In a previous article we explored how the development of emotional attachment works through a phenomenon that evolutionary psychologists call attachment in creating loving relationships in our lives. Indeed it is attachment that will guide the vulnerable infant to seek the protection of its mother and other caregivers later on. It is through attachment that (s)he discovers the meaning of survival, of life, of security, but also of relating – relating with another person and the world around him/ her, relating in essence with everything outside of him/ her.
But our attachment acts as a “teacher” for the meaning of life, love, relationships and security as well, even when certainty and comfort are missing and are replaced by ambivalence and ambiguity, by neglect and abuse, by physical and/or emotional absence. A brief description of the four main versions of attachment follows below:
- When attachment is secure, the relationship is characterized by trust. The infant feels comfortable to explore his/her environment in the presence of the caregiver; when the latter is absent, he/she feels uncomfortable – but on reunion, his/her good mood is restored. As the infant grows up, (s)he learns to trust himself/ herself, and faces others and the world around him/ her without fear. These infants grow into adults who, when a loved one is “lost” for a while, will handle their absence with good faith and composure and will welcome them back warmly when they return to their lives.
- When attachment is ambivalent, the relationship is characterized by a lack of trust. The infant experiences intense stress both in the absence and in the presence of the caregiver, as the latter does not consistently meet the infant’s emotional needs. Growing up, (s)he does not know what to expect from the world and others, and in order to “survive”, in loving relationships (s)he does everything to avoid abandonment – neglecting his/ her personal needs – feeling totally dependent on the people (s)he loves.
- When the attachment is disorganised, the relationship is a “love and hate” relationship.The infant experiences intense stress in the absence of his/her caregiver as in the stressful case, but on their return he/she reacts with emotional outbursts. The infant does not enjoy stability in the satisfaction of his/ her needs; furthermore, the relationship contains the component of emotional abuse, as the same person becomes a source of comfort but also of fear, frustration and anger. Similar and often conflictual relationships are also present in his/ her older years, as his/ her emotional confusion about others and the world around him/ her continues.
- When the attachment is avoidant, it is probably because the infant is “punished” by the caregiver in some direct or indirect way. The infant may be neglected or even abused by them in his/her life and learns not to seek them out. As (s)he grows older, (s)he learns to view emotional closeness as something dangerous. Emotional bonds are scarce in his/ her life, and his/ her relationships with others are unstable, superficial and short-lived.
Finally it is worth noting that through our attachment to our mother/ caregivers we cultivate not only our contact with the “outside world”, but also with the one within. Moreover our attachment style can change over the years. As with the genetically inherited traits of our personality, its effect on our “destiny” over the course of our lives has been found to be limited; this is because as we grow older, we develop personal and interpersonal skills, which can be improved at any age. We even know that coaching is effective in building and further developing them. We do not, therefore, live at the mercy of our early experiences, nor are we doomed to repeat them until our death. The first step in freeing ourselves from the heavy legacies of the past is the subject of our next article on human relationships, which is about our relationship with ourselves.