Attachment Theory

Curated for Inaura by: Cynthia Roberts | Michael Mojica Bu Nan Brown

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment Theory was first defined and researched by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  There are books written about this in much more depth than we will cover here.  Our goal is to give you enough information to decide if attachment wounding and healing are important for your journey.

Attachment theory describes a set of behaviors and inner world experiences of one’s relationship to closeness, separation, to have needs be met, and to have needs go unmet.  This set of behaviors and inner world beliefs shape so much of who we are and how we feel about relationships to ourselves, parents, partners, children, and work.  It shapes trust, one’s ability or inability to connect, empathy, the quality of play, whether or not we have friends, how well our romantic relationships develop, how our nervous system develops, and how our brain develops. 

Our Experience of Attachment

We human beings are designed through evolution to be intensely collaborative creatures.  Just as a baby bird grows up and instinctively knows how to build a nest later in life, we have this instinctual drive to connect, cooperate, and collaborate for the survival of our species.

From the moment we are born, we look for faces, friendly gazes, and start attuning to the world around us.  We are born entirely dependent on our caretakers for all of our needs, and through interactions, we learn what the world is and our place in it.  Through this process of reflection and regulation, our attachment system gets shaped, and we learn how to get our needs met.

Attachment is a hardwired primal self-preservation intelligence that starts in utero and lasts throughout one’s lifetime. Your mental well-being depends on you forming attachments with others and having affiliations with groups. Attachment is a way to be emotionally nourished, or it can be the cause of emotional starvation. Attachment is arguably the single most important regulator of our lives as we spend much of our time and energy trying to manage our attachment needs.

Most people have an idea that attachment is mainly about our familial and primary relationships. However, attachment impacts much more than just that.  Attachment in humans begins in utero and is an active drive from the moment we are born.  We seek others in an instinctual survival strategy, and the way that our caretakers interacted with us began to shape our relationship with the world.  How they reflected back to us our ways of being in the world shaped our sense of self, and our sense of self deeply impacts our relationship to the world around us.

These early experiences shape our capacities for emotional regulation and tolerating stresses in our early life, which, in turn, impact the ways we cope with stressors later in life. For example, suppose it is reflected back to us that we are welcome in the world and that our explorations are okay and welcome. In that case, we are likely to grow up more able to tolerate greater ranges of difficulty and overcome greater obstacles.  These are some of the highlights of secure attachment. 

Attachment impacts your entire being. There is a felt sense in our attachment style.  It feels safe in the world when we are securely attached.  When we have an insecure attachment style, we don’t feel safe with closeness, separation, or both.  Feeling unsafe, mostly on an unconscious level, affects all aspects of our being.

Attachment Styles

The style of our attachment refers to the way we adapt to our primary caregiver(s).  How well they are able to meet our emotional needs, especially in the first five years, defines our attachment system responses.  Because our caregivers are a mix of attachment styles, so are we. Although you may have a primary attachment style, most people are a mix.

Secure Attachment in Parent-Child Relationships

As the name describes, security in this context means emotional safety.  Securely attached children feel safe to explore their world and go to their caregiver for comfort and protection.  They feel safe to be themselves and to be close to others.  They know that their caregiver will be there to help organize their feelings and that they don’t have to face hard things alone.  They have a level of predictability and consistency that offers a secure base from which to explore and a safe haven to return to.

Insecure Attachment Styles in Parent-Child Relationships

Parent-child attachment research describes attachment styles slightly differently than adult attachment research.  We will describe both.

In parent-child attachment research, insecure attachment is broken down into three categories that describe our adaptation to how needs go unmet:

Anxious-Ambivalent:  When a caregiver is anxious and inconsistent, it creates anxiety and fear in a child.  The child cannot depend on connection as it is given inconsistently.  The child will be vigilant and hyperaware of the parent’s mood, presence, and availability.  Nervous system development tends towards fight/flight and hyperarousal.  The child will not be easy to calm, even when the parent attempts, because the child can not be sure of that steady presence.

Avoidant:  When a caregiver is dismissive of emotions (sad, mad, scared, shame, etc.) and emotional needs (e.g., for comfort, emotional regulation, and protection), and typically “reward” children with connection only when the child performs in some way, children learn to shut down their emotional world.  These children overdevelop their cognitive skills while their emotional world goes neglected.  They tend to be less connected to their feelings, their needs, and their bodies.  They overemphasize their accomplishments and tend to have less empathy.  These children develop nervous systems that tend towards freeze, but with fight/flight as well.

