What is Attachment Theory?

What is attachment theory?

Attachment is a biological impetus to survive throughout life. Experiencing an enduring and consistent relationship develops a secure attachment style, enabling the exploration of the world, with the knowledge that the secure base is consistently accessible.

Attachment theory by John Bowlby, examines the attachment styles learned from a very young age, in a response to separation, which influence childhood behaviour and develop as survival mechanism as adults. Separation from a secure attachment figure, causes emotional distress, such as anger, anxiety and depression, affecting attachment behaviour (Mary Ainsworth).

Mary Main, a student of Mary Ainsworth, related Ainsworth’s findings in infant attachment to adult attachment. She suggested that an individual’s Internal Working Model was developed from learning from parental example. This model was a blueprint for understanding life experience. Being both physically separated from loved ones, and emotionally distant renders the attachment insecure.

Attachment styles

A particular style of attachment will lead to a distinct behaviour pattern and way of establishing relationships. This has implications for the building of relationships with friends, loved ones, pets and, not forgetting,  the therapist.

A Secure – a loving, trustful relationship, where ‘someone has your back’. In a secure relationship, it is easy to be yourself, feel valued, and to have your needs met.

Styles of insecure attachment as adults are identified as:

Ambivalent – a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to relating to others.

Avoidant– resisting intimacy with others, reluctant to commit to relationships, withdrawing from others.

Disorganised– fluctuating between seeking approval, and pushing others away.

Dismissive– a lack of trust in others, low self-esteem, feeling unworthy of being loved.

Preoccupied– difficulty in committing full attention to others.

How Attachment works in Therapy

Building a relationship with the therapist is influenced by learned attachment styles. The role of the therapist is to be the ‘safe base’ for the client, and to learn about the client’s ‘internal working model’, their individuality. The therapist offers support without judgement, in a role of trust, enabling the client to explore their own relationships with others.

Exploring the attachment style between therapist and client, noticing what strengthens, or disrupts, the therapeutic relationship, paves the way for a secure attachment with the therapist, with an ease of communication developing.

Why is understanding attachment theory important?

Learning to communicate with others helps to build, or repair, relationships with our loved ones. Forming a secure attachment in adulthood, that may have been missing from childhood, leads to improved self-worth, self-confidence, and a capacity to love, and be loved.

©Claire Ballardie 2022


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

M. Parkes and Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base. London: Routledge

Crittenden, P, M. (2017) Gifts from Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2017) Vol. 22 (3) 436-442

Main, M. (2000) ‘The Organized Categories of Infant, Child, and Adult Attachment: Flexible Vs. Inflexible Attention Under Attachment-Related Stress’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48(4), pp. 1055–1096. doi: 10.1177/00030651000480041801. (Accessed 7 February 2022).

Murray-Parkes, C., Stevenson-Hinde, J. & Marris P.  (1993) Attachment across the Life Cycle. Routledge.