How Different Attachment Styles Respond To Loss

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This essay sets out to explore different responses to loss, based on individual attachment styles. It focuses on the work of John Bowlby, the originator of Attachment Theory, briefly visiting his successors Mary Ainsworth’s and Mary Main’s later studies, using research in support of my proposal. I will detail how Attachment Theory may be seen as a paradigm for understanding individuals’ unique attachment styles and how said style may influence responses to lose from childhood through to adulthood. For clarity and context, the loss I refer to is based on either dissolution of a relationship and/or the bereavement of a significant figure. I go on to underline the importance in our society to take the time to understand why some individuals respond differently to lose, supporting them with empathy rather than being objective or dismissive of their responses to loss (or lack thereof).

Origin of Attachment Theory

‘The main influences on attachment theory, apart from psychoanalysis and psychiatry, were evolutionary theory and ethology, which is the study of how animals behave in their contexts’. [Music 2010, p 60]. Bowlby was the first Attachment Theorist whose postulations were echoed by the research of Harry Harlow and Robert Hinde (amongst others). Harlow’s study compared primates in isolation to those reared by their mothers and sho1wed that the primates selected comfort over food unless they were hungry. Primates’ decisions were observed when faced with two metal wire models of a primate, one covered in soft cloth, the other, bare and cold from the exposed metal wire but holding a bottle of milk. The results showed the majority displaying a preference towards the soft cloth model rather than being immediately driven to seek food from the other. Additionally, Hinde’s study went on to highlight the behavioural responses of primates when removed from their mother: initially, the infants would protest, followed by displays of anguish, to finally showing signs of being emotionally cut-off. (Music 2010, p 60). Both studies supported Bowlby’s theory, that infant humans possess a preference for comfort and the need for a secure attachment, and that the lack of a secure attachment would cause personality disturbances going forward. Bowlby also further defined “attachment behavior as any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world” (Holmes 2014, p 53). He proposed that a child’s need for proximity to the attachment figure is to seek protection from danger or threat, therefore can be understood as an instinctual need and one which informs human development.

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What is Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is comprehensively described as ‘via the achievement of proximity, a relaxed state in which one can begin to ‘get on with things’, pursue one’s projects, and explore the world, ‘out there, and the inner world of feelings. (Holmes 2014, p 53)

Attachment Theory emphasises:

The primary status and biological function of intimate emotional bonds between individuals, the making and maintaining of which are postulated to be controlled by a cybernetic system situated within the central nervous system, utilising working models of self and attachment figure in relationship with each other.

The powerful influence on a child’s development of the ways he is treated by his parents, especially his mother-figure. [Bowlby 2005, p 135]

Attachment styles are formed through a dyadic relationship between an infant and their primary caregiver(s), and if said attachment figure is accessible, reliable and sensitive to the needs of the infant, a secure attachment is created, enabling the foundation for a healthy personality to develop. If the primary caregiver(s) is/are inconsistent and/or neglectful, the infant unconsciously adapts and develops a maladaptive attachment style (anxious or avoidant attachment) as a coping strategy which I will elaborate on later. Research links individuals who have had a secure attachment in early childhood with the ability and skills to tolerate and process emotional pain as a result of loss into adulthood. For purposes of inclusion (but which I will not elaborate on in this essay), attachment styles are also linked to personality disorders in adulthood, notably Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissism, and Schizoid, and there are also connections with propensities for depression and anxiety which can lead to susceptibility for problematic grief after experiences of loss. (Holmes 2014, p 171)

Internal models, attachment styles and behaviours

Internalisation takes place at infancy in a dyadic (caregiver-infant) relationship, creating cognitive internal working models allowing for either the healthy or disturbed development of self-esteem, mood regulation and the ability to establish an equilibrium between intimacy, exploration and independence. The attachment style (secure, anxious, avoidant) and behaviours are internalized and the model formed acts as a blueprint governing ‘an idea of what relationships are likely to be like, and this becomes a nonconscious model in their minds, an internal representation of themselves about others. (Music 2010, p 63)

Internal working models established in the earliest phases of life act as a control system to how individuals respond to stress, emotional pain and how they function socially and within romantic relationships. These models cannot be reconfigured by new experiences due to defensive exclusion, compounding issues surrounding the ability to process pain, restricting growth and emotional development, opening up vulnerabilities to pathological mourning. (Homes 2014, p 65)