Disorganized:  When a caregiver is mean, weak, gone, or all of these, the child learns to fear their caregiver.  This dilemma leaves a child with no consistent strategy for getting needs met.  Sometimes they have to shut down, and sometimes they have to activate.  These children develop nervous systems that go between fight, flight, and freeze.  These children sometimes look like “the good kids” and can be little adults. However, they can also look like the kids who “are all over the place” because their nervous systems are not usually in a window.

[Insert Circle of Security picture here]

Adult Attachment Styles

Secure Attachment in Adults:  A sense of security in Adults has a look and feel.  This person is not afraid to be alone, nor are they afraid of a close, committed relationship.  They are able to express what they need and how they feel.  They trust others and themselves to be open and to have boundaries.  They are comfortable with interdependency (they can depend on others, and others can depend on them.)  They have a strong capacity to reflect on their inner world.  Because they have a strong sense of self, they feel generally safe in the world.  

In an ideal securely attached relationship, we are able to express our needs to our partner and communicate/negotiate the ways we need them to be met, either inside or outside of the relationship.  We are able to feel safe in the container, and we know that our partner will delight in what explorations we take part in within our lives.  We would have natural ways to repair and reconnect after ruptures and a natural way to coregulate within our relationship.  We are able to share openly everything that is happening in our life, and we are open to supporting our partner in what they have going on in theirs. 

We delight in each other’s autonomy and rejoice in our communion.  We treat the relationship as its own entity, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have connections and support outside of the relationship.  We know we can rely on our partner having our back and that we can bring both the troubles and the joys of life into that container to be held with loving presence.  And we do the same with delighted reciprocity. 

Secure attachment doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have any issues and difficulties in the relationship.  It means that we value the relationship, know that it can withstand the difficulties, and continue to grow in its capacity to ride the waves of life while deepening the trust in our partner to be there for us. It’s not a co-dependent relationship, but it is one that values and delights in the autonomy and healthy dependency that we are designed to have in our lives.

Anxious Preoccupied:  As the title suggests, preoccupation with closeness (togetherness) and anxiety around separateness is the hallmark of this attachment style.  Often lacking internal safety and a strong sense of self, people with this attachment style look to the “other” to soothe their internal world.  Often seen as “clingy” or “needy” by their partners, they seek reassurance from their partner.  They tend to overanalyze their relationships and worry about them often. 

Dismissive Avoidant:  This attachment style prefers distance to regulate this type of person’s internal world.  Being in connection brings anxiety and overwhelm, and they can only tolerate little bits of time in connection.  Instead of relying on others, they over-rely on themselves, as that was required of them to survive in childhood.  They tend to dismiss their own emotions and, therefore, the emotions of others as well.  They see themselves as self-sufficient and want their partner to be as well.  People might describe them as unavailable or “walled up.”

Fearful Avoidant:  This attachment style is best described by “push-pull” because they are both anxious and dismissive, depending on the moment.  These people often long for closeness but are afraid of closeness.  Often, they have a fair amount of emotional dysregulation.  They fear abandonment but often push people away, validating the belief that they will be abandoned. As a result, romantic relationships are tumultuous and have high conflict.

Attachment Trauma/Wounding

Often, when we hear the word trauma, we think of war trauma or physical trauma.  It turns out early childhood trauma can be the emotional equivalent to war trauma.  Attachment wounding affects all parts of our being in ways we may realize are traumatic. All Insecure Attachment is Trauma.

As infants, we rely entirely on our caregivers for our survival. As a result, our physical and emotional needs go either met or unmet, and, from this, we interpret our sense of self and worth in the world. 

When our caregivers are supposed to be our source of safety but become our source of fear instead, this can cause significant trauma.  A person’s nervous system and brain development are greatly affected.  These people often have long-term health problems as adults.  Relationships can become stressful instead of soothing, and a host of mental health issues may be the outcome.  There is a high correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and long-term health issues in adults.

