Attachment Theory and the Secret of Success

Attachment theory and research shows that having secure and rich personal relationships goes hand in hand with having fulfilling and rich work lives. Being Successful in Life and in Relationships are Interrelated.

No Man is an Island

Most societies for most of human history have accepted that people are not separate individuals – that our experience of the world is interconnected with that of others. In the west we have pushed the idea that we are individuals that stand and fall on our own two feet further than any other society. We have a tendency to believe that being effective and successful is something we strive for on our own. Loved ones and colleagues may be in the background supporting and helping, but that is where we see them – in the background.

successAttachment theory and research challenges this individualism. This is what some of the attachment research is showing.

Firstly, improvements in attachment relationships have been shown to improve individual well-being. For instance a raft of studies have associated improved marriage relationships with improved outcomes for depression and other “individual” conditions (Leff et al. 2000, Beach et al. 2008, Tasca et al. 2007; Robertson et al. 2008). Sexual problems are being increasingly treated in the context of relational dynamics and the way couples experience themselves in relation to their partner (Schnarch 2002, Johnson & Zuccarini 2010). Improvements in attachment relationships has been shown to protect people from and reduce symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Muller & Rosenkranz 2009, Mills 2008, Verhaeghe & Vanheule 2005).

Secondly, several studies have vouched for the interconnectedness between the realm of attachment relationships and the realm of general relationships and activities. Hazan & Shaver (1990) showed that adult attachment behaviour in marriage relationships mirrored experiences in work relationships. They coined the term “myth of separate worlds” to argue that attachment relationship experiences and experiences in general relationships and activities have been falsely dichotomised. Indeed, people have a general attachment style that reaches across attachment relationships and general relationships (Pietromonaco & Barrett, 2000). Research has demonstrated that adult attachment behaviour shapes behaviour in group contexts generally (Rom & Mikulincer, 2003). Feeney (et al. 2008) demonstrated that a person’s attachment style determines how they engage in and shape new relationships with people – in both social and work environments.

Thirdly, by developing greater security in our attachment relationships we simultaneously become more independent and more able to function boyautonomously in general relationships and activities. This runs counter to the traditions of psychotherapy – and of our western culture generally – which tend to individualise human experience and to prize independence and self-sufficiency. The evidence in infant-caregiver relationships is extensive (Wallin, 2007). For example researchers have shown that mothers who attended promptly to their crying babies had babies that cried much less by the end of their first year, than babies of mothers who let them cry (Ainsworth et al. 1978, Belsky et al. 1984).

The same principle applies across the lifespan. Adolescents with secure attachment patterns with their parents are more able to launch and create interdependent adult relationships (Allen & Land 1999, Noom et al. 1999). Adults who experience secure and reliable dependence with their spouse are more able to explore and perform independently away from their spouse (Feeney 2007, Elliott 2003). Moreover, there is an accumulated body of research that pegs one’s degree of mental health with one’s degree of security in attachment relationships (Fonagy et al. 2008, Liotti 2004, Johnson 2009). Thus our functioning in general relationships and activities is inextricable from the health of our attachment relationships.

To summarise, the more secure and loved we feel, then the more effective and successful we will be in our social and work lives.

Safe Haven and Secure Base

How do secure attachment relationships do this?

John Bowlby – the originator of attachment theory- argued that secure attachment environments provide two functions for individuals:-

1) They provide a safe haven in times of emotional upset. This function is crucial in infancy while children are yet to learn to self-soothe. But it is also crucial in adult life. snowIncreasingly experts in couple relationships – like Susan Johnson John Gottman – are emphasising the importance of adults to move flexibly between self-soothing and accessing attachment figures for soothing. This is the hallmark of a “securely attached” individual.

2) Secure attachment environments provide a secure base for individuals to explore and engage in the wider world – they provide a metaphorical springboard for us to launch into the wider world in our work and social lives. Again, a securely attached individual will move flexibly between their attachment milieu and their relationships in their social and work lives. Any over-reliance in engaging in one of these over another is indicative of either pre-occupied or dismissive attachment.

What about……….?

maoWhat about the Adolf Hitlers and the Genghis Khans of history who rose to the top but had brutal and dysfunctional personal relationships? What about our own workplaces where people can advance through the ranks without much ability to build mutual working relationships.

It is sad that our society too often values this kind of leadership. Our dominant discourse seems to be that we want leaders that are strong and/or inspiring. Our culture does not talk much about leaders working collectively with others, promoting others as much as themselves, and facilitating others to become more autonomous. This participative style requires relationship building, developing trust and honest, congruent communication.

We need to find other examples of success around us – those people who have fulfilling and enriching careers and have reasonably happy home lives. People who are well engaged in both spheres of their lives. Attachment research demonstrates that people who develop secure attachment relationships are effective and engaged in both their work life and their home life. Moreover, these people will achieve things collaboratively with others, not by coercion.

When we look for models of leadership we should avoid the temptation of looking up to or idealizing others – not just because nobody ever really lives up to our idealization, but also because we should not contribute to perpetuating the narcissistic myth that many so-called “successful” people like to perpetuate about themselves. It is this tendency that feeds the fame and success of leaders and celebrities without having to reflect upon their actual personal lives and the quality of their relationships.

Instead we should find people who feel reasonably proud of what they do, and have developed the kind of mature and interpersonal relationships that we can try to emulate. We ought to look to people who invest in and are engaged in both their work and home lives. People who can relate honestly, and who seem as interested in promoting others as much as they are themselves.

In my next article I will talk about personal agency – the “x” factor that accounts for our resilience and our sense of being effective in our own lives and in the world at large. I will discuss how agency grows from secure attachment.