Attachment styles are based on secure or insecure attachments, with the insecure style further broken down into ambivalent, avoidant and disorganised. Displays of specific attachment behaviour are triggered when there is a threat of separation or loss of the attachment figure, which is echoed in the results of The Strange Situation Test devised by Mary Ainsworth in 1963. Ainsworth observed infants’ responses to their mother leaving and returning to a room whilst being exposed to interactions with strangers. The observations (which I will elaborate on further attributing the responses to the specific attachment styles) highlight that the infant is gaining the ability to internalise his mother being accessible both during departure and on her return. (Bowlby 2005, p 138).

In 1985 came the significant body of work Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), devised by Mary Main, demonstrating links between adults and the observations of infants in Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test. Main discovered that a significant number of the parents interviewed had the same attachment style as their infant, thus suggesting that attachment styles continue to influence us throughout our lives and may be replicated in our parenting styles. (Music 2010, p 64)

What is a Secure Base?

a secure attachment based on internal working models formed between the infant and the primary caregiver(s) that form the basis of healthy personality development. The attachment figure is responsive to the infant’s range of moods (including outbursts) in a sensitive manner and is seen by the infant as reliable and readily available to keep them clean, warm, fed, and soothed when in need. In The Strange Situation Test, infants who were classified as securely attached cried when their mother left, and when she returned displayed relief and happiness, then settled into a relaxed state quickly about the other attachment styles. (Music 2010, p 64). It appears that infants with a secure attachment know how to regulate their emotions, read others and react appropriately. They appear to be able to communicate difficulties and seek to find internal solutions rather than be engulfed by unregulated emotions.

What is an Insecure Base?

Ambivalent/anxious attachment: these are internal working models built based on the primary caregiver(s)’ inconsistency in dealing with the infant, who is perceived by the infant as sometimes warm and at other times cold or unavailable. Infants adapt by attempting to monitor their caregivers’ moods to protect themselves against possible rejection, demonstrating overt clinginess to the attachment figure, and displaying increased distress with separation and loss. The Strange Situation Test showed the infant’s seeming neediness towards their mother before she left the room, and anguish when she did. When she returned, the infant seemed to cling more and did not easily or quickly return to a relaxed state. This attachment style has demonstrated a propensity for anxiety and depression in later life. (Music 2010, p 62)

Avoidant attachment: this style is formed when the primary caregiver(s) reject the infant’s primal needs for love and reassurance. Infants will unconsciously adapt by shutting down their yearning for closeness. They go on to avoid anything that makes them vulnerable and thus appear self-sufficient and emotionally independent. In The Strange Situation Test, the infants classified as avoidant seemed to not notice their mothers leave the room and seemed to not show distress when being left, instead of appearing as though they did not mind. This attachment style has shown a propensity to embody and internalise distress, resulting in somatisation. (Music 2010, p 62)

Disorganised attachment: with this style, the dyadic relationships are typically based on unpredictability and traumatising parenting. Infants will therefore be unable to develop an organised way in which to cope with the instability of their environment. Infants will go on to struggle to trust others and have an intense fear of the perceived destruction caused by emotional vulnerability due to their lack of resolvement of coping strategies. These individuals can find it very difficult to process separation and loss. Disorganised Attachment was only categorised later therefore is not included in Ainsworth’s observations. Individuals possessing this attachment style may display peculiar behaviours to cope with stressors: ‘they might, for example, wander up to a parent, then move aside, bang their heads on a wall, freeze or indulge in bizarre behaviours. The parent, who should provide solace or comfort when distressed, was for these children often the person causing the distress, such as by being violent, and so these children could not find a way of getting their attachment needs met. (Music 2010, p 62)

