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How attachment impacts relationships

The manner in which children attach to their parents has a significant impact on how they will attach to others in adulthood. Meaningful Minds Psychologists Ethelwyn, explains attachment and the effects on relationships and anxiety.


In the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the simple-minded Forrest who has a mother with whom he is securely attached on an emotional level approaches the world with an outlook of optimism and empathy. With these qualities he manages to make the most of the opportunities which come his way. On the other hand his great love, a girl called Jenny, who does not enjoy a secure attachment with her father who abuses her has a less successful life. Despite being much brighter and more generally competent than Forrest, her emotional injuries lead her into a life of drug addiction and abusive relationships. With this plot, this film illustrates the psychological importance of a child enjoying a secure attachment with his or her primary caregiver.

When bringing up children, many parents focus on ensuring they get a good education, are intellectually stimulated and grow up with discipline and good values. Often less attention is given to the importance of the child growing up to feel emotionally safe and trusting of their parents or whoever their primary caregiver happens to be.

Research into the area of attachment has now taught us that a child should feel loved by their primary caregiver and secure in the knowledge that this figure can be relied upon to assist when he or she is in need. A child needs to have a secure attachment to this figure in order to learn to engage well with others, to develop empathy and to be capable of developing a secure attachment in future close relationships.


Attachment may be defined as the emotional bond between a child and his or her caregiver and it tends to be evidenced by the infant’s seeking to be close to the primary caregiver. This is the mother, but it can be a father, a grandmother, or anyone else who prioritises and engages with the care and well-being of the child.


Research in this area was initiated by the work of the British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby. He noted that a secure attachment provides a sense of safety and also facilitates the development of exploratory behaviour in the child. Secure children learn to think in benevolent and nuanced ways about others and to be low in traits of anxiety and avoidance in relation to others.

The maintenance of infant attachment patterns is related to continuity in the quality of primary attachment relationships. Over time, children internalize experiences with their parents or other caregivers so that early attachment relations then form a template for later relationships outside the family.

Bowlby identified two important features of this attachment template. These are:

1. Whether or not the attachment figure is judged to be the sort of person who in general responds to calls for support and protection from the child; and

2. Whether or not the self is judged to be the sort of person toward whom the attachment figure and other people are likely to respond to in a helpful way.

The first feature relates to what the child might expect from future attachment figures; the second concerns the types of self-image promoted by the attachment with the primary caregiver.


Four different attachment classifications were identified in children: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment.

Secure attachment

Securely attached children feel secure and able to depend on their caregivers. When the latter leaves them, they feel assured that he or she will return. They receive comfort from these attachment figures and hence are comfortable seeking them out in times of need.

Anxious -ambivalent attachment

Such children feel unable to depend on their caregiver being available to them in times of need.

Anxiously-avoidant attachment

The anxiously-avoidant children are likely to have been punished for relying on a possible attachment figure and may have experienced a degree of abuse or neglect so that they avoid their caregivers.

Disorganised attachment

When parents of caregivers become a source of both comfort and fear, a disorganized attachment ensues as a result of which children respond with confusion in their relationships.

During early childhood, these templates are relatively flexible. Interactions characterised by similar attachment styles will strengthen this template while different interactions with close figures might bring about changes. Often, however, a secure and trusting child will evoke friendliness and benevolence in others so that this attachment style is consolidated. Alternatively an unhappy child who acts out in response to feelings of mistrust and anxiety will inspire unsatisfying relationships with others which also further sustains his or her particular attachment style.

Secure infants are likely to become more socially competent than their insecure peers. This increased social competence then has a snow-balling effect in that classification of children’s peer status (popular, neglected or rejected) has been found to predict subsequent adjustment.


In adulthood, childhood disorganised attachment becomes dismissive attachment, anxious-avoidant becomes known as fearful-avoidant; and anxious- ambivalent becomes preoccupied attachment. The four classifications are organised around the levels of anxiety and avoidance experienced by individuals in close relationships.

Secure Attachment

The relationships of securely attached people are characterized by low levels of anxiety and avoidance. They tend to feel comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them and they are not anxious about whether the other person truly cares for them or not.

Preoccupied Attachment

Preoccupied individuals also have low levels of avoidance, but they suffer from high relationship anxiety and tend to invest a good deal of energy worrying whether the other person will be available to them when they need them to be or not. They are not avoidant and are thus happy to have the other person depend on them but they fear that these feelings of emotional dependence are not reciprocated.

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

People with low levels of anxiety but high levels of avoidance are dismissive-avoidant. They don’t care too much about whether others care for them or not. They do not open up or allow themselves to feel dependent on others and they are also not very interested in having others depend on them.Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Fearful-avoidant people have high levels of both anxiety and avoidance. They fear that they cannot rely on others for help when needed. At the same time the idea of being dependant on or vulnerable in relationship to the others or of having others depend on them emotionally, in turn, makes them uncomfortable.

Below is a table showing the attachment groups in terms of the levels of anxiety and avoidance manifested in close relationships.


In conclusion, children need to be housed and fed, they need to receive a good education and they need to get love - not any old love, a love transmitted over the telephone or occasionally verbalised in the midst of other activities which take precedence. It needs to be a love whose existence is never questioned and whose presence is reliable and can be expected to take action when he or she is in need.

Forrest Gump’s mother told him that life was ‘like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’. With a secure attachment in place, a child will grow up to be able to be close to others, to be socially competent, to approach the world with optimism and thereby to maximise the benefits of whatever chocolate he or she happens to pick.

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