top of page

The deep imprint of relationships - What is attachment?

Are you familiar with attachment theory? Developed by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, it sheds powerful light on how we perceive the world, others and ourselves.

From the moment we're born, as little babies, we can experience fear. But we can't yet self-soothe, because the brain circuitry that regulates our terror center - our inner alarm, the amygdala - thanks to the cortex, is not yet functional. We therefore have instinctive and automatic stress reactions in the face of danger, but to calm ourselves, we necessarily need external support.

It's the people who take care of us, usually our parents, who enable us to regulate our emotions: we call them our attachment figures. It's as if we had no protective envelope against our own internal stimuli and those of the outside world. Our attachment figures act as a protective second skin. The quality of our emotional regulation is therefore a direct consequence of the quality of our own parents' emotional regulation (Smith, Steffan, Mann, 2019).

Our attachment figures are above all our secure base from which we explore the world, knowing that we can return to them if necessary for reassurance and refreshment. Attachment is the lasting emotional bond we have as children with the adults who take care of us. It manifests itself in behaviors that enable us, especially in moments of fear or distress, to maintain proximity or contact with these adults (Bolwby, 1969). We may have one primary attachment figure and others that are secondary.

When we experience stressful situations, we internalize an image of ourselves, others and the world, based on the repeated reactions of our attachment figure. This gives rise to deep-seated beliefs, which we use to model our perception of reality.

Am I lovable? Does the other love me in a predictable way, or is his attention uncertain? Is the other only reliable when he or she keeps his or her distance from me? Are relationships unpredictable and dangerous? Am I worthy of help? Are others hostile or powerless? Rejecting or intrusive?

Above all, attachment is necessary. The work of psychiatrist John Bowlby (1979) has shown that it is even more vital than food. It's a primary need: we're "programmed" to attach ourselves, to attract and hold adults close to us to guarantee our survival. This bond of attachment is formed throughout our first years of life, and is to be distinguished from love. Our parents may love us deeply, and yet not be available, or sensitive to us, for a whole host of reasons specific to their history, their current life context and their available resources.

Our early experiences are therefore decisive, since they give rise to the physiological, behavioral and psychological mechanisms that will guide us throughout our lives.

In early childhood, depending on how confident we feel about our parents' ability to protect, comfort and console us, we will have a certain attachment style. It will shape the way we relate to others and ourselves as adults.

Bowlby differentiated four attachment styles with different qualities.

Schematically, we can say that our attachment is secure when we believe that our parent can satisfy our needs and that we can explore the world. They are available, comforting and consoling us in times of distress. They respond quickly and appropriately when we need support or protection. They are affectionate and enjoy interacting with us. We, as children, seek physical contact with them. We can explore our environment and interact with them from a distance. Their presence calms us. This type of interaction enables us to internalize deep-seated beliefs such as: my parent is trustworthy, I deserve to be loved and have my needs met, my environment is a safe place (Guedeney, Tereno, 2021).

If, on the other hand, we don't have the assurance that our parent will be there to protect us in case of need, we develop an insecure attachment.

Ambivalent-resistant insecure attachment is when we're unsure of our parent's ability to meet our needs. This happens when they react inconsistently and unpredictably, sometimes sensitive and sometimes insensitive. They are sometimes receptive to our needs and at other times ignore them. As a child, we will both seek contact with them, and at the same time avoid them. We'll be upset when they move away from us, but find it hard to calm down when they return. We're afraid to move away from them to explore the environment.

Through this type of interaction, we can internalize beliefs such as: my parent is unpredictable, sometimes affectionate, sometimes hostile, I can't get away from her/him because I risk missing a moment of affection, I never know what to expect which makes me anxious and angry. If I can get my parent to care for me, then I can receive his or her affection (Guedeney, Tereno, 2021).

If as children we display avoidant behavior because of the rejection we have repeatedly experienced when seeking comfort, we will develop an insecure avoidant attachment. This type of attachment is facilitated by a parent who is emotionally unavailable, who behaves in a rejectionist way towards us, who ignores our needs or responds to them with a form of indifference or intrusiveness. They may reject our attempts to get closer when we are in distress, when they consider them unjustified, and on the contrary behave sensitively when they deem our distress appropriate.

As children, we tend to deny our own needs in order to protect ourselves, to avoid interactions with our parent and to refuse to be helped. We may feel pressured to achieve rapid autonomy, and be more sociable with strangers than with our own parent. Since we expect to be pushed away or rejected by them in our moments of distress, we may try to live without the support of others.

So we can develop beliefs such as: my parent is rejecting and punitive, so if I forget my needs, I won't be hurt or rejected. On the contrary, if I satisfy my parent's needs, I won't be rejected. In fact, if I forget my own needs and take care of my parent's, then I'll be loved. I have to be vigilant to protect myself at all times (Guedeney, Tereno, 2021).

We speak of disorganized insecure attachment when as children we reject our parent or try to please them. We can have extreme tantrums and then seek our parent's affection, being alternately alert to any signs of violence and unable to react. This can be the case when my parent seriously neglects me or is violent with me, when their behavior frightens rather than comforts me, if they are avoidant or rejecting even in objectively dangerous situations. When my strategies fail because my parent is unpredictable, I find myself powerless, and so I develop these various strategies known as disorganized coping.

If I experience this type of relationship, I will in turn oscillate between avoidance strategies, in an attempt to resolve my distress myself, and ambivalence, i.e. resisting interaction with them, while at the same time seeking a form of closeness.

With this type of experience, I will adopt beliefs such as: I must protect myself even if I don't know how, I must create my own world, I don't know how to get my needs met and I'm desperate to do so, my parent neglects or abuses me (Guedeney, Tereno, 2021).

Fortunately, nothing is set in stone, and it is possible to repair our attachment quality through repeated experience of other ways of relating to others that we gradually internalize: this is what we call acquired secure attachment. When we grow up, our romantic partners or close friends can become attachment figures for us, and this new bond can modify our internal operating models. In psychotherapy, too, our therapist will act as a transitory attachment figure. Through their predictable behavior over the course of the sessions, we'll feel listened to, recognized in our individuality, and protected, since we'll be able to express ourselves freely without being judged. Our therapist's ability to be attuned to us is one of the pillars of LI (LifeSpan Integration) work, giving us the foundations for acquiring a secure attachment and integrating our life history as a whole (AFICV).

Bibliography :

Smith, J., Steffan, A. J., & Mann, L. (2019). La régulation des émotions dans la famille: L'ICV auprès des parents, des enfants et des adolescents. Dunod.


Bowlby, J. (1969). Disruption of affectional bonds and its effects on behavior. Canada's mental health supplement.


Bowlby, J. (1979). The bowlby-ainsworth attachment theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences2(4), 637-638.


Guedeney, A., Guedeney, N., & Tereno, S. (2021). L'attachement: approche clinique et thérapeutique. Elsevier Health Sciences.

AFICV website : Association Francophone d'Intégration du Cycle de Vie :

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page