The “Strange Situation”
and Types of Attachment
Our understanding of the types of attachment comes in large part from a series of experiments known as the “Strange Situation.” In the Strange Situation, researchers observed an infant in the presence of a caregiver and a stranger in an environment unfamiliar to the infant. The caregiver and the stranger came and went from the room, and the infant’s response to the departure and re-entry of both, but particularly of the caregiver, was observed.
The reaction of the infant upon re-entry of the primary caregiver led to three, and later four, categories of attachment. These attachment styles are best seen as existing on a spectrum; an individual may tend toward one type but experience feelings and act consistently with another type:
Infants would go to the caregiver when the caregiver returned, seek some emotional support, and then continue to interact with the unfamiliar environment. This ability to seek support from another but also to be open to and interested in new experiences—that is, to be comfortable being alone—is the hallmark of Secure Attachment. Securely attached people tend to see others as supportive and helpful. They tend to have higher self-esteem, be able to interact more with others, and engage in complex play. They are seen as better able to take in others’ perspectives.
As adults, securely attached individuals are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships. They feel connected to their partner without the partner necessarily being physically close. Their relationships are more likely to be characterized by honesty, support, independence, and deep emotional connection.
Anxious-preoccupied (Insecure) Attachment
Infants in this scenario would respond to the strange situation by staying near the caregiver upon the caregiver’s re-entry, needing more re-assurance of the caregiver’s physical presence and displaying less curiosity about the environment. Children with this type of attachment usually have less self-confidence and may display heightened emotional states.
Adults with anxious-preoccupied attachment styles may feel unappreciated by others, finding that others do not want to be as close to them as they would like. They long for attachment but may become anxious to lose it because they see it as so necessary to survival.
Dismissive-avoidant (Insecure) Attachment
Infants with this attachment would not physically respond to the return of their caregiver and would continue interacting with their environment. However, heart rate measurements of these infants confirmed that they were actually experiencing the same level of stress as those with anxious-preoccupied attachment, just not showing it. Dismissive-avoidant children are more likely to withdraw in stressful situations and to resist seeking help from others, which may lead to difficulty in forming emotional bonds with others.
As adults, these individuals may tend toward “shutting down” when a relationship becomes jeopardized. It is important to note that dismissive-avoidant people also long for attachment but expect rejection if they seek it and, therefore, avoid it.
Fearful-avoidant (Insecure) Attachment
This attachment style was added after the original three. It is often associated with childhood trauma such as abuse or loss. This is sometimes called disorganized attachment because individuals display both the desire to be close to another and the desire to pull away. They may see others as threatening but feel dependent on them emotionally, which may lead to a switch between social withdrawal and defensive, aggressive behavior.
As adults, these individuals may experience feelings as overwhelming and seek to avoid them.
How Understanding Attachment Theory Can Be Useful
Understanding Attachment Theory, and particularly our own primary attachment style, can help us know what lens we bring with us into relationships. For example, if you have a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment style, you may be wary of emotional closeness because you are afraid that you will be let down by another person if you expose yourself. Understanding this gives you the opportunity to assess whether your doubt of another person is because of something that other person has done or because of the lens that you have.
Knowing your attachment style can be powerful. Instead of operating based on the past, we can start to shift and operate in response to what we are experiencing in the present. This gives you back control. Attachment is a fundamental human desire. According to attachment theory, we all need to attach in order to thrive. If we are able to learn from our pasts, we are more likely to have meaningful presents.
Allison is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. She views therapy as a collaborative process that helps you understand how to be the truest version of yourself. She works with adults, couples, and families. She helps people work through anxiety, depression, relationship issues, career challenges, and trauma. Visit her website, www.allisonzamani.com to learn more or reach out via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation call.
Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #107189
Associate Professional Clinical Counselor #5316
Supervised by Trisha Rowe, LCSW #13444