Insecure Attachment, A Prison Without Bars

Attachment theory tells us about the importance of ties, especially with our parents and caregivers, in our emotional life. Here, we talk about the three kinds of insecure attachment.
Insecure Attachment, A Prison Without Bars
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 17 February, 2022

According to the main postulates of Attachment Theory, proposed by John Bowlby in 1958, attachment can be understood as the bond that you build between your parents and/or caregivers from the moment you come into the world. These adults become attachment figures that become crucial to your social and emotional development. Of course, throughout your life, you build and develop different types of attachment to people other than your parents. However, this first attachment often lays the groundwork for your later forms of attachment.

The stages of attachment

In general, attachment develops in four stages. These are:

  • From birth to two months: The pre-attachment or asocial stage. The baby shows no particular attachment to a specific caregiver.
  • From six weeks to seven months. The stage of indiscriminate attachment. In this phase, the baby directs their social responses toward parents or close family members.
  • From seven+ months. The specific or discriminate attachment stage. This is a critical phase in the construction of attachment. Babies protest when they’re separated from adult figures of attachment and show fear towards unknown people.
  • From ten+ months. The multiple attachment stage. Babies start to develop relationships with other caregivers. They no longer show fear or have tantrums if their main caregivers disappear.

Throughout this process, a secure attachment or, on the contrary, some form of insecure attachment may appear. In fact, many people are only capable of creating insecure attachment bonds. Put simply, this type of attachment is one in which the bond is contaminated by fear. It’s expressed, mainly, as withdrawal in the relationship with others or by confused emotions, dependency, and rejection.

Most psychologists believe that insecure attachment begins in early childhood. Hence, it tends to be a consequence of people having this pattern of attachment with their trusted figures or people in their own childhood. These first links are the basis for those to be established later.

Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.”

-George Bernard Shaw-

When there’s secure attachment, the certainty that the bond is good is also present. In other words, both parties expect the best from each other. On the other hand, with insecure attachment, the expectation is the opposite. What’s anticipated by the child is that their caregiver will give up on them or hurt them. This type of insecure attachment takes three different forms. They’re as follows:

Disorganized attachment

Disorganized insecure attachment is a type of bond that’s extremely typical of those who’ve suffered some form of abuse in their childhood. If this is you, you were probably left alone with no support in anxious moments. Your caregivers also resorted to physical punishment to intimidate you. As a matter of fact, you probably also experienced an ambivalent attitude from your caregivers. Consequently, you never knew what to expect from those whose mission it was to protect you. Because sometimes they were affectionate then, for no apparent reason, they suddenly became aggressive or neglectful.

If you had parents like this, you’ll often repeat the same pattern yourself as an adult. You don’t seem to have enough constancy to maintain coherence between your actions, as well as your thoughts and emotions. You go from submission to aggressiveness, and from closeness to distance with disconcerting ease. Furthermore, you don’t seem to understand what’s wrong with you.

If your relationship with others becomes extremely distressing, you often completely disconnect emotionally and start acting like a robot. It’s a misguided way of coping with your anguish.

A boy looking upset.

Insecure ambivalent attachment

The main characteristic of insecure ambivalent attachment is the intensity with which you experience the ups and downs of a relationship. As in all cases of insecure attachment, it’s caused by having contradictory parents. You never know what to expect from them.

If you have an insecure ambivalent style, you demonstrate a really strong need to maintain ties with others. You also have a great need for affection. Indeed, your relationships with others are extremely intense. However, you’re dependent and seek approval. You’re also excessively sensitive to rejection.

When you enter into a relationship, you always tend to think that something’s wrong. In fact, you put a great deal of emphasis on problems and little on the positive aspects of your relationship. As a matter of fact, all relationships cause you anguish. For this reason, you often engage in escapist/evasive behaviors. For example, addictions, self-harm, and similar behaviors.

embracing couple representing insecure attachment

Insecure avoidant attachment

If you have an insecure-avoidant attachment style, the most prominent feature is difficulty in establishing close bonds with others. Furthermore, you’ll feel deep emotional pain for not being able to do so. You often develop false autonomy. You’re independent but, at the same time, you feel deeply anxious when you feel that someone has become emotionally close to you.

You usually have a hard time recognizing your own emotions. For instance, sometimes, you’ll say you’re interested in something, but you don’t show it. The opposite also happens. You’ll claim that something or someone doesn’t appeal to you at all. However, your behavior suggests the opposite. You don’t do it on purpose. You just have a hard time identifying your emotions.

A little girl looking out of the window,

As a rule, insecure-avoidant attachment derives from an upbringing characterized by a strong emotional distance from your caregivers. Support was denied to you , even when you needed it. Your parents might’ve justified their distance on the basis that it promoted responsibility or something similar in you. If you’ve grown up like this, you distrust others. You don’t think that there’s anyone who can support or help you.

All forms of insecure attachment imply limitations, especially in emotional life. Nevertheless, there’s a possibility of reversing this relational pattern. You can do this by recognizing your behavior, its causes, and its consequences. In this way, you’re able to overcome the problem and lead a much fuller emotional life.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.