Mary Ainsworth, one of the key figures in attachment theory, was the first person to determine that there are several distinct attachment styles. She determined this by developing an ingenious experiment called the “strange situation.” In this experiment, toddlers were systematically separated and reunited with their primary caregivers. Some children got upset when their parents left, but when their parents returned to the room, these children actively sought reconnection with their parents and were easily soothed by them. These children were labeled “securely attached.”
Other children were extremely distressed when their parent left, had difficulty being soothed and tended to display punishing behaviors toward the caregiver who had left them. These children had an insecure, “anxious” attachment style, a style typically resulting from an inconsistently available primary caregiver. For these kids, sometimes mom is responsive, sometimes she’s not — it’s unpredictable. Other children seemed to be unfazed by the separation from their parent, and actively avoided contact with their parent upon their return. These children were considered to have an insecure, “avoidant” attachment style, a style typically seen in children with parents who very often fail to respond to their children’s cues for needing closeness and comfort.
So, why does this matter? Because as adults, these styles continue with us into our intimate partner relationships. Those of us who may tend to get really distressed by disconnection and tend to pursue our partners in a critical or blaming way — we are demonstrating the grown-up version of the “anxious” toddler’s behavior. Those of us who tend to shut down and dismiss our needs for our intimate partners — we are the “avoidant” toddler. Pretty amazing, huh?
Here’s a video of the strange situation experiment in action, with examples of the different attachment styles:
One of the most important things that attachment researchers have done is to demonstrate just how much we are wired for deep, emotional connection with the people that matter to us. In the brilliant — but hard to watch — Still Face Experiment, scientists asked a mother to stop responding to her baby for two minutes, to make her face still and neutral. In that short time, the baby becomes very distressed, trying and trying to reconnect with her caregiver, ultimately turning away in despair from her unresponsive mother.
Fortunately, in the video, mother and baby are quickly reunited and able to repair. But what about the baby who is not so lucky, who has — like many of us had — a depressed, neglectful, or otherwise emotionally unavailable caregiver? What might be the long term impact on that baby’s ability to manage and express emotions, to communicate, and to trust in others? Because our need for attachment is lifelong, this experiment also explains why withdrawing behaviors can be so damaging to romantic partnerships. Just as the baby goes into panic and despair at her mother’s lack of response, so might a husband or wife experience terrible pain and confusion in the face of a shut down, emotionally unresponsive partner.
This simple experiment tells us so much about our profound dependence on our attachment figures, a dependence that we never outgrow.