Strings Attached

Krisha Janaswamy

Vedika Basu

Human beings are inherently social species. We are not unique in this way; there are barely any animals for whom social behaviour regulation is not essential. Something similar to social behaviour may even occur in invertebrates. The concept of humans being social ‘by nature’ has lent credibility to a significant idea: that humans need other humans to survive. Naturally, every human being has different styles of attachment.

John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, described attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’ The attachment theory is a psychological and evolutionary theory concerning relationships between humans. While the behavioural theories of attachment suggested that attachment was a learned process, Bowlby proposed that children are born with a drive to form attachments with their caregivers.

Historically, children who maintained proximity to a caregiver were more likely to receive their protection and be comfortable and had a higher chance of surviving to adulthood. The infant resorts to innate ‘social releaser’ behaviours, such as crying and smiling that stimulate a natural caregiving response in adults. Thus, these instincts were naturally selected and reinforced through generations. These behaviours are what Bowlby termed a behavioural attachment system. Mary Ainsworth showed that infants placed in an unfamiliar situation and separated from their caregivers would usually react in one of four ways reunited with their caregivers. Based on these reactions, four attachment styles were concluded: secure attachment, anxious- resistant/anxious- preoccupied attachment, dismissive-avoidant attachment, fearful-avoidant/disorganised attachment.

While Bowlby’s work mainly pertained to infants and children’s attachment styles, he believed it was something one would take to the grave. Adult attachment patterns follow the same general way.

1) Secure attachment:

Those with strong, secure attachment style manifest the following traits: having higher emotional intelligence and convey their emotions appropriately and constructively. They are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships, feeling secure without feeling the need to be together all the time. They can draw healthy and reasonable boundaries when required and are more likely to handle interpersonal difficulties in stride, evident from their will to solve problems and resilience in the face of relational dissolution, rather than to attack a person.

People displaying a secure attachment style are not perfect. They have their ups and downs, just like everyone else and can become upset when provoked. That being said, their mature approach to relationships makes this the healthiest of attachment styles.

2) Anxious-resistant/ anxious-preoccupied attachment:

Those with anxious- preoccupied attachment style are inclined to feel more nervous about relationships in general. This is evident from their inclination to have many stressors in relationships, which can manifest themselves as neediness, possessiveness, jealousy, control, obsessiveness, oversensitivity etc. These can root from both real and imagined happenings. They are drama oriented, often even going as far as making up relationship issues to seek reassurance, validation and acceptance. They tend towards automatic negative thinking when interpreting others’ words, emotions, and actions are reluctant to give people the benefit of the doubt. They need constant stroking of love and validation to feel secure and accepted, responding negatively when not consistent with positive reinforcement. They dislike being without company and struggle to be with oneself. They often have a history of turbulent relationships, with some even feeling more comfortable in stormy relationships.

3) Dismissive avoidant attachment:

Those with dismissive-avoidant attachment style manifest the following traits: Emotionally and behaviourally independent. People with this attachment style usually keep their distance from others and are highly self-sufficient and self-directed. They desire freedom emotionally and physically, prizing their autonomy over everything else and insisting on maintaining their independence and isolation from others. Other things in their lives are often prioritised over relationships, such as work, personal projects, travel, fun etc. They may have many acquaintances, but only a few close relationships. Individuals are capable of ‘shutting down’ emotionally when a potentially upsetting scenario arises.

4) Fearful-avoidant/ disorganized attachment:

Those with fearful-avoidant attachment style manifest the following traits: Fearful-avoidant attachment style is exhibited as ambivalence rather than isolation. It is often associated with extremely challenging life experiences including abuse, abandonment and grief. Consequently, they struggle with being confident in and relying on others. Individuals with this attachment style generally try to avoid their feelings because it is easy to get overwhelmed by them. Unsurprisingly, this style of attachment makes it difficult for people to form meaningful relationships. They are similar to the anxious-preoccupied style because they are suspicious of others’ actions, words and intentions. They are similar to the dismissive-avoidant style because they push people away and have few genuine and close relationships.

Most people show varying degrees of the various attachment styles, and this may change over time.

Additionally, attachment styles do not develop based on a few crucial moments in the individuals’ life. They are cumulative of thousands of moments throughout early life, the way an attachment figure (caregiver) responds/ or doesn't respond.  It sets a pattern for the individual’s attachment style in the future, affecting how the child will recognise and respond to their emotions and how they interact with attachment figures.

The most influential role in shaping one’s attachment style is undoubtedly that of a caregiver (usually a parent) simply because that is the first relationship a baby forms. Each of these attachment styles can thus be attributed to a particular type of parenting.

Furthermore, most developmental psychologists posit that a child becomes securely attached when there is regular contact with one or more caregivers who meet the child’s emotional and physical needs and are sympathetic and responsive. A caregiver that attends to a child’s frustration can help teach them to relax and calm themselves down. Even in cultures where mothers are not allowed to/ do not talk, play with or cuddle their infants, secure attachments can develop. The secure attachment also makes a child self-confident, as their development has reaffirmed that they are worth caring.

Anxious-preoccupied style occurs when their caregivers (usually parents) are insensitive and respond inconsistently to the infant’s needs. As a result, the child does not view the world as trustworthy and cannot rely on others without being anxious. The caregivers may be absent, perhaps due to substance abuse. Preoccupation with their work or marital issues can unknowingly send a message to the infant that they cannot be relied on to have their needs met. The children who receive only sporadic attention when distressed may not learn to calm down. It may be worth noting that clingy behaviour may just be part of the infant’s natural disposition and does not necessarily reflect any sort of parental neglect.

Similarly, the dismissive-avoidant style is characterised by a tendency to avoid contact with caregivers and others. The child may have observed that their needs typically go unmet, that the caregiver cannot be relied on, even sporadically. A child exhibiting dismissive-avoidant attachment style thus learns to be more independent and withdrawn.

Moreover, the fearful-avoidant/disorganised style of attachment is the most insecure attachment style. It occurs when the child receives mixed, confusing and inappropriate responses from the caregiver. As a result, the child cannot connect with their caregiver and does not learn how to interpret emotions. This attachment style is most commonly seen in victims of child abuse. It is also consistent with children whose caregiver(s) suffer from mental health problems. For example, a mother with schizophrenia may laugh when the child is hurt or cry when they are joyous. 

To conclude, it is important for parents, teachers and caregivers to understand the attachment styles and to be able to interpret the needs of children and teenagers in their growing years. Often children are unable to vocalise trauma due to fear, guilt and confusion; it is imperative for the adults around them to be able to understand and appreciate such signs in order to avoid long term damage. It is also important for teachers and other adults to step up surveillance in case the abusers are within the close family circle. Neglected children must be brought into the social security net so that they can establish meaningful relationships that provide the much-needed security that will help them to be better human beings.

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Illustrated by Avani Gupta