As human beings, we need a special emotional connection with a significant other. According to psychologist Bowlby, this connection is called attachment. Attachment shapes all our relationships across the whole life; for example, our experiences in our close relationships with others and the way we define love and intimacy.
In het famous attachment experiment “strange situation”, psychologist Ainsworth identified different behavioural patterns of babies after observing them when they were separated from their mothers. The babies who were securely attached to their primary caregivers played with a total stranger while their mother is in the room, cried when the mother was gone and easily settled when she came back and continued playing and discovering. However, this was not the case for the babies with the other attachment styles. Anxiously attached babies cried excessively, and they were not calmed by their mothers easily; whereas avoidant ones did not even show an emotion after being separated from their mothers.
Besides the attachment styles, Mary Ainsworth found something even more important with this experiment: the desire of babies to explore, and their ability to play and learn was highly influenced by whether their mothers were around or not. The ones who had a secure attachment figure which was affectionate and responsive to their needs were more likely to be open to discover the world, try new things and develop themselves. That is, secure attachment is what makes us settled and comforted when we are distressed or frustrated, and what encourages us when we need to move forward or try something new.
What happens when we grow up? Researchers Hazan and Shaver found that in our close relationships as adults, we show the same pattern of behaviours that we had in our childhood. Interestingly, in contrast to the assumptions that having a relationship makes individuals dependent to the other, limits persons goals, and prevents the person from functioning independently, when we are securely attached to someone, we have more space to grow, because we know that someone we trust is with us and it encourages us to actualise ourselves. When, on the other hand, we’re not sure whether our partner supports us or would be with us when we need, then it becomes harder to focus on our growth and discover new things. Feeney’s research provided support for this: if your partner is there for you and responsive to your needs when you’re distressed, you would be more autonomous, and more self-sufficient, but not more dependant.
Nothing changes throughout our lives in terms of attachment. It doesn’t matter whether it is a baby or an adult, everyone needs a secure environment which is warm, affectionate and responsive to our needs, able to calm us in case of any frustration and distress, and encourage us to try, learn, and discover.
For further reading
Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child development, 49-67.
Feeney, B. C. (2007). The dependency paradox in close relationships: Accepting dependence promotes independence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 268.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1994). Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relationships. Psychological inquiry, 5(1), 1-22.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. S. (2011). Get attached. Scientific American Mind, 21(6), 22-29.