Attachment Theory Explained by Kacy Ames, LCSW

Nearly 11 years ago, I presented a workshop at the KAAN conference about navigating attachment, intimate partner(s) relationships and love. 

It was an extremely memorable experience, predominantly because I went into labor (5 weeks early) on the car ride home. 

Everything ended up being fine but I will forever associate these themes of attachment with the birth of my daughter which somehow feels fitting. 


Although I had presented the workshop on attachment in adult relationships, attachment itself, is often understood through the lens of caregiver and infant/toddler relationships. 

Today I will be focusing on Attachment Theory, the history of its development, as well as attachment styles for caregiver/child relationships and adult intimate partner(s) relationships.  I’ll be touching on Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) theories on adult attachment styles today, and next week I’ll be exploring EFT more fully as an approach.



Attachment Theory

In exploring contemporary applications around attachment, it is important to acknowledge the work of John Bowlby (1907-1990) who was a British Psychiatrist and founder of Attachment Theory as was applied to the caregiver and child relationship.  Bowlby was influenced by Charles Darwin and believed that attachment and felt security was a survival technique that was wired into evolution.  He believed that the primary survival function of early attachment behavior was for the infant to secure their survival through the attention and nurturance of their caregiver (Johnson, 2004).  Another Canadian researcher, Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) created the Strange Situation procedure in the 1970’s to observe attachment between children and their caregiver.  In the study, a mother and toddler would be in an office together with a researcher.  The mother would leave the room for 3 minutes while the researcher remained with the toddler.  This separation and reunion were repeated and the children’s reaction upon separation and reunion were studied and mapped.  This research was utilized to identify and categorize attachment styles. Ainsworth concluded that through the relationship and experience of a caregiver, the infant and toddler would develop an internal working model and expectation around the reliability, availability and responsiveness of caregivers in addition to whether they themselves were worthy of love, care and attunement (Yip, 2017).



Attachment Styles for Caregiver/Child Relationship

Throughout the years, various categories, subtypes and labels of attachment styles have been named and defined.  These 4 types have been commonly described for children’s attachment style:

Secure- Upset upon caregiver leaving but soothes the self and connects to the caregiver upon their return.  Trusts that caregiver will be there.

Anxious- Becomes highly agitated upon caregiver’s leaving and not soothed upon the caregiver’s return.

Avoidant- May become agitated upon caregiver’s leaving but does not turn to the caregiver upon their return and doesn’t reconnect.

Disorganized- Agitated upon caregiver’s leaving and may turn to caregiver when they return and then may seem fearful and turn away when closeness is offered.

These styles are largely understood to be normative responses to how the child experiences and internalizes the reliability, dependability, availability and safety of their caregiver.



Attachment Styles in Intimate Partner Relationships

These caregiver/child attachment styles largely inform how couples therapists that practice EFT and utilize adult attachment as a foundation for understanding commitment and love categorize and understand adult attachment styles.  Adult attachment styles are often defined as:

Secure- Trust in the connection with the partner and even in distance from their partner would still believe in the security of the relationship.

Anxious- May seek approval, reassurance of connection and responsiveness from their partner.  May anxiously pursue partner or become more clinging with fear of abandonment or that the attachment is threatened.  Potentially have assertive or demanding pursuit of partner in order to obtain response and reassurance. 

Avoidant- May avoid deeper connection. May attempt to deactivate attachment needs and suppress needs in order to regulate fears about rejection.  In relationship, may not disclose about self or feelings.  In argument or distress, may not respond or ask for needs to be met.  May withdraw.

Fearful avoidant- Seeks out closeness and reassurance from partner and then may reject it if obtained.  May not trust or fearfully avoid it when it is offered (Johnson, 2004).

Any of us might see some of our patterns clearly in one of these styles or may find familiarity in more than one.  It is also important to note that attachment styles, while a helpful theory to understand patterns of response and reaction, are just one way of knowing or defining the self.  I deliberately include this because I have concern when a singular attachment based therapeutic approach is utilized with adoptees and adoptive families. I believe that in any approach- only one lens can overlook and miss other important elements of identity and meaning.



