Attachment theory, developed by Bowlby to explain emotional bonding between infants and caregivers, has implications for understanding romantic relationships.
John Bowlby (1969) believed that attachment was an all-or-nothing process. However, research has shown that there are individual differences in attachment styles.
In This Article
There are four attachment styles:
Anxious (referred to as preoccupied in adults), avoidant (referred to as dismissive in adults), disorganized (referred to as fearful-avoidant in adults), and secure.
Attachment styles refer to the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. The concept involves one’s confidence in the availability of the attachment figure for use as a secure base from which one can freely explore the world when not in distress and a safe haven from which one can seek support, protection, and comfort in times of distress.
In humans, the behavioral attachment system does not conclude in infancy or even childhood. Instead, it is active throughout the lifespan, with individuals gaining comfort from physical and mental representations of significant others (Bowlby, 1969).
There appears to be a continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships. This idea is based on the internal working model, where an infant’s primary attachment forms a model (template) for future relationships.
Internal Working Models
- The social and emotional responses of the primary caregiver (usually a parent) provide the infant with information about the world and other people and how they view themselves as individuals.
- For example, the extent to which an individual perceives himself/herself as worthy of love and care and information regarding the availability and reliability of others.
- John Bowlby (1969) referred to this knowledge as an internal working model, which begins as a mental and emotional representation of the infant’s first attachment relationship and forms the basis of an individual’s attachment style.
- Romantic relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships, such as parents, friends, and romantic partners (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991)
- However, other researchers have proposed that rather than a single internal working model, which is generalized across relationships, each type of relationship comprises a different working model. This means a person could be securely attached to their parents but insecurely attached in romantic relationships.
Ainsworth’s Strange Situation
Ainsworth proposed the ‘sensitivity hypothesis,’ which states that the more responsive the mother is to the infant during their early months, the more secure their attachment will be.
To test this, she designed the ‘Strange Situation’ to observe attachment security in children within the context of caregiver relationships.
The child and mother experience a range of scenarios in an unfamiliar room. The procedure involves a series of eight episodes lasting approximately 3 minutes each, whereby a mother, child, and stranger are introduced, separated, and reunited.
Mary Ainsworth classified infants into one of three attachment styles; insecure avoidant (‘A’), secure (‘B’), or insecure ambivalent (‘C’).
A fourth attachment style, known as disorganized, was later identified (Main & Solomon, 1990).
Each type of attachment style comprises a set of attachment behavioral strategies used to achieve proximity with the caregiver and, with it, a feeling of security.
From an evolutionary perspective, the attachment classification (A, B, or C) of an infant is an adaptive response to the characteristics of the caregiving environment.
Ainsworth’s maternal sensitivity hypothesis argues that a child’s attachment style is dependent on the behavior their mother shows towards them.
- ‘Sensitive’ mothers are responsive to the child’s needs and respond to their moods and feelings correctly. Sensitive mothers are more likely to have securely attached children.
- In contrast, mothers who are less sensitive towards their child, for example, those who respond to the child’s needs incorrectly or who are impatient or ignore the child, are likely to have insecurely attached children.
Attachment Through Life
According to John Bowlby (1969), later relationships are likely to be a continuation of early attachment styles (secure and insecure) because the behavior of the infant’s primary attachment figure promotes an internal working model of relationships, which leads the infant to expect the same in later relationships.
In other words, there will be continuity between early attachment experiences and later relationships. This is known as the continuity hypothesis.
According to the continuity hypothesis, experiences with childhood attachment figures are retained over time and used to guide perceptions of the social world and future interactions with others.
However, there is evidence that attachment styles are fluid and demonstrate fluctuations across the lifespan (Waters, Weinfield, & Hamilton, 2000).
Therefore, rather than a single internal model, which is generalized across relationships, each type of relationship may comprise a different working model, meaning that a person could be securely attached to their parents but insecurely attached to romantic relationships.
Researchers have proposed that working models are interconnected within a complex hierarchical structure (Collins & Read, 1994). For example, the highest-level model comprises beliefs and expectations across all types of relationships, and lower-level models hold general rules about specific relations, such as romantic or parental, underpinned by models specific to events within a relationship with a single person.
Adult Attachment Styles
Adult attachment styles describe people’s comfort and confidence in close relationships, their fear of rejection and their yearning for intimacy, and their preference for self-sufficiency or interpersonal distance.
Attachment styles comprise cognitions relating to both the self (‘Am I worthy of love’) and others (‘Can I depend on others during times of stress’).
