Patterns of Attachment in Adults

two-women-holding-hands-croppedIn my previous article, Attachment: What Is It?, I defined attachment and explained it develops. The attachment system is a proximity-seeking system that evolved to ensure the survival of the human infant. It operates like a home heating and cooling system: if everything is fine you don’t see the system operate; when things get out of bounds, the heating or cooling system starts to operate. Likewise, when a person feels threatened, the attachment system activates, evoking attachment behaviors. As attachment behaviors are proximity-seeking behaviors, the person is drawn closer toward a preferred caregiver. The proximity creates, renews, or recreates a secure base, a sense of safety, security, and comfort from which the person, once settled, can begin exploring the world.

In my article The Four Patterns of Attachment in Children I described patterns of attachment in children, as suggested by the title. These patterns—secure, avoidant, resistant or ambivalent, and disorganized—developed in response to the type of caring the child experiences.

In contrast, the patterns of attachment in adults are: secure, preoccupied, dismissing, and disorganized. These are categories that have been refined and identified by extensive empirical research across cultures. A large body of research supports these categorizations. Research literature shows several subtypes within each category and two other categories this article will not address (earned secure and cannot classify).

The Adult Attachment Interview

An Adult Attachment Interview, a useful tool to assess adults, a powerful tool for clinical use, is the primary method for assessing an adult’s state of mind with respect to attachment. Extensive literature regards this semi-structured interview’s reliability and validity. In the Adult Attachment Interview, the person’s narrative is evaluated along two primary dimensions. The first dimension is coherence. Coherence refers to answers that which:

  • provide a clear and convincing description
  • are truthful, succinct, and complete
  • are presented in a clear and orderly manner

The second dimension is the ability to reflect on the motives of others. In evaluating the adult’s narrative we also look at the following four criteria:

  1. Quality:  truthful with evidence for what is said.
  2. Quantity: succinct and complete. Contributions are as informative as is required but no more so.
  3. Relevance.
  4. Manner: clear and orderly. Obscurity of expression and ambiguity are avoided; discourse is brief and orderly.

Secure

Adults with a secure pattern of attachment have the capacity to view others with few distortions. They value relationships, emotions, and attachment. When they take the Adult Attachment Interview, their narratives are coherent, collaborative, concise, and comprehensive. They seem objective regarding any particular event/relationship. Descriptions and evaluations of attachment-related experiences are consistent, whether experiences are favorable or unfavorable.

Dismissing

The adult with a dismissing pattern of attachment has difficulty viewing others without distortions. As children, in order to have their needs met, they learned not to demand too much from their caregivers. These adults are dismissive of attachment-related experiences and relationships. Their narratives tend to be general and nonspecific. They often normalize without specific examples or evidence (“she was an excellent, normal mother”), with generalized representations of history, unsupported or actively contradicted by the episodes they recount. Their narratives are too brief and violate the criteria of quality. Transcripts also tend to be excessively brief, violating the criteria of quantity.

Preoccupied

The adult with a preoccupied pattern of attachment has difficulty viewing others without distortions. As children they learned that to get their caregiver’s attention and to get their needs met, they had to be demanding. Their narratives lack coherence. These adults tend to be preoccupied with or by past attachment relationships and experiences. The speaker often appears angry, passive, or fearful. Their sentences are often long, grammatically tangled, or filled with vague usages (“dadada,” “and that”), thus violating the criteria of manner and the criteria of relevance. Additionally, they tend to ramble, going off on unrelated tangents, and bring in unnecessary details, violating the criteria of quantity.

Disorganized

The adult with a disorganized pattern of attachment has difficulty viewing others without significant distortions. As children they had parents who frightened them. Often they’ve experienced chronic early maltreatment within a caregiving relationship and may be described as having significant dysfunction in their capacity to form emotionally meaningful relationships and attachments. Many people with personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, have a disorganized state of mind with respect to attachment. During discussions of loss or abuse, these individuals show a striking lapse in the monitoring of reasoning or discourse. For example, the individual may briefly indicate a belief that a dead person is still alive in the physical sense or that this person was killed by a childhood thought. Individuals may lapse into prolonged silence or eulogistic speech. Their relationships tend to be volatile.

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

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

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  • TERRY

    December 3rd, 2009 at 4:07 PM

    It is best to acknowledge the attachment we have towards our loved ones and be caring towards them and live a life of happiness and mutual care.

  • Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    December 3rd, 2009 at 5:38 PM

    Dear Terry,

    Yes, so true. The challenge is to be able to recognize how past experiences, or trauma, may make that difficult. Recognizing patterns of attachment can help the clinician be more helpful to the client and can help partners better understand their partner.

