Attachment is a long-standing connection or bond with others. While Attachment Theory was conceived in developmental psychology to describe infant-caregiver bonding, it's been extended into adulthood to include romantic relationships.
The Basis of Attachment Theory in Development
Building on the work of Harlow and others, John Bowlby developed the concept of attachment theory. He defined attachment as the affectional bond or tie that an infant forms with the mother (Bowlby, 1969). An infant must form this bond with a primary caregiver in order to have normal social and emotional development. In addition, Bowlby proposed that this attachment bond is very powerful and continues throughout life. He used the concept of secure base to define a healthy attachment between parent and child (1988). A secure base is a parental presence that gives the child a sense of safety as he explores his surroundings. Bowlby said that two things are needed for a healthy attachment: The caregiver must be responsive to the child’s physical, social, and emotional needs; and the caregiver and child must engage in mutually enjoyable interactions (Bowlby, 1969).
While Bowlby thought attachment was an all-or-nothing process, Mary Ainsworth’s (1970) research showed otherwise. Ainsworth wanted to know if children differ in the ways they bond, and if so, why. To find the answers, she used the Strange Situation procedure to study attachment between mothers and their infants (1970). In the Strange Situation, the mother (or primary caregiver) and the infant (age 12-18 months) are placed in a room together. There are toys in the room, and the caregiver and child spend some time alone in the room. After the child has had time to explore her surroundings, a stranger enters the room. The mother then leaves her baby with the stranger. After a few minutes, she returns to comfort her child.
Based on how the infants/toddlers responded to the separation and reunion, Ainsworth identified three types of parent-child attachments: secure, avoidant, and resistant (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). A fourth style, known as disorganized attachment, was later described (Main & Solomon, 1990). The most common type of attachment—also considered the healthiest—is called secure attachment. In this type of attachment, the toddler prefers his parent over a stranger. The attachment figure is used as a secure base to explore the environment and is sought out in times of stress. Securely attached children were distressed when their caregivers left the room in the Strange Situation experiment, but when their caregivers returned, the securely attached children were happy to see them. Securely attached children have caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to their needs.
With avoidant attachment, the child is unresponsive to the parent, does not use the parent as a secure base, and does not care if the parent leaves. The toddler reacts to the parent the same way she reacts to a stranger. When the parent does return, the child is slow to show a positive reaction. Ainsworth theorized that these children were most likely to have a caregiver who was insensitive and inattentive to their needs (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).
In cases of resistant attachment, children tend to show clingy behavior, but then they reject the attachment figure’s attempts to interact with them (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). These children do not explore the toys in the room, as they are too fearful. During separation in the Strange Situation, they became extremely disturbed and angry with the parent. When the parent returns, the children are difficult to comfort. Resistant attachment is the result of the caregivers’ inconsistent level of response to their child.
Finally, children with disorganized attachment behaved oddly in the Strange Situation. They freeze, run around the room in an erratic manner, or try to run away when the caregiver returns (Main & Solomon, 1990). This type of attachment is seen most often in kids who have been abused. Research has shown that abuse disrupts a child’s ability to regulate their emotions.
While Ainsworth’s research has found support in subsequent studies, it has also met criticism. Some researchers have pointed out that a child’s temperament may have a strong influence on attachment (Gervai, 2009; Harris, 2009), and others have noted that attachment varies from culture to culture, a factor not accounted for in Ainsworth’s research (Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000; van Ijzendoorn & Sagi-Schwartz, 2008).
Attachment Theory in Romantic Relationships
Researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver examined Bowlby's ideas in the context of adult romantic relationships. More specifically, they noted parallels between infant-caregiver relationships and adult romantic relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). In their original study, they created a questionnaire to measure attachment styles—differences that best described individuals’ attitudes towards others in close relationships. The types—secure, avoidant, and anxious-resistant—were essentially the adult analogues of what Mary Ainsworth identified in her research with infants.
However, rather than being of a certain attachment type, other researchers added that adult attachment patterns could be more accurately represented in terms of dimensions. That is, most of the variation in reports falls within two fundamental dimensions—anxiety and avoidance—and the levels can vary from high to low (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Furthermore, the graph can be divided into four categories, depending on the levels of anxiety and avoidance: secure (low anxiety, low avoidance), dismissing (low anxiety, high avoidance), pre-occupied (high anxiety, low avoidance), and fearful (high anxiety, high avoidance).
The Stability of Attachment Orientations
Are you stuck with the same orientation across life? Can you change orientations depending on the type of relationship? Based on the original research by Hazan and Shaver, adults who are secure in their romantic relationships are more likely to recall their childhood relationships with their parental attachment figures as being affectionate and accepting. Yet, according to more recent research, there is a modest degree of overlap between how secure people feel with different relationships, like their parents or friends, and how secure they feel with their romantic partners (Fraley, 2002). Thus, there’s room for change across different types of relationships.
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This text is adapted from OpenStax, Psychology. OpenStax CNX.