Adult attachment styles derived from past relationship histories are conceptualized in the form of internal working models.
Here individuals can hold either a positive or negative belief of self and also a positive or negative belief of others, thus resulting in one of four possible styles of adult attachment.
The model of others can also be conceptualized as the avoidant dimension of attachment, which corresponds to the level of discomfort a person feels regarding psychological intimacy and dependency.
Alternatively, the model of self can be conceptualized as the anxiety dimension of attachment, relating to beliefs about self-worth and whether or not one will be accepted or rejected by others (Collins & Allard, 2001).
Bartholomew and Horowitz proposed four adult attachment styles regarding working models of self and others, including secure, dismissive, preoccupied, and fearful.
Securely attached adults tend to hold positive self-images and positive images of others, meaning that they have both a sense of worthiness and an expectation that other people are generally accepting and responsive.
Secure attachment is a type of attachment observed in the strange situation. This type of attachment occurs because the mother meets the emotional needs of the infant.
Children with a secure attachment use their mother as a safe base to explore their environment. They are moderately distressed when their mother leaves the room (separation anxiety) and seek contact with their mother when she returns.
They also show moderate stranger anxiety; they show some distress when approached by a stranger.
Such individuals typically display openness regarding expressing emotions and thoughts with others and are comfortable with depending on others for help while also being comfortable with others depending on them (Cassidy, 1994).
Adults who demonstrate a secure attachment style value relationships and affirm the impact of relationships on their personalities.
They display a readiness to recall and discuss attachments that suggest much reflection regarding previous relationships.
Notably, many secure adults may, in fact, experience negative attachment-related events, yet they can objectively assess people and events and assign a positive value to relationships in general.
Secure lovers characterized their most important romantic relationships as happy and trusting. They can support their partners despite the partners’ faults.
Their relationships also tend to last longer. Secure lovers believe that although romantic feelings may wax and wane, romantic love will never fade.
Through the statistical analysis, secure lovers were found to have had warmer relationships with their parents during childhood.
Individuals with a preoccupied attachment (called anxious when referring to children) hold a negative self-image and a positive image of others, meaning that they have a sense of unworthiness but generally evaluate others positively.
As such, they strive for self-acceptance by attempting to gain approval and validation from their relationships with significant others. They also require higher levels of contact and intimacy from relationships with others.
Anxious attachment is a type of attachment observed in the strange situation and is also known as insecure resistant or anxious ambivalent.
Children with this type of attachment are clingy to their mother in a new situation and are not willing to explore – suggesting that they do not have trust in her.
They are extremely distressed when separated from their mother. When the mother returns, they are pleased to see her and go to her for comfort, but they cannot be comforted and may show signs of anger towards her.
This type of attachment style occurs because the mother sometimes meets the infant’s needs and sometimes ignores their emotional needs, i.e., the mother’s behavior is inconsistent.
Such individuals crave intimacy but remain anxious about whether other romantic partners will meet their emotional needs. Autonomy and independence can make them feel anxious.
Additionally, they are preoccupied with dependency on their own parents and still actively struggle to please them.
In addition, they can become distressed should they interpret recognition and value from others as being insincere or failing to meet an appropriate level of responsiveness.
Their attachment system is prone to hyperactivation during times of stress, emotions can become amplified, and overdependence on others is increased (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).
Preoccupied lovers characterize their most important romantic relationships by obsession, desire for reciprocation and union, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction and jealousy.
Preoccupied lovers often believe that it is easy for them to fall in love, yet they also claim that unfading love is difficult to find.
Compared with secure lovers, preoccupied lovers report colder relationships with their parents during childhood.
A dismissive attachment style is demonstrated by adults with a positive self-image and a negative image of others. Their internal working model is based on an avoidant attachment established during infancy.
Avoidant attachment is a type of attachment observed in the strange situation.
Children with this type of attachment do not use the mother as a safe base; they are not distressed on separation from their caregiver and are not joyful when the mother returns. They show little stranger anxiety.
This type of attachment occurs because the mother ignores the emotional needs of the infant.
They prefer to avoid close relationships and intimacy with others to maintain a sense of independence and invulnerability. This means they struggle with intimacy and value autonomy and self-reliance (Cassidy, 1994).
Dismissive-avoidant adults deny experiencing distress associated with relationships and downplay the importance of attachment in general, viewing other people as untrustworthy.
Dismissive lovers are characterized by fear of intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and jealousy. They are often unsure of their feelings toward their romantic partner, believing that romantic love can rarely last and that it is hard for them to fall in love (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).
