Attachment in adulthood

Attachment describes a pattern of organization the individual utilizes to maintain proximity to their caregiver. Recent studies indicate that relationships, particularly the relationship the infant has with their primary caregiver, shaped the brain (Siegel, 1999; for more, see article on Neurobiology and Attachment under Articles section). Studies of Adult Attachment reveal 4 primary types of organizational patterns seen in adults referred to as attachment styles based on the category of adult attachment the individual fits into based on their Adult Attachment Interview (AAI; Main, Kaplan & Cassidy, 1985; Hesse, 1999). These categories include: Secure, Dismissive, Preoccupied, and Unresolved.

  • Adults in the Secure category (majority of population) are:
    • Able to trust and depend on others.
    • Not fearful of others becoming too close to them.
    • Have flexibility of responses (can deal with change relatively easily).
    • Able to self-regulate emotion.
    • Able to identify, label and discuss feelings.
    • Able to tolerate others’ distress and/or feelings of discomfort without feeling emotionally overwhelmed or flooded.
    • Able to stay in the present moment without intrusion from the past or future.
    • Proposed to have neural integration of hemispheres (Siegel, 2010).
    • Have a primary caregiver (parent) who was attuned to their needs and responded promptly and appropriately to their needs.
  • Adults with a Dismissive attachment style tend to:
    • Not trust or depend on others.
    • Frequently devalue relationships.
    • Demonstrate a fear of being enveloped in a relationship and losing themselves.
    • Prefer physical and emotional distance.
    • Find closeness in relationships anxiety provoking.
    • Proposed to lack neural integration with the left hemisphere more dominant (Siegel, 2010).
    • Have a primary caregiver who was not available for emotional communication or comfort and who preferred to have some distance from their child.
  • Adults with a Preoccupied attachment style tend to:
    • Not trust that others will be there for them when they need them.
    • Fear abandonment.
    • Frequently experience flooding of emotions.
    • Are often hypervigalent in monitoring their mates whereabouts.
    • Proposed to lack neural integration with right hemisphere more dominant (Siegel, 2010).
    • Have a primary caregiver who was inconsistent in their responses. For example, would hug their child without reason and would frequently not respond when child needed comfort or attention to needs.
  • Adults with an Unresolved attachment style have either experienced a trauma that they have not yet resolved or has a primary caregiver who has not resolved a trauma they experienced in their lives. Characteristics of unresolved adults include:
    • Significant difficulty regulating their mood.
    • Frequently become flooded with emotion and dissociate when they become flooded.
    • Do not have a specific strategy for dealing with stress but rather vacillate between going away from the fear and approaching the fear. Thus, when faced with stress, the individual often demonstrated incoherent behaviors such as going towards a person and then backing away from while experiencing distress.
    • Proposed to have a lack of neural integration that is dominated by chaos.
    • Have primary caregivers who have an unresolved trauma or a mental illness and thus provided unclear signals to their child. Moreover, parents who have experienced a loss, abuse or a have a mental illness frequently display signs of fear or aggression such as sneering or bearing teeth. This is terribly distressing to infants as it creates a paradoxical injunction as the infant seeks the caregiver as a source of safety but if the caregiver is also a source of fear/ aggression, the infant does not know whether to go toward the parent or away from the parent. Thus, people with parents who fall in this category display disorganized behavior and will “love and hate” someone at the same time.
      Adult attachment categories are important to recognize in intimate relationships as individuals with specific attachment strategies will tend to react in certain ways in relationships regardless of the person they are in the relationships with. For example, the individual with a dismissive attachment style will tend to devalue interpersonal relationships thus have difficulty being close or committing in relationships. In fact, individuals with a dismissive organization often find being in a relationship more difficult than being on their own so may search for reasons to not be in an intimate relationship. On the other hand, individuals with a preoccupied attachment organization strategy my be “clingy” to their partner and demonstrate a semi-paranoia about their partner leaving them or what is often referred to as a fear of abandonment. Furthermore, individuals with an Unresolved classification do not have an organizational strategy, thus are not predictable and generally lack affect regulation which frequently poses problems in intimate relationships.
    • Have a primary caregiver who was inconsistent in their responses. For example, would hug their child without reason and would frequently not respond when child needed comfort or attention to needs.