Attachment as Reciprocal and Malleable

Attachment can be defined as a reciprocal and transactional process between a caregiver and child.  As the child develops a sense that they can depend on their caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs, a mutual attunement, connection and felt sense of security develops. This description is important because it highlights the transactional nature of attachment between two people and does not locate attachment or more specifically attachment pathology within one person. I particularly note this as some adoptees have been diagnosed with Attachment Disorders.  I personally and professionally believe that this diagnosis is misinformed because it does not reflect the reality that all attachment styles are normative responses to a persons felt experience of their closest relationships and that attachment as a process itself is reciprocal and can therefore, not be located specifically in one person.

In summary, attachment styles are not pathological, they are malleable and can be molded through intimate relationships, and they are just one particular framework for understanding the self and the “dance” of a couples’ relationship (Johnson, 2004). 



Secure Dependence for Autonomy

In both parent-child relationships and intimate partner(s) relationships, secure dependence complements autonomy.  For children, the more they feel secure in their relationship with their caregiver, the more they can explore.  I often envision a lake that I grew up swimming in where there was a small but sturdy raft a bit off from shore.  The caregiver is the raft.  The child can explore further in the water if they know the raft is there for safety and it can be returned to when the waves get rough, the water feels too deep, or in the case of my lake, a snapping turtle gets too close.  Secure attachment might look like swimming out from the raft and believing that the raft is still there even if you are facing the other direction.  But imagine if you didn’t believe the raft was reliable?  Would you leave the raft if you thought it might not be available to you if you swam away?  Would you even get on the raft if you thought it might disappear?  Maybe you would reject the idea of the raft altogether and stay on the beach.  Similarly for adult intimate relationships, the more you can trust in the security of the relationship and connection with your partner(s), the more you can explore your own needs, desires and growth and allow the same for your partner(s).  

Attachment Theory can be a helpful way of understanding the emotions and responses that arise when engaging in intimate partnership.  Understanding your attachment style as well as the attachment style of a partner(s) can provide insight into patterns of response or reactivity when attachment feels threatened.  Within this framework, responses can make sense and then can be further attuned to or unpacked.  I will explore this further in next weeks article about the applications of EFT for couples therapy.




Bretherton, I. (1992) The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth

Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759-775.

Guidano, V.F. (1991) Affective Change Events in a Cognitive Therapy System Approach. In J.D. Safran & L. S. Greenberg (Eds.), Emotion Psychotherapy and Change (pp 50-82). New York: Guilford Press.

Johnson, S. M. (2002) Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds. The Guilford Press.

Johnson, S. M. (2008) Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversation for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown and Company.

Johnson, S. M. (2004) The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection. Brunner-Routledge.

Scheinkman, M. And Fishbane, M. D. (2004) The Vulnerability Cycle: Working with Impasses in Couple Therapy Family Process, 43(3), 279-299.

White, M. (2007)  Maps of Narrative Practice. W.W. Norton & Company.

Yip, J. (2017) Attachment Theory at Work: A Review and Directions for Future Research Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(2), 185-198.



Kacy Ames is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York City.  She has a private practice where she meets with individuals, couples and families touched by adoption.  She did her training in Family and Couples Therapy at the Ackerman Institute for the Family where she continues as a Project Associate in the Foster Care and Adoption Project.  Kacy has run groups for adoptees through her private practice and has facilitated birth parent support groups through the Foster Care and Adoption Project.  Kacy’s therapeutic approach focuses on family systems, narrative work and trauma informed practice with a social justice and racial justice lens.  Kacy was adopted through transracial, inter country adoption.  She was born in Korea and adopted by a white family in Massachusetts.  Kacy is the parent of two children by birth.  She currently resides and practices in New York City.