Proximity seeking is appraised as unlikely to alleviate distress resulting in deliberate deactivation of the attachment system, inhibition of the quest for support, and commitment to handling distress alone, especially distress arising from the failure of the attachment figure to be available and responsive (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).
Dismissive individuals have learned to suppress their emotions at the behavioral level, although they still experience emotional arousal internally (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).
This has negative outcomes in terms of cutting themselves off strong feelings, whether their own or others, thus influencing their experiences of romantic relationships.
Adults with a fearful-avoidant attachment style (also referred to as disorganized) hold a negative model of self and also a negative model of others, fearing both intimacy and autonomy.
They display attachment behaviors typical of avoidant children becoming socially withdrawn and untrusting of others.
The behavior of a fearful-avoidant child is very disorganized, hence why it is also known as disorganized attachment.
If the child and caregiver were to be separated for any amount of time, on the reunion, the child would act conflicted. They may initially run towards their caregiver but then seem to change their mind and either run away or act out.
In the eyes of a child with a fearful avoidant attachment, their caregivers are untrustworthy.
Children with a fearful avoidant attachment are at risk of carrying these behaviors into adulthood if they do not receive support to overcome this. They may struggle to feel secure in any relationship if they do not get help for their attachment style.
“Like dismissing avoidant, they often cope with distancing themselves from relationship partners, but unlike dismissing individuals, they continue to experience anxiety and neediness concerning their partner’s love, reliability, and trustworthiness” (Schachner, Shaver & Mikulincer, 2003, p. 248).
A fearful avoidant prefers casual relationships and may stay in the dating stage of the relationship for a prolonged period as this feels more comfortable for them. This is not always because they want to, but because they fear getting closer to someone.
A study found that those with a fearful avoidant attachment style are likely to have more sexual partners and higher sexual compliance than other attachment styles (Favez & Tissot, 2019).
They may prefer to have more sexual partners as a way to get physically close to someone without having to also be emotionally vulnerable to them – thus meeting their need for closeness.
They could also be more sexually compliant due to having poorer boundaries and learning in childhood that their boundaries do not matter. It is important to remember that this is not the case for all fearful avoidants.
A partner with this attachment style may prefer to keep their partner at a distance so that things do not get too emotionally intense.
They may be reluctant to share too much of themselves to protect themselves from eventual hurt. If the relationship gets too deep or they are asked to share personal stories, the fearful-avoidant may shut down rapidly.
It is common for those with a fearful attachment style to have grown up in a household that is very chaotic and toxic. As such, the fearful-avoidant may expect that their romantic relationships as adults should also be chaotic.
If they are in a relationship with someone secure and calm, they may be suspicious of why this is. They may believe something must be wrong and may challenge their partner or create a problem to make the relationship more unsettled but familiar to them.
They tend to always expect something bad to happen in their relationship and will likely find any reason to damage the relationship, so they do not get hurt.
They may blame or accuse their partner of things they have not done, threaten to leave the relationship, or test their partner to see if this makes them jealous. All these strategies may cause their partner to consider ending the relationship.
Attachment In Adult Relationships
Attachment styles are expectations people develop about relationships with others, and the first attachment is based on the relationship individuals had with their primary caregiver when they were infants.
There is evidence that attachment styles may be transmitted between generations.
Research indicates an intergenerational continuity between adult attachment types and their children, including children adopting the parenting styles of their parents. People tend to base their parenting style on the internal working model, so the attachment type tends to be passed on through generations of a family.
Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) found a strong association between the security of the adults’ working model of attachment and that of their infants’, with a particularly strong correlation between mothers and infants (vs. fathers and infants).
Additionally, the same study also found that dismissive adults were often parents to avoidant infants. In contrast, preoccupied adults were often parents to resistant/ambivalent infants, suggesting that how adults conceptualized attachment relationships had a direct impact on how their infants attached to them.
An alternative explanation for continuity in relationships is the temperament hypothesis which argues that an infant’s temperament affects how a parent responds and so may be a determining factor in infant attachment type. The infant’s temperament may explain their issues (good or bad) with relationships in later life.
There also appears to be a continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships. This idea is based on the internal working model, where an infant’s primary attachment forms a model (template) for future relationships.
The internal working model influences a person’s expectation of later relationships thus affects his attitudes towards them. In other words there will be continuity between early attachment experiences and later relationships.
Adult relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships.
This is illustrated in Hazan and Shaver’s love quiz experiment. They conducted a study to collect information on participants’ early attachment styles and attitudes toward loving relationships. They found that those securely attached as infants tended to have happy, lasting relationships.