  • Kaz

    July 27th, 2010 at 5:29 AM

    I am a 24yr old female. I was adopted when i was 1yr old. I was very loved by my mum. after my mum died 24yrs ago I had have counelling on and off thoughout the years and i’m seeing a awesome counellor right now and she has helped me alot but i have started to have these feelings of adeep affection and attachment towards my counsellor and i was wondering if it was ok and normal to have them. my counsellor is ok with me having these feelings for her but i keep thinking that i’m not suppose to have these feelings for her cose she’s my counsellor.

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D.

    Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D.

    July 27th, 2010 at 4:09 PM

    Dear Kaz,

    Feelings of affection and closeness toward your counselor are not unusual in therapy. This is a close personal relationship in which the client (you) experiences being understood, empathy, concern, and support. It is not unlike the parent-child relationship (in the best sense) in that regard. So long a no boundaries are crossed and you and your counselor continue to keep this aspect of your relationship in awareness and as part of the discussion you will be on the right track.

    regards and thanks so much for your question.

  • Anon

    December 30th, 2014 at 5:27 PM

    Wow! Interesting! I’m preoccupied, although I tend not to ‘demand’ from others (or this is very infrequent) and am actually very fearful of being demanding as I learned that ‘being a burden’ would lead to rejection (from parents and peers). I’m not aloof, but definitely fearful.

    I don’t usually relate to most of the points made about preoccupied (such as a strong desire for relationships, a dislike of being single, feelings of possessiveness or jealousy, or being more clingy), but there are some general characteristics I recognise like finding it extremely difficult to soothe myself and having to ask for outside help due to very high self criticism, beliefs that I can ‘ruin’ my relationships with others by not behaving properly, beliefs that relationships with others are fragile, and beliefs that I am compatible with very few people (born out of feeling different to others and not finding very many men attractive).

    But: “preoccupied with or by past attachment relationships and experiences. The speaker often appears angry, passive, or fearful. Their sentences are often long, grammatically tangled, or filled with vague usages (“dadada,” “and that”), thus violating the criteria of manner and the criteria of relevance. Additionally, they tend to ramble, going off on unrelated tangents, and bring in unnecessary details, violating the criteria of quantity.” describes me perfectly…never thought of the way I speak (at length and in an irritatingly roundabout fashion) as being related! It’s like there are too many thoughts in my head so it’s difficult not to get distracted by tangential stuff.

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman

    Arthur Becker-Weidman

    December 31st, 2014 at 4:28 AM

    Dear Anon,
    Thank you for your comments. You make an excellent point. There are only 4 basic states of mind with respect to attachment, so each individual will show a differing constellation of behaviors within the category that best characterizes their state of mind with respect to attachment. The primary way that the Adult Attachment Interview is scored is based on the manner and quality of the responses to the questions, NOT the content.

  • Sam

    February 13th, 2017 at 11:25 PM

    I was reading this article to help me with the feelings of loss and grief at saying goodbye to my therapist after nearly 5 years of work. It took me at least a year to begin to attach but now I can see she is the only secure attachment I have had. It’s really difficult to walk away from that because I have a strong desire….an attachment cry to be proximity seeking. Any ideas of how best to support myself when everything inside feels like it doesn’t want to let go?

  • Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    February 14th, 2017 at 9:40 AM

    Best to connect to friends and family for support and emotionally meaningful relations.

  • Bernadette

    April 28th, 2017 at 3:24 PM

    Hi I feel I have Fearful avoidant attachment as I have only had one longterm relationship with a man who was married. .we lived together for 5 years until his death 21 years ago. I had numerous relationships with unavailable men …then noticed my behaviour but not the feelings behind getting involved with them. I have been in relationships with men who were available (emotionally ) in both instances i got involved too fast physically (my default in all my relationships ) with these men huge anxiety attacks feeling trapped and smothered resulting in my pulling away. I felt very vulnerable and terrified in the most recent relationship if he really knew me ..feeling unlovable low self esteem and self worth.
    I was Good Girl people pleaser compliant as a child with my Mum. .both parents emotionally unavailable. .Sexually abused by older sibling and friend of family as a child and bullied by another sibling. Have been in and out of therapy trying to understand my behaviour especially the fear of men as I felt emotionally close. ..terrified. Feel as if i’m grieving for the little girl who had to shove down all those painful feelings in order to be loved as a child and now has to learn how to be authentic, good boundaries increase sense of self and let go of shame . Bernadette

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