Attachment Style and Loss

Loss can be understood in terms of a sense of missing someone, a sense of incompletion, or sheer grief, and can include complex overlapping feelings of guilt, shame, rejection and unfinished business, which become destabilising for some. It is then unsurprising that the loss of the potential for a secure attachment in infancy, with the emotional complexities that follow, only hinder those who go on face loss in the future: how can they cope effectively when they lack the emotional tools of a secure internal working model? With an experience of loss in those with an insecure base, without the tools to soothe and internal strengths of security and reassurance, the pain and vulnerability of the loss itself are compounded with their inability to comfort themselves, process the loss, and look forward in hope. The aforementioned anxious/avoidant styles often have less of a network of close relationships to fall back on, nor do some feel safe exposing themselves to vulnerability. In those with avoidant styles, these individuals are often least aware that they need support due to high levels of suppression and emotional numbness. Bowlby describes an indifference to lose as ‘the determination at all costs not to risk again the disappointment and resulting rages and longings which wanting someone very much and not getting them involves….a policy of self-protection against the slings and arrows of their own turbulent feelings ‘. (Holmes 2014, p 71).

Our society can be quick to jump to conclusions without looking at factors that have led to differing responses to loss, for example, ‘those with a history of mood or anxiety disorders, those who have experienced multiple important losses, have a history of adverse life events and whose poor health, lack of social support, or concurrent life stresses have overwhelmed their capacity to cope, may be at risk for complicated grief. (Zisook and Shear 2009, p 69)

Complicated grief and grief-related depressive conditions are described as overlapping ‘with symptoms found in ordinary, uncomplicated grief, and often are written off as “normal” with the faulty assumption that time, the strength of character, and the natural support system will heal’. (Zisook and Shear 2009, p 67)

Evidence of Attachment Styles’ Correspondence to Loss

A study indicated that those with anxious attachment reported ‘greater emotional responses as well as greater non-acceptance which substantially complicates the ability to grieve. (Kho et al., 2015. Specifically, avoidant attachment styles appeared to suffer the most, and reported more somatization, while individuals with a secure attachment style reported less depression following a loss. Results also showed that anxious attachment styles showed higher levels of depression and prolonged grief. (Wayment and Vierthaler, 2002) Furthermore, delayed grief is seen more commonly with avoidant attachment styles; lack of emotion shown, the inability to cry and the individual cannot feel any satisfaction in relationships or distraction. Ambivalent attachment styles evidently suffer from chronic grief whereby they feel to be trapped in a state of despair with no avenue of hope. (Holmes 2014, p 1.9). We can postulate that individuals with anxious and/or avoidant attachment styles appear to show signs of increased complexities in processing and resolving loss because they did not develop the skills to soothe and process loss. In addition, anxious attachment styles will be impacted by loss over a prolonged period compared to those with a secure attachment style. Disorganised attachment styles can be seen to become even more emotionally disorganised and exhibit further behaviours of disarray. Avoidant attachment styles may appear to deal better with loss than both those with secure and anxious attachments but are likely to be suppressing the overwhelming emotions associated with grief resulting in physical health issues and compounded emotional avoidance of vulnerability, leading to greater maladaptive strategies in the future.


There is a relationship linking attachment styles and their influences on responses to loss. To better help those with anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachments, approaches should be customized to help those suffering from problematic grief and/or depression following loss rather than offering a one-size-fits-all approach of ‘letting go’ or medicating for depressive symptoms. Psychotherapists should understand their client’s attachment style, helping the client in turn, to become aware of their core internal models and the deeper work required to rebuild a secure base within a therapeutic setting rather than only treating the symptoms associated with loss. It is also crucial to identify those that seem to show a lack of emotion following a significant loss to help them develop constructive methods for resolving the loss. I suggest as a starting point that awareness of attachment styles in response to adversities such as loss is raised more clearly within society to normalize them. If we as a society understand why individuals act the way they do, there will be more room for compassion, less stigma, and thus greater access to support. Further thought could also be given to how social networks and behaviour in response to (social media platforms, personal and work environments, etc) can be positive and/or detrimental in aiding the processing of loss, and how to promote awareness of the impacts, offering interventions for those contexts that negatively affect emotional development.

Attachment Theory goes a long way to explain responses to relationships and adversities such as loss, however as its basis is the formation of internal models created in infancy, it does not account for potential variables throughout one’s life that may also have a significant bearing on each individual’s responses to loss, for example, PTSD later in life that cause an adult to appear emotionally numb later on in life. A therapeutic approach that considers Attachment Theory alongside a client’s unique personal experiences would enable the most holistic opportunities for support and personal growth. 


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