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Attachment in Internationals Part I: Understanding Attachment and Its Cultural Context

In an increasingly interconnected world, the lives of many individuals—expatriates, migrants, Third Culture Kids (TCKs), and globally mobile citizens—extend beyond traditional geographical boundaries. This transient way of living profoundly impacts one’s experience of attachment and connection, concepts that are vital to understanding both the human psyche and psychotherapeutic practice. Index What is Attachment? Does Culture Influence one's Attachment Style? The Strange Situation of International Migration References What is Attachment? At its core, attachment represents the deep, biopsychosocial bonds we form with those closest to us, a concept eloquently described by Agishtein & Brumbaugh (2013): "Attachment is the emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver, and it is the means by which the helpless infant gets primary needs met." It serves three vital functions:

  1. Allowing the child to maintain proximity to the attachment figure, offering protection from danger,

  2. Providing a secure base from which the child can explore the environment, and

  3. Offering a safe haven in times of threat or distress.

However, this bond extends beyond the infant-caregiver dynamic. It encompasses a wide array of relationships, including family, peers, and romantic partners, each leaving a context-dependent and dynamic imprint on an individual’s attachment style. As the adage goes, "it takes a village to raise a child," underscoring the importance of the broader social system in shaping one's attachment. Bowlby's Attachment Theory: A Cornerstone in Understanding Emotional Bonds

John Bowlby's attachment theory is particularly pertinent when examining the emotional connections that internationals form and maintain across borders. Bowlby posited that the security of our earliest attachments significantly shapes our future emotional landscapes. This theory becomes especially relevant for those who frequently transition between cultures, as each move can represent both a challenge and an opportunity for the development and expression of one's attachment style.


Image taken from: https://www.insider.com/guides/health/sex-relationships/attachment-styles Upbringing significantly shapes our attachment styles, but change is always possible. Insecure attachments can evolve with the support of healthy relationships, self-awareness, and effective psychotherapy. Healing relationships catalyze this change, a process that is central to therapeutic work. This adaptability is essential for internationals navigating new emotional landscapes and forming bonds in varied cultural settings.While our upbringing plays a pivotal role in the formation of our attachment styles, the capacity for change and adaptation remains. Healthy relationships facilitate smoother transitions and more resilient emotional connections. Does Culture Influence One's Attachment Style?

The intricate dance of forming emotional bonds, a primarily embodied, non-verbal, and unconscious process, is a universal aspect of the human experience. Yet, it unfolds within the diverse tapestries of global cultures, each with its unique child-rearing customs that subtly shape the nature of these attachments. The work of Agishtein & Brumbaugh (2013) highlights this cultural interplay, revealing how societal norms can influence variations in attachment styles.

The Global Landscape of Attachment: A Cultural Mosaic

In exploring the cultural dimensions of attachment, we find that secure attachment emerges as a universal norm. However, the prevalence of different attachment styles can vary significantly within and across cultures. Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg's (1988) seminal study illustrates this, showing that differences are often more pronounced within countries, influenced by factors like subcultures and ethnicity, than between them. This finding suggests a rich diversity in how attachment is expressed and understood, even within the same national borders.

Cultural Contexts and Attachment Styles

The relationship between culture and attachment style becomes more nuanced when we consider the distinction between collectivist and individualist societies. According to Strand and colleagues (2019), collectivist cultures, which emphasize group harmony and interdependence, tend to exhibit higher instances of insecure-anxious attachment. Conversely, individualist societies, where personal autonomy and self-reliance are valued, show a tendency towards insecure-avoidant attachment. This dichotomy points to the profound impact of cultural values and practices on the formation and expression of attachment styles.

TABLE: Cross-Cultural Patterns of Attachment Based on Mesman, van Ijzendoorn & Sagi-Schwartz (2016).



A Comparative View of Global Attachment

This table, drawn from the comprehensive research of Mesman, van Ijzendoorn, and Sagi-Schwartz (2016), provides a compelling visual representation of how attachment styles manifest across various cultures. By examining these patterns, we gain a deeper appreciation for the complex ways in which cultural contexts shape the attachment experiences of individuals. From the communal care practices in African communities to the more autonomous child-rearing approaches in Western societies, each cultural setting offers a unique backdrop against which the drama of attachment unfolds.

In conclusion, while the fundamental need for attachment is a common thread weaving through the human experience, the ways in which it is expressed and developed are profoundly influenced by cultural contexts. As we navigate an increasingly globalized world, understanding these cultural nuances becomes crucial, not only for psychologists and therapists working with diverse populations but also for individuals seeking to comprehend their own attachment styles within a broader cultural framework.


The Strange Situation of International Migration In one of my formative experiences as a starting psychologist during my internship, I had the opportunity to conduct Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation—a seminal experiment in the study of attachment (Ainsworth et al. 2015). In simple terms, the Strange Situation is a structured observational test to assess an infant's pattern of attachment to their caregiver, usually the mother. Originally developed through Ainsworth's observations in Uganda and later her research in the United States, this procedure involves observing how infants respond to a series of separations and reunions with their caregiver, providing critical insights into the nature of their attachment bond. Reflecting on this, I can't help but draw a parallel to the experience of internationals. Just like the infants in the Strange Situation test, internationals are thrust into a new and unfamiliar environment when they move abroad, separated from their primary attachment figures—family, friends, and romantic partners. This transition, much like Ainsworth's structured separations, acts as a revealing force, unmasking the nuances of their attachment styles and coping mechanisms in the face of new and sometimes challenging contexts. It's a poignant reminder that the core principles of attachment theory extend far beyond the confines of the lab, playing out in the broad canvas of human experiences, especially in the lives of those who navigate the complexities of a global existence.

Attachment Disruptions in Migration

Migration distinctly impacts established attachment bonds, often leading to a sense of loss and disorientation. This is not merely about physical distance from family, friends, and partners, but a deeper emotional upheaval. Such transitions force a re-examination of existing bonds and compel individuals to navigate their emotional needs independently. However, this phase also presents a unique therapeutic opportunity. Research suggests that through adaptive coping strategies and the development of new social supports, individuals can not only rebuild but also strengthen their attachment systems in new environments.

From a psychotherapeutic perspective, working with internationals during this transition involves guiding them through the complexities of re-establishing a sense of security and connection. This process often entails acknowledging and grieving lost attachments, while simultaneously exploring and reinforcing new relationships. It's an opportunity for therapists to facilitate the development of adaptive coping mechanisms, helping clients to navigate this transitional phase effectively.

Therapy can also focus on enhancing self-awareness, as individuals re-evaluate their attachment needs and styles in the context of their new environment. This introspective journey can lead to significant personal growth, as clients learn to balance self-reliance with the human need for connection. Ultimately, while migration can disrupt existing attachments, it also opens the door to new relational experiences and a deeper understanding of oneself in relation to others. References


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press. Agishtein, P., & Brumbaugh, C. (2013). Cultural variation in adult attachment: The impact of ethnicity, collectivism, and country of origin.Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 7(4), 384–405. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0099181 Mesman, J., Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Sagi-Schwartz, A. (2016). Cross-cultural patterns of attachment. Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications, 852-877. Strand, P.S., Vossen, J.J. & Savage, E. Culture and Child Attachment Patterns: a Behavioral Systems Synthesis. Perspect Behav Sci 42, 835–850 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-019-00220-3 Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Kroonenberg, P. M. (1988). Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: A meta-analysis of the strange situation. Child Development, 59, 147-156.

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