The Long Arm of Attachment

Secure relationships start with parenting.

Since my last column, my wife and I welcomed our second child, a beautiful baby girl, into this world. What a thrill!

We have only two children, but having kids reminds you that there’s a huge chasm between what you “know” intellectually about love (and other emotions) and what you experience firsthand when your child is born. All I can say is this: It’s just unreal. By unreal, I mean one of the most intense emotional experiences you can possibly have—you fret and fret until, hopefully, you exalt.

The Long Arm of Attachment: Part I

When you stare into an infant’s eyes you can’t help but reflect on the meaning of life. What will this little hiccupping bundle of joy and wet diaper become?

I also can’t help but be a psychologist about this, and I ask myself over-and-over again: What is the most important thing we can do to ensure her wellbeing in the future? Nothing is guaranteed in this life, of course, but is there anything I know as a psychologist and as a scientist to help give her a good start in this world?

If I must rely on just one core idea, here’s what I’ve come up with: attachment theory.

Attachment theory is a framework for understanding human bonding. The theory was first outlined by the British psychiatrist, John Bowbly, and later extended by the American psychologist, Mary Ainsworth. The theory has many, many layers but I want to highlight three of the most central ideas:

QUIZ: Determine Your Attachment Style

  • Our earliest caregiving experiences set the stage for how we come to think about relationships. From our early experiences, we develop what scientists refer to as internal working models of relationships and ourselves in relationships. Can caregivers be relied upon? Do I have a secure base to explore the world? Can I express my emotions to others in order to get what I need? Are relationships rewarding and fundamentally good, or are they fraught with difficulties and disappointments? For infants and young children, these questions are not pondered consciously; rather, the answers are learned through repeated experiences with caregivers in the context of their earliest relationships.

From these early relationships, we develop templates for thinking about future relationships, and these templates guide our behaviors in so many different situations that it’s sort of mind-boggling. (More on this later.)

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