Attachment and the Need to Belong.

Remember the fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling? A story of rejection and isolation and feeling different. That feeling is one many of us know all too well. Our inbuilt “need to belong”[1], leads to painful emotions and feelings when we sense we are being left out or overlooked in some way.    Rejection really hurts.   For our ancient ancestors to be left on the outskirts of the tribe was a matter of life and death.  And evolution leaves that imprint on us today: to sense feel that we don’t belong within a group can be agonising.   Whether its being ghosted in a romantic relationship, feeling excluded at work, or left on the fringes of family dynamics, our need to belong reminds us how painful isolation and exclusion is. 

What was it like for you in your family of origin? 

Sadly, too many of us have experienced difficult connections and the feeling of being overlooked and left out within the group we first were part of – our family of origin.  Past disconnections and rejections by parents and your earliest caregivers have the potential to impact your here-and-now, with present day isolation and loneliness giving a sharp prod to painful memories of disconnection as a child or teen.   

In an ideal world, you’ll have experienced a strong and supportive connection or attachment in your early days in your family of origin.  Ideally, you will have been easily able to sense your belongingness in the eyes, words, actions and physical connection of others.   

Yet for many of us, there’s a different story. One which can involve strained or difficult attachment relationships and connections with our caregiver(s).  Perhaps part of your own childhood story includes memories of being ignored, or misunderstood, or where the people around you were unable to see or hear what you wanted or needed?   Taking time to consider your childhood attachment history and what belonging in your family of origin was and is like for can be a powerful way to make meaning of your relationships as adults.  A first step to freedom from the hauntings of such painful recollections. 

Bowlby and Attachment Theory

John Bowlby

Attachment Theory, put simply, is the way of understaidng how the connections we experienced with our early caregivers infleunces us in subsequent relationships. British psychologist, John Bowlby, is a key person in helping to formulate what we now call Attachment Theory.  Working in the 1950s, Bowly began to study the attachment relationship between mothers and their young children.  He understood attachment as the psychological connectedness between a caregiver and baby, and how that impacted the child.  For Bowlby, babies enter the world already oriented towards seeking out and finding closeness, connection and belonging.  He observed how children reacted when they were frightened – often moving towards their caregiver. Other research at the time seemed to suggest that infants would seek connection, care, and responsiveness from a parent over and above food and sustenance[2].  In other words, Bowlby and others were recognising how important the drive towards connection and attachment with a supportive and psychologically available caregiver was for children.    

Bowlby was writing at a time when social expectations meant Mothers were more likely to be holding the baby, literally.  Since Bowlby’s time, subsequent research has focussed on the role of primary caregivers in children’s lives.  Nowadays, we recognise the crucial and critical role of Fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and professional childcarers in the lives of children.  We know that children will seek out the support of a nurturing safe haven, be that Dad, Nanny, or some other important caregiver who is reliable and consistently psychologically available. 

The Strange Situation

Photo by Josh Willink on

Bowlby’s work inspired other researchers, including one of Bowlby’s own students – Mary Ainsworth.  Ainsworth designed an experiment to better understand the attachment relationships between caregivers and young children.  Known as the “Strange Situation”, the research[3],[4] explored how toddlers between the ages of 12 and 18 months behaved when their caregiver left the room, and when a stranger entered the room.  They considered the level of distress the infant showed when their caregiver left the room, how they reacted when the stranger entered the room and how the child responded when their caregiver also came back into the room.  Ainsworth’s research showed there were three different types of responses and suggested that these responses were related to the attachment relationship the toddler had already developed over time with their caregiver.  The three types of attachment relationships identified were labelled:

  • Secure attachment
  • Insecure avoidant attachment
  • Insecure ambivalent/resistant attachment.  

Further research[5] since then have added a fourth category:  disorganised attachment. 

In a later blog, we’ll consider each of these categories of attachment patterns, and how they might play out as you develop and mature into adolescence and adulthood.  

For many people, learning more about attachment styles and patterns gives a language and a framework to talk about the early relationships we had as children. It can support making meaning of your past and your present.   Yet, thinking about attachment patterns and the relationships in our family or origin and even the relationships with our own children can be difficult work.  Connecting with childhood memories and feelings associated with your place in our family of origin can throw up feelings that are challenging to work through.  It’s important to look after yourself in this process.  If you’re on a journey of making meaning of your own attachment patterns, consider how you can find ways to take care of yourself and treat yourself with the gentle nurturing that is so important to our wellbeing, no matter what age we are.   Working with a counsellor or psychotherapist can be part of that taking care of yourself.  


[1] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529

[2] Harlow, H. F. (1961). The development of affectional patterns in infant monkeys. In B. M. Foss (Ed.), Determinants of infant behaviour (pp. 75–88). Wiley.

[3] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M., & Stayton, D. J. (1971) Individual differences in strange- situation behavior of one-year-olds. In H. R. Schaffer (Ed.) The origins of human social relations. London and New York: Academic Press. Pp. 17-58.

[4] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[5] Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Published by Claire Law

Qualified and BACP Accredited Preston-based Counsellor and Psychotherapist offering space for you to find freedom from what holds you back.

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