Only 55% of us have “secure attachment”– a number which would worry us all if we knew what it meant — according to 1970-1996 research on over 2,000 infant-parent pairs. And the level of attachment we get as infants continues all our lives in our relationships.
The math says the other 45% of us suffer “insecure attachment.” That means 45% can’t handle a committed, stable relationship with anyone, from childhood to the rest of our lives, as of 1996. We also pass this emotional pain to our children, who turn out similarly. A National Institute of Health article summarizes the secure rate: “Infants with secure attachment greet and/or approach the caregiver and maintain contact but are able to return to play, which occurs in 55% of the general population.” 1
This is the blockbuster result of Dr. Mary Ainsworth’s 1970-1978 “Strange Situation” study of babies. The work was completed by her student Mary Main, and Main’s research led to shocking conclusions.
Main discovered so many babies were peculiar, she got concerned about the parents. So in 1982, she created the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) to study the adults, releasing results 1984-96.
Her journey was so “strange” and involved, that it got published in language hard to decipher (or even google) for most folks. The tale took me weeks to unravel (footnotes below).
This huge “insecure” figure is a predictor of broken homes and broken hearts for half the nation. It starts to explain why we’ve got a 50% divorce rate. If you’re like me and have tried “over 40” internet dating after a divorce, it won’t surprise you to hear that science shows 50% of adults out there can’t carry on a secure, committed, loving relationship. You’ve already experienced it.
And if 45% of us were “insecurely attached” in 1996, what’s the percent in 2014? In 1996 most of us hadn’t heard of the Internet. In almost 20 years since, email, texting, and so on have further trashed our ability to relate in person. Several psychotherapists interviewed for this blog said that a round number of “about 50%” is a conservative estimate for how many Americans lack secure attachment today. Many believe it’s much higher.
It gets worse; check out another “about 50%” shocker. The 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study showed that 58% of middle class U.S. adults suffered 2 or more types of traumas as kids. It lists physical and sexual abuse and 8 other types, including traumas that happen even to newborns like physical and emotional neglect.2 Such trauma by definition puts children into technical “fight-flight,” a chronic state biologically proven to shut down the organism’s capacity for feelings of attachment and love. Think soldier in a battle ramped up in “fight-flight”– he can’t really feel much love for the other side.3
And it doesn’t go away. Continued fight-flight puts the nervous system into freeze: our vagus nerve starts shutting down bodily functions, Dr. Stephen Porges shows.4 So ACEs create the conditions underlying the top 10 medical causes of death in the U.S.
Major child trauma 58%? The more statistics I see, the better that “about 50%” number looks for how many of us are not securely attached. Which means half of us are in serious emotional health and bio-medical trouble – and don’t even know it. Let’s get informed.
Then we can heal. If we didn’t get securely attached as kids, we can develop “earned secure attachment.” “It’s possible to change attachment patterns,” Dr. Main says in a 2010 video.5
Strange Situation Experiment
Attachment Theory isn’t new, it just gets too little air time. British psychiatrist John Bowlby (left) developed it in the 1950s while dealing with the post-WWII crisis of dislocated orphans.6 Bowlby reasoned that all infants would seek to stay close to parents, since “proximity-seeking behavior” (attachment) is best for survival, so it’s bred into us by evolution. In 1952, he published a study of toddlers’ responses to major separations from parents. It showed that “when toddlers were placed in unfamiliar surroundings that provided no stable caregivers, they underwent three increasingly unfavorable stages of response to separation: protest, despair, and finally detachment.”7
Dr. Mary Ainsworth studied with Bowlby in London 1950-54, then studied this same “proximity-seeking behavior” (attachment) in infant-mother pairs in homes in Kampala, Uganda, published as “Infancy in Uganda” (1967). Next, she “found astonishing similarities in homes in Baltimore, Maryland (Ainsworth et al. 1978).”7
So Ainsworth created the Strange Situation in the early 1970s, as a science experiment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to document this infant behavior. “Ainsworth deliberately structured the Strange Situation to include three of Bowlby’s ‘natural clues to danger’… to arouse babies to seek proximity” to the parent, Main says. Researchers watch and video-tape through one-way glass, as infant-mother pairs react to apparent danger. First the babies respond to the strange lab room; then to two entrances of a stranger into the space; and separation from mother at two different times.8
In the Strange Situation, all or most babies were expected to stay close to parents as Bowlby thought. Such babies, “that Ainsworth termed ‘secure,’ play and explore happily prior to separation; show signs of missing the parent during separation, such as crying and calling; seek proximity immediately upon the parent’s return; and then return to play and exploration, ‘secure’ once again in the parent’s presence,” said Main.8
But 30% of babies did not act secure — they avoided mom. Given a choice, they show no preference between mom and the stranger. “While a majority of infants behaved as expected and were termed secure, to Ainsworth’s amazement six showed little or no distress at being left alone in the unfamiliar environment, and then avoided and ignored the mother upon her return.”7
Ainsworth decided to categorize these babies separately, as “avoidant” of mother, so now she had two types: (A) Insecure Avoidant, and (B) Secure. She concluded that their mom didn’t respond to them, or respond with enough sensitivity to understand their actual need, so the infants felt “insecure.”8
Still later Ainsworth saw that of the insecure babies, some had yet a third reaction: actually, they were “ambivalent” about mom. They were very distressed when mom left, but on her return, they alternated between avoiding and frantic clinging–plus, they never calmed down. Research showed that ambivalent attachment results from moms who are sometimes available, sometimes not, so babies learn they can’t depend on mom to be there when they need her.
Thus it was that “surprisingly, Ainsworth found that infant responses to separation and reunion fell into three distinct, coherently organized patterns of attachment,” and added a third category: (C) Insecure Ambivalent, Main reports.8,9
By 1978, Ainsworth’s estimate for U.S. babies was (B) Securely Attached 69%; (A) Avoidant 23%, (C) Ambivalent 8%. In the next 10 years, her Strange Situation study was done worldwide — always using her same three categories — with 2,000 infant-parent pairs in 32 different studies, in 8 countries. Some countries varied, but the global results averaged out exactly the same as Ainsworth’s 1970s studies. Amazing, yet since the U.S. is a cultural melting pot, it makes sense.1
But stay tuned for my next blog, when Ainsworth’s grad student Mary Main gets into the act big time. Main found that Ainsworth’s concept of Securely Attached had flaws that made necessary a whole new fourth category of attachment failure. And a whole lot fewer than 69% turned out to be “secure.”
If you can’t wait for Part 2, the whole article is here:http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/adult-attachment-interview-aai-mary-main/.
Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.