The Development of Adult Attachment

This week we are continuing on with our mini series on attachment started two weeks ago. So far in this series our London-based therapist, Teyhou Smyth, has shared with us her thoughts on early childhood attachment – how it is nurtured and its impact on our lives. In today’s post she now looks forward to the development of adult attachment, and how to recognize attachment issues that may have arisen from childhood. The article contains several links for further reading on many of the points raised. If you feel you might need to explore this further, please do contact the Centre for an appointment with one of our therapists.

married couple holding hands

The Ways We Connect, Bond and Reciprocate Love is Commonly Known as Attachment

People who have healthy attachment abilities in adulthood often have had positive attachment experiences in childhood.

From the time we are in utero and throughout our childhood the way our parents and caregivers respond to our needs, offer affection and acknowledge our presence impacts the way we perceive ourselves and respond to others.

Attachment starts at the beginning of our lives and develops throughout the lifespan.

Attachment Styles

John Bowlby first identified three attachment styles, which included secure attachment, anxious-resistant attachment and avoidant attachment based on the studies of infants and their responses to parental separation.

Early attachment styles are useful in considering the types of interventions that can help. Understanding attachment styles can also be a practical guide to predicting pitfalls in relationships and to work toward healing.

Later, a fourth type was added by others studying this phenomenon, called disorganized-disoriented attachment style.

How To Recognize Attachment Issues

Ricky Greenwald Psy.D outlines a brief checklist for helping to determine whether someone may have an insecure attachment style. Greenwald’s list includes:

“poor affect tolerance, instability in relationships, absence of close friendships, absence of intimate love relationships, black-and-white views of specific relationships (no tolerance for ambivalence or feeling different ways about the same person), idealization of parents (all good or all bad), a history of parents who were not able to provide consistent care in some important way (whether practical, material or psychological).”


Unmet childhood needs and attachment issues can manifest in a number of ways throughout life, but these are not the only factors influencing adult attachment.

An adult who has dealt with insecure attachment has learned to respond in a defensive way, thus influencing their relationships because of that learned behaviour over time.

Often, people who have insecure attachment tendencies don’t realize it unless they are exposed to situations in which there is light shed on a certain pattern of behaviour.

Secure Attachment

In adulthood, secure attachment generally means that one has an ability to have relationships that last, the ability to trust, seek out support from others, and possesses a healthy self-esteem.

When someone has experienced a poor childhood attachment experience, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be stuck in an unhealthy attachment cycle forever. Experiences throughout the lifespan impact attachment.

In a resiliency study of people with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), 51.4 percent of people who had more than four adverse childhood experiences also had healthy adult attachment indicators in spite of these challenges in childhood.

The good news lies in the fact that our childhood experiences do not dictate the trajectory of our lives.

We can survive childhood trauma, insecure attachment figures and other detrimental experiences and still heal by seeking support from others, improving our individual lives through education and obtaining professional counseling.

The more we can learn about and understand attachment, the greater chance that we can prevent the negative impacts of insecure attachment styles.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website]


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