Attachment: What is it?

Happy couple with laptop and bookIn this first article I’d like to briefly describe what attachment is. Broadly speaking, “attachment” generally refers to a connection between you and another person or something else. Informally, people talk about being “attached” to a person, pet, place, or thing. More specifically, attachment refers to an enduring emotional tie between two people. It is based on an emotional tie and grounded in trust and built upon a history of shared experiences (in technical terms, concordant inter-subjectivity is experience in which emotion, attention, and intention are shared and congruent).

In technical terms, we can describe the attachment system, attachment behavior, and patterns of attachment. Let’s look at each of these for a moment.

Attachment System: The Attachment System is a biologically-based system that evolved to ensure the survival of the human infant. Essentially it is a “proximity-seeking” system. When an infant or child or person is threatened in some manner, the attachment system is activated and attachment behaviors exhibited. In some respects, the attachment system is like your home heating/cooling system. If everything is fine, the system is not in evident operation. Only when the temperature gets too hot or cold, does the system turn on. So too, only when the person’s sense of safety and security is threatened is the attachment system “turned on” and attachment behaviors activated. When the person is threatened, the person then seeks proximity to a preferred other. For infants and children, that “preferred other” will be the primary caregiver. One’s primary attachment figure can change over time. For example, if you were in a car accident, probably the first person you’d call, as a teenager, would be your primary caregiver (parent, grandparent, etc). As an adult, the first person you call might be your significant other or partner.

Attachment Behavior: Attachment behavior is proximity-seeking behavior. A young child may run to their parent, a young adult may call their parent or significant other. Seeking proximity to a preferred “other” leads to the person feeling safe, secure, protected. As the person’s emotions become regulated, the attachment system is deactivated and the person can “get on with life.” In a toddler, that is seen as the ebb and flow between the child exploring the area and playing and returning to the parent to “refuel.”

Patterns of Attachment: There are several different patterns of attachment. These are not mental health diagnoses. The terms are descriptions of the pattern or manner in which the person manages and negotiates intimate and close relationships. Infants and toddlers may have different patterns of attachment with different caregivers. Around age three to five years the pattern becomes “crystallized,” and the person will show primarily one pattern of attachment across all relationships. There are four patterns generally described in research literature. These are: Secure (or earned secure), two insecure patterns (for children: Ambivalent and Avoidant, for adults the corresponding insecure types are Preoccupied and Dismissing), and Disorganized.

In my next article, I will describe each of these patterns in detail with examples of children and adults exhibiting each pattern. You may also want to look at the related articles about Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.

© Copyright 2009 by Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D., therapist in Williamsville, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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