The science of attachment and its effect on relationships

This month’s article is inspired by the book Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find – and keep – love.

This topic might seem as though it’s not strictly work-related because it deals with romantic relationships. However, as well as giving you insights that might be useful for your personal life, it also covers behaviours you might recognise from the work setting.

When you have someone you attach to, they become the anchor on which you can build your life. You can be vulnerable with them. Without attachment, you only have yourself to rely on – this might seem the safer option, but it may also mean you miss out having someone to lean on and share life with – the joy, the sadness and the journey.

This analogy could also be stretched somewhat, to apply at work – relying on colleagues helps you learn, feel good and create something better than if you went alone (as an old African proverb offers: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”).

When you understand the traits you see in yourself and your colleagues, you will have more compassion for yourself and others, and can adapt the way you work so that you, and they, feel more secure and can thrive.


The book builds on the work of the psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, who drew on his own childhood to form and develop his theory.

John had an upper-class upbringing where he saw very little of his parents and was brought up by the nanny. She left when he was four, and he was bereft. At age seven, he was sent to boarding school where he didn’t form an attachment to any human being.

His research shows we’ve been programmed throughout evolution to attach ourselves to a few individuals. In prehistoric times, people needed to rely on each other in order to protect themselves and survive.

The need to be near someone starts before we are even born. You might have witnessed young children’s need to be physically close to their care-givers. As babies, especially to their mother. As toddlers, they might move away a bit to play, but you’ll see them keeping their loved one in sight, and they can get upset when she/he/they leaves.

The brain has a bio-mechanism called The Attachment System. It’s made up of emotions and behaviours that ensure we stay close to our loved ones and therefore stay safe.

Which style are you?

Bowlby defined three main attachment styles for adults (which are the same as those in children). They cover how we perceive and respond to intimacy in romantic relationships but can also relate to work.

Do you recognise yourself in these descriptions?

  • Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving
  • Anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back
  • Avoidant people equate intimacy with loss of independence and constantly try to minimise closeness. They might want to be close, but they’re afraid of being hurt and therefore back away.

In society, about 50% of adults are secure, 20% are anxious, and 25% are avoidant, leaving 5% in a category that combines anxious and avoidant.

In a romantic setting, we are programmed to act in a predetermined manner based on our attachment style.

You may find it interesting to plot yourself on this matrix based on your current or past relationship/s.


The two attachment dimensions, based on Brennan, Clark and Shaver’s scale

Because we are wired to connect, you can also use this knowledge to build effective work relationships. It will help you take things less personally, and make it easier to understand where other people are coming from.

How this relates to work

When you feel secure in yourself, you will radiate a vibe of I’m OK; You’re OK , as in “I feel comfortable and accepting of myself and I accept and respect you”. You are therefore more likely to:

  • Get out of your comfort zone and take risks
  • Focus on what you really want and move towards it
  • Concentrate on what needs to be done and not be distracted by the need to feel safe
  • Lead, inspire and achieve

You might be anxious or avoidant because you have a lived experience that has damaged, de-skilled or limited you. Even if you have amazing academic success and a fantastic career, inside, your tummy might be tied up in knots – until you work through it.

My view is that you can’t ignore your past. You need to open the box and look at it. If you’re not feeling good, therapy can get you to neutral. When you’re ready, coaching can get you to a positive state.

The tool I would probably use in this situation is The Leadership Circle Profile. This measures Creative Competencies and Reactive Tendencies, so key opportunities for leadership development immediately rise to the surface.

Five principles of effective communication

In the book, the authors share five principles which you might find useful. I’ve added my own commentary.

  1. Wear your heart on your sleeve
    It’s important to be authentic and express your feelings in an emotionally intelligent way (as in, you share your feelings in a way that allows you to be in charge of how you express them (not hysterically!)
  2. Focus on your needs
    When expressing your needs, use verbs such as “need”, “feel” and “want” rather than complaining about what the other person is not doing right
  3. Be specific
    Be clear so your colleague can understand you
  4. Don’t blame
    For an effective outcome, you don’t want to come across as angry, judgemental and so on. Don’t communicate when you’re feeling emotional because you’ll lead with the emotion rather than the essence of what you’re trying to say
  5. Be assertive and non-apologetic
    If you have an anxious style, you might feel they are not, and be tempted to apologise for them. But your needs are legitimate, valid and essential for your happiness, so it’s OK to ask for them to be fulfilled

Five principles for resolving conflict

Conflict is not a bad thing in itself. Constructive conflict can be healthy, and working through it can reach a wonderful outcome.

However, the way you handle conflict can make or break the relationship. The book suggest these five principles, with my builds underneath:

  1. Show basic concern for the other person’s wellbeing
    Ask questions to learn what they want to accomplish and how they would like to work through the discussion. Check-in on how it’s going for the other person and do they need time to think before committing
  2. Maintain focus on the problem at hand
    Adopt a mindset of solving the problem – forward looking, rather than spiralling down. Start with what you both want; then look at where you are today and identify the areas that need resolving; then brainstorm ways to address; then narrow it down. Start with where you can agree, to create positive energy
  3. Refrain from generalising the conflict
    Be as specific as possible – identify the issue; try and get to the root cause and follow the steps in 2 above
  4. Be willing to engage
    It’s ok to say it’s tough and uncomfortable – that alone can often break the ice. Agree any ground rules beforehand so you feel safe to engage, acknowledging it will be difficult. Take a break to give you time to think and re-charge
  5. Effectively communicate your feelings and needs
    Enough said!

Some people avoid conflict because they’re worried about rejection or abandonment. But, if you can focus on these principles, you’ll get the chance to grow, and the relationship will also grow out of it.

You might want to sit beforehand and plan what you want to say, and practice the tone of voice and body language that match how you want to come across.

Related reading

If you found this information useful, you might enjoy my related articles, including:

Next month

Are Team Charters still worthwhile?