Here is an example of how it might feel to have an attachment wounding triggered:  One minute you are engaging with someone and feeling optimistic, then all of a sudden somehow, because of this person, you feel deflated in the body. Seeing and hearing the person for who they are take a turn for the worse. You can barely grasp how they looked so good to you a few minutes ago, and now, suddenly, you no longer feel they are trustworthy or safe to be with. You feel ambushed emotionally, and the other person may not even know it.

Here is another example: If you have shame wounding and someone uses humor as a way to connect, you may find the humor insulting and humiliating as if they are just calling you names and you can’t recover. You won’t be able to find a way to neutralize the experience, so you’ll leave the encounter and start perseverating. The interaction keeps replaying over and over. The insult feels permanent even though it was not said with much seriousness.

Previous wounding plays out in everyday life.  It can hamper your efficiency, effectiveness, stay on task, generate optimism, and greet others with brightness.

Trauma happens when the primitive brain region known as the amygdala has been assaulted with poor care and treatment.  You end up accumulating a nutritional and energetic deficit. When your caregivers interacted with you as a small infant and throughout your childhood, the molecules in your nervous system structures started to reconfigure and integrate. The molecular makeup of your primitive brain was affected either to be made more robust or more compromised. Just as it is with food, our need for consistent and quality interactions stays with us throughout our whole lives. In the work that we do, reassurance abundantly comes into play.

Attachment Repair

Attachment repair must be approached biologically, cognitively, and relationally.  Three main distinctions are helpful in guiding attachment repair.  The first one is how our body reacts to stimuli that have us feeling secure or insecure. The second one is our current relationships and the behaviors we need to be securely functioning. The third one is our native attachment strategy and how that operates and shows up.  Recognizing that there are these different ways of looking at attachment can be helpful in understanding how to repair attachment wounding.  They each require different approaches and tools to heal them, and they are simultaneously complementary to each other. 

Your nervous system must be treated alongside developing relationship skills. Your nervous system is the foundation for higher thought and intelligences that carries the impact of all the experiences that have ever shaped your sense of security or insecurity. It’s also important to make sure that we have open communication, clear agreements and boundaries, strong conflict resolution skills, an understanding of attunement, and a working understanding of co-regulation and emotional regulation in any relationships that we have.  These are all skills that can be learned.  Many of us may not have been taught these skills growing up, but, fortunately, we can learn them as adults, and they are critical skills in having secure, functioning relationships.  

Models for Healing


Adult Attachment Repair Model (AARM)

Attachment and attachment wounding gets created through interactions and experience.

Right Brain to Right Brain – The Non-Verbal Story

Your body knows what happened. Your body knows everything about you and your story. It can tell us everything that your conscious mind has forgotten. When you hold onto the stick while I’m on the other side, your body will tell both of us all the wrongs that it has desperately been trying to make right. It will give both of us a better explanation about what happened to you. It will guide you towards healing and repair.

You’ll go through all the experiences of insult and neglect, only this time you won’t be alone. You’ll have an adult helping you have the experiences you were supposed to have instead. You’ll know it because your body can feel the presence of attunement on the other end of the stick.

Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT)

PACT was developed out of cutting-edge research in three areas:

Neuroscience:  The study of the human brain. Understanding how the brain works provides a physiological basis for understanding how people act and react within relationships. In a nutshell, some areas of your brain are wired to reduce threat and danger and seek security, while others are geared to establish mutuality and loving connection. 

Attachment Theory:  The explanation for the biological need to bond with others. Experiences in early relationships create a blueprint that informs the sense of safety and security you bring to adult relationships. Insecurities that have been carried through life can wreak havoc for a couple if these issues are not resolved. 

Biology of Human Arousal:  This is the moment-to-moment ability to manage one’s energy, alertness, and readiness to engage.

Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy

Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) is a well-known humanistic approach to psychotherapy formulated in the 1980s.  It was developed in tandem with the science of adult attachment, a profound developmental theory of personality and intimate relationships.  This science has expanded our understanding of individual dysfunction and health as well as the nature of love relationships and family bonds.  Attachment theory views human beings as innately relational, social, and wired for intimate bonding with others.  The EFT model prioritizes emotion and emotional regulation as the key organizing agents in individual experience and key relationship interactions.

