One of the most important concepts in understanding relational struggles, and how to overcome them, is the concept of attachment.

Farmers and others who have been around animals likely have an intuitive sense of the ways offspring “attach” to their mothers and the evolutionary benefits of doing so. Human infants are the most dependent of any other species. A human being cannot survive on its own for many years, making its connection with its mother (or other protective adults) essential for survival.

Decades ago, it was assumed that if a child’s basic needs were met (i.e., shelter, food), the child would thrive in life. Research since then has demonstrated that emotional connection, attunement and care is not optional or “extra” but is actually critical to healthy development.

Across the animal kingdom, infants that stay close to or “attached to” (physically and emotionally) their mothers are more likely to survive. The importance of early attachment is demonstrated by a now-famous study by Harry Harlowe, which found that infant rhesus monkeys often chose emotional comfort (i.e., cuddling with a terry cloth “surrogate mother” that did not provide milk) over a wire “surrogate mother” that did provide milk.

Attachment theorists believe that the tendency to form attachments is a biological need. For those of you who are parents or grandparents (or caretakers of infants or young children), can you imagine the distress you feel when a child is crying and in need? The agitation you feel pulls you to care for the child, to keep them safe and nurtured.

Infants are also drawn to seek support from their caregivers, by crying when they need care and smiling and engaging adults when they are not distressed, thereby forming a bond that ensures that adults will come when care is needed.

If you are reading and worrying about your own imperfect parenting, do not despair! Another important concept is that of the “good enough” mother (or parent), proposed by Donald Winnicott in 1953. No parent is perfect, and we do not need to be. We need to strive to be generally attuned to and responsive to our children, but they also need to have opportunities to learn how to trust and care for themselves.

So how does early attachment affect us as adults?

When early caregivers are responsive to a baby’s needs (e.g., come quickly when they cry, smile in response to their smiles, soothe them physically), a child learns to trust others and that they have worth and will be cared for. We call this “Secure Attachment,” which leads them to create trust and closeness in future relationships.

In contrast, when children do not consistently have responsive, attuned early caregivers, they do not develop the necessary trust in self and others that is required for healthy adult relationships. This often leads to problems in adult relationships.

Luckily, an awareness of our own relational patterns (and compassion for ourselves and our loved ones about how those patterns developed) can help us to create new ones, resulting in healthier, more intimate, lasting relationships.

Bartholomew and Horowitz proposed four main styles of attachment in an important 1991 paper. They proposed two scales that form four attachment styles: anxiety (do I matter enough for others to care for me?) and avoidance (do I believe others will be there if I need them?). While most of us have a dominant style, we can fluctuate between various styles in different situations.

See if you can identify your dominant style.

Secure Attachment

Positive self-worth and self- confidence/belief that one can take care of self in difficult situations AND that significant relational figures will be responsive and helpful when care is needed. (Develops when caregivers are relatively attuned and appropriately responsive to emotional needs of a child and allow the child independence to develop trust in themselves.)

Preoccupied Attachment

Low self-worth, dependent on others (and especially connection with others) for self-worth. (Typically develops when parents are not attuned to their children’s emotional needs and respond inconsistently to their child.)

Dismissive Attachment

Asserts a positive view of self and denies emotional needs/dismisses the need for close relationships. (Typically develops when early caregivers are neglectful or absent and a child learns they can only depend on themselves, not others.)

Fearful Attachment

Low self-worth and lack of trust in others; desires relationships but scared they will be hurt. (Typically develops in abusive households or when there is great inconsistency in a caregiver’s ability to respond to the child’s needs.)

Importantly, without awareness and intention to change our patterns, we are likely to continue to play out early relational patterns in adult relationships (including romantic relationships, friendships, relationships with co-workers, neighbors, etc.).

If you find yourself re-playing old patterns, see if you can take an opportunity today to do something new. This can create significant anxiety because there is a deeply ingrained evolutionary need for connection, and fear that it will not be met. However, if we are willing to feel that anxiety, we can change our relationships, leading us not only to heal from the past, but to create greater intimacy, connection and well-being in our current relationships.

Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children. Contact her through her website, or call 319-975-8705.