COVID-19: Using an understanding of attachment to help us to cope this winter
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in upheaval and a diversion from our normal routines, consequently this has interrupted our usual attachments with others and resulted in a human population which longs for connection. How can we better understand ourselves to help manage the emotional struggles we may experience as a consequence of further limitations on our closeness with others? The way we may reach out or avoid reaching out to others in a way that helps us meaningfully connect is shaped by the narratives we have about love, loss and connection. Learning the rhythm, pattern and steps in our – namely, our attachment patterns - with others can help us to better meet our need for connection. Equipped with this knowledge, we can also consider changes to the typical patterns we have with others to foster new and increasingly meaningful relationships.
As more extensive restrictions are introduced across the U.K. due to COVID-19 infection rates increasing many of us are thinking forward to winter and wonder how we might manage with the cold weather and dark nights. The shift to colder weather will result in outdoor areas becoming less accessible, essentially resulting in additional nature-imposed restrictions. As many of us have relied on the outdoors to meet with others safely we may experience an increasing sense of isolation. But why is it that connection is so important to us and how does it become so engrained into the patterns of our daily lives? When we think forward to upcoming anniversaries and religious events why is it that we focus on those who are present or have passed? Our collective tales of love and loss during the pandemic may point to a deep need in all of us to be connected to others, and attachment theory weaves a narrative through these patterns to help us to better understand ourselves and others. On a personal level, understanding the stories that formed in our early lives relating to our connections with others can help us identify ways of managing during difficult and anxiety provoking times.
What Are My Attachment Tendencies Within Close Relationships?
Attachment theory has been highly influential in modern developmental psychology and provides valuable insights in how our past experiences within relationships shapes how we relate to ourselves and others. To begin our exploration in this area, I invite you to consider which of the following statements best capture your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours within close relationships.
a) I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
b) I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
c) I find it relatively easy to get close to others and I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
You may notice that one of these phrases resonate more with you, and so did many of the people who read these statements in the local Colorado newspaper in 1985 during Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) study. Readers were asked to respond with the sentence that best represents their experience of close relationships; with each option carefully worded to capture three typical types of individual differences within relationship patterns: (a) Avoidant, (b) Anxious-ambivalent, (c) Secure. We have labelled each of these patterns to match the options above. Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) study did not stand alone, and their work further developed earlier ideas first developed by psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth. The categories of Avoidant, Anxious-ambivalent, and Secure were first developed by Mary Ainsworth who examined the patterns of care in infants (see a video of the original ‘strange situation’ experiment here: https://tinyurl.com/y4eatcdm).
Through his ground-breaking work, John Bowlby dedicated his career to understanding infant-caregiver relationships. Bowlby found that individual differences can be identified within relationship patterns between infants and their caregivers and that these differences characterise human experience and behaviour. Importantly, he identified that the dynamics seen in early relationships have an enduring effect into adult life – in other words attachment patterns are present from "cradle to the grave" (Bowlby, 1979, p. 129). It is now commonly known that early experiences impact on our later relationships however this was relatively unexplored during the time that Bowlby was working. Fundamentally, attachment theory holds that the kind of relationship dynamics that play out between us as infants with our caregivers impact on the way we function as adults in our close relationships.
What are the three main patterns of attachment?
Although attachment theory and it’s use of the three categories can provide a useful framework for understanding relationships and the connections between early life and later experiences of distress, the theory however squeezes the rich and complex diversity of human relationships into a small number of categories. We also form different patterns with different people for instance we may feel like we often keep things bottled up and to ourselves, feeling more comfortable coping alone with our close partner, however we might feel better able to share our feelings with our siblings. What this theory proposes is that we have a predominant pattern of relating and identifying this can help us to notice the ‘relational dance’ that occurs with those close to us which broadly fits one of the following patterns:
(a) Those of us who relate within an avoidant attachment pattern find it much easier to avoid the risks associated with connection and intimacy through withdrawing emotionally, coping alone and solitary activity.
(b) Those who are predominantly anxious-ambivalent in style have a deep longing to be intimately connected with others however they often experience a perpetual fear of being let down and others leaving. As a consequence of this fear, they tend to be hypersensitive to signs of love or threats of rejection.
(c) Secure attachments are characterised by feeling comfortable with intimacy. Within this pattern we feel comfortable to be ourselves, to be separate from others, to be different, to explore the world.
As well as these attachment patterns being formed in our early relationships, our attachment narratives being affected by our current relationships can either build our erode sense of security. For instance, we may ordinarily feel like we cannot trust or rely on others, we can feel confident exploring the world when we develop a relationship with someone who is supportive and encouraging of us. On the other hand, our relational security can be eroded and we become more anxious in everyday life if we are in rejecting or unsupportive relationships.
“It is important not to use this approach in an over-simplified way in which we ‘label’ ourselves with an attachment type, rather to use it to help guide a way for alternative and more helpful patterns – one which prevents old patterns getting in the way of the connection and solidarity that we may need in the upcoming months.”
Although there are three predominant patterns of attachment, contemporary research on adult attachment has identified that the categories exist on a continuum existing on two dimensions: (a) ‘attachment anxiety’, that is the extent to which we fear abandonment and rejection and experience a low sense of self-worth, and (b) the extent to which we avoid relating on others (i.e., ‘attachment avoidance’).
Understanding my attachment patterns more
As a first step, you may wish to use the dimensional model to further understand your attachment patterns through tracing key relationships on the graph using the PDF printable guide below.
How can I use what I know about my attachment patterns to help build rich and fulfilling relationships in order to help us better cope this winter?
We plan to discuss this in a follow-up blog entry in 2-weeks time. However if you're keen to jump ahead and would like to read on click here.
PDF Printable Guide
Gillath, O., Karantzas, G. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2016). Adult attachment: A concise introduction to theory and research. Academic Press.
Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock.
Shaver, P., & Hazan, C. (1987). Being lonely, falling in love. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2(2), 105.