style may stick very close to their caregivers—possibly avoiding any opportunities for independence and exporation. They may also have conflicting views; such as a positive view of others but a negative view of themselves. Anxious attachment can occur when parents are emotionally attentive at some times and emotionally distant at others.
Adults living with anxious attachment styles might seem to put enormous effort into their romantic relationships, often to their own detriment. They may struggle to receive criticism from their loved ones, and may fear the loss of their partner more than anything else. The behaviors of anxious attachment are thought by many to come from a fear of abandonment, and those with the attachment style struggle to be alone. In everyday terminology, many people might use the term "codependent" to refer to adults with an anxious attachment style (whether or not it is truly accurate).
Can An Insecure Attachment Become Secure?
This experience can be attractive to many who might wish to change their attachment style. This can prompt the question—is it truly possible?
Because attachment styles are generally formed beginning in early childhood, many people believe they are innate and unchangeable. While it can be true that attachment styles can bear innate, current evidence suggests that it can be possible to change an insecure attachment style into a secure one.
This type of secure attachment, known to many as earned-secure attachment, may resemble the secure attachment style discussed above. Those with an earned-secure attachment style might think positively about themselves, feel comfortable forming emotional bonds, experience few fears of loneliness and can balance intimacy and independence.
Below are a few tips to help many move from insecure to earned-secure attachment:
Give and receive emotional support. Developing secure relationships generally requires giving and receiving support from others. With this in mind, you may choose to focus on consciously choosing to receive emotional validation from those around you.
Make sense of past experiences. It can be helpful to take time to reflect on past experiences that may be impacting your attachment. Making sense of them can help you process the emotions they produce.
Adopt Positive Self-Perceptions. Insecure attachments can produce a strong negative self-image. You may consider confronting any preconceived notions of self-worth and inserting positivity when possible.
Make conscious changes to thoughts and behaviors. When you encounter a thought or behavior that may negatively impact you, like putting yourself down or avoiding emotionally charged conversations, you might instead concentrate on exerting willpower to change the thought or behavior consciously.
Can Online Therapy Help? (Yes—Here’s How)
Meeting with an online therapist can be a simple and effective way to help you manage concerns related to your attachment style. Conducting therapy online can remove barriers that may be present in traditional therapy, such as traveling to an office or being restricted to nearby therapists only. The process, using this method, can be conducted entirely online from the comfort of your home or safe place.
Is Online Therapy Effective?
Online therapists generally have the same training and qualifications as traditional therapists, and they can use the same evidence-based techniques—like cognitive behavioral therapy—to help their clients reach meaningful solutions. In fact, in a recent study published in PLoSOne, details suggested that progress reached in online therapy was found to be meaningful after the interventions concluded—and that patient satisfaction with the modality remained high.
Additional evidence also suggests that therapy conducted online can be just as effective as in-person therapy.
It can be possible to move from an insecure attachment style to a secure one using therapy and other supportive strategies. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
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