EFT is best known as a cutting-edge, tested, and proven couple intervention, but it is also used in individual therapy (EFIT – Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy) to address depression, anxiety, AND posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also be used in family therapy to repair family bonds (EFFT – Emotionally Focused Family Therapy).  This model operationalizes the principles of attachment science using non-pathologizing experiential and relational systems techniques (paralleling Carl Rogers and Salvador Minuchin, respectively) to focus on and change core organizing factors in both the self and key relationships.

Circle of Security International (Parent-Child Attachment Program)

Here are some founding principles that underlie the Circle of Security models of intervention:

  • Attachment problems in infancy and early childhood increase the probability of psychopathology later on in life.
  • Secure attachment relationships with caregivers are a protective factor for infants and preschoolers, setting the foundation for social competence and promoting the effective functioning of the emotion regulation and stress response systems.
  • The quality of the attachment relationship is amenable to change.
  • Learning, including therapeutic change, occurs from within a secure base relationship.
  • Lasting change in the attachment relationship comes from caregivers developing specific relationship capacities rather than learning techniques to manage behavior.
  • All caregivers want what is best for their children.

Dynamic Attachment Repatterning Experience (DARe)

The foundation of Diane Poole Heller’s teachings rests on her firm belief that we are hardwired to heal. Our bodies and brains store memories of early experiences, which create patterns that deeply affect our relationships and behaviors in adult life.

Her holistic approach, largely based on Somatic and Relational healing techniques, helps us discover the source of those patterns and apply the right understanding to heal them, thus releasing new energy to live fully and freely in the moment.

For over 30 years, Diane’s teachings and practice have been based on Dr. Peter Levine’s decades of research and hands-on development of Somatic Experiencing®, as well as her own personal research. Her work is supported by contributions sourced from the most recent theories on attachment by Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby, Louise Kaplan, Heinz Kohut, Mary Main, Dan Siegel, Marion Solomon, Daniel Stern, Donald W. Winnicott, and Jeff Young, as well as couples work theory by Ellyn Bader, John Gottman, Stan Tatkin, and countless others.


Circle of Security International

Zero to Three

World Association for Infant Mental Health

PSI- Postpartum Support International

PACT Institute (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy)

EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy)

Couples Institute (Ellyn Bader, PhD)

Inner reflection is key to Attachment wound healing.  There are many ways to do this:

Therapy (Attachment-Focused, Internal Family Systems, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Attachment-Focused EMDR, and many others)

Body-Based work (Feldenkrais, Thai Chi, Chi Gong, Yoga, Massage, Reiki, Hakomi)

Recommended Authors:

Bonnie Badenoch, PhD

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, LMFT

Diane Poole Heller, PhD

Deb Dana, LCSW

Daniel Siegel, MD

Marion Soloman, PhD

Mary Main, PhD


Recommended Books:

Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine – Candace B. Pert

Outwitting the Devil: The Secrets to Freedom and Success – Napoleon Hill

The Eden Project: – In Search of the Magical Other – James Hollis

The Sensation of Discovery – Peter Cummings (Available only through The Adult Attachment Repair Model Training)


Curated By
Cynthia Roberts

I was born with a wild curiosity about why humans do what we do. I am person deeply connected to the earth and spirit, who grew up in a Narcissistic Family System. My family has been my greatest teacher and learning and growing from Early Childhood Trauma became my canvas for becoming a Therapist, Specializing in Attachment and Trauma.

I gave been incredibly fortunate to study and learn from some of the best Teachers, Guides, and Researchers; including The Circle of Security team, Dr. Bruce

Connect with Cynthia Roberts
Michael Mojica

The Adult Attachment Repair Model uses a stick and not attachment styles to heal your nervous system and encode security. It gives explanations & solutions of the silent suffering. Attachment Trauma is a disorder of the Autonomic Nervous System. It’s complex and difficult to treat with traditional therapy.

It’s caused by thousands of disappointing caregiving experiences that your nervous system accumulates to negatively influence your “being”. Trauma’s not your fault. It happened to you.

Connect with Michael Mojica

Recommended Guides with this Speciality

Recommended Offerings / Resources for you

Find out more about the Inaura Pathways

Healing through Creativity

Art Therapy Workshop - May 21st
Access Your Unconscious Mind To Gain New Insights, Perspectives, Clarity & Healing ​