On the other hand, insecurely attached people found adult relationships more difficult, tended to divorce, and believed love was rare. This supports the idea that childhood experiences have a significant impact on people’s attitudes toward later relationships.
The continuity hypothesis is accused of being reductionist because it assumes that people who are insecurely attached as infants would have poor-quality adult relationships. This is not always the case. Researchers found plenty of people having happy relationships despite having insecure attachments. Therefore the theory might be an oversimplification.
Brennan and Shaver (1995) discovered that there was a strong association between one’s own attachment type and the romantic partner’s attachment type, suggesting that attachment style could impact one’s choice of partners.
To be more specific, the study found that a Secure adult was most likely to be paired with another secure adult, while it was least likely for an avoidant adult to be paired with a secure adult; when a secure adult did not pair with a secure partner, he or she was more likely to have an anxious-preoccupied partner instead.
Moreover, whenever an avoidant or anxious adult did not pair with a secure partner, he or she was more likely to end up with an avoidant partner; an anxious adult was unlikely to be paired with another Anxious adult.
Adult attachment style also impacts how one behaves in romantic relationships (jealousy, trust, proximity-seeking, etc.) and how long these relationships can last, as discussed in earlier paragraphs about Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) findings.
These are, in turn, related to overall relationship satisfaction. Brennan and Shaver (1995) found that inclining toward a secure attachment type was positively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction, whereas being either more avoidant or anxious was negatively associated with one’s relationship satisfaction.
In terms of attachment-related behaviors within relationships, being inclined to seek proximity and trust others were both positively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction.
Being self-reliant, ambivalent, jealous, clingy, easily frustrated towards one’s partner, or insecure is generally negatively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction.
The attachment style and related behaviors of one’s partners were also found to impact one’s relationship satisfaction. Not surprisingly, having a Secure partner increases one’s relationship satisfaction.
However, an Avoidant partner was the only type of partner that seemed to contribute negatively towards one’s relationship satisfaction, while an Anxious partner had no significant impact in this aspect.
The partner’s inclination to seek proximity and trust others increased one’s satisfaction, while one’s partner’s ambivalence and frustration towards oneself decreased one’s satisfaction.
It must be kept in mind that one may exhibit different attachment styles in different relationships.
A study conducted on young adults revealed that participants possessed distinct attachment patterns for different relationship types (parent-participant, friendship, and romantic relationship) and did not experience one “general attachment orientation,” except for some overlap in anxiety experienced in both friendship and romantic relationships (Caron et al., 2012).
Such empirical evidence serves as a reminder that attachment style may be context-specific and that one should not regard results from any assessments as the sole indicator of one’s attachment style.
Additionally, it is also noteworthy that one’s attachment style may alter over time as well.
Across different pieces of research, it was found that around 70% of the people had more stable attachment styles, while the remaining 30% were more subjected to change.
Baldwin and Fehr (1995) found that 30% of adults changed their attachment style ratings within a short period (ranging from one week to several months), with those who originally self-identified as anxious-ambivalent being the most prone to change.
In a 20-year longitudinal study, Waters et al. (2000) conducted the Adult Attachment Interview with young adults who had participated in the Strange Situation experiment 20 years ago. They found that 72% of the participants received the same secure vs. insecure classifications as they did during infancy.
The remaining participants did change in terms of attachment patterns, with the majority – though not all – of them having experienced major negative life events.
Such findings suggest that attachment style assessments should be interpreted more prudently; furthermore, there is always the possibility for change – and it even need not be related to negative events, either.
Adult Attachment Interview
Mary Main and her colleagues developed the Adult Attachment Interview that asked for descriptions of early attachment-related events and for the adults’ sense of how these relationships and events had affected adult personalities (George, Kaplan, & Main, 1984).
It is noteworthy that the Adult Attachment Interview assessed “the security of the self in relation to attachment in its generality rather than in relation to any particular present or past relationship” (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).
For example, the general state of mind regarding attachment rather than how one is attached to another specific individual.
Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) analyzed adults’ responses to the Adult Attachment Interview and observed three major patterns in the way adults recounted and interpreted childhood attachment experiences and relationships in general.
- Secure (Autonomous)
- Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment
- Preoccupied (Anxious) Attachment
- BPS Article- Overrated: The predictive power of attachment
- Scoring for the Strange Situation
- A theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship
- Ainsworth Strange Situation
- Cross-cultural Patterns of Attachment: A Meta-Analysis of the Strange Situation
- How Attachment Style Changes Through Multiple Decades Of Life
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