Attachment Theory - The Key to Human Relationships

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Understanding Relationships

Why is Attachment theroy of such importance in relationships? This article addresses this question. John Bowlby a British psychiatrist developed Attachment Theory in the 1950s. By 'Attachment' Bowlby meant a lasting emotional bond to another person. His theory provides the basis for an explanation on how individuals form emotional bonds in relationships throughout their lives, for example as children with their parents (or principal carer) and later when adults, in romantic relationships. In addition, it also provides a rational for the grief we experience when we lose someone we love.

If for no other reason than his work lead to the more compassionate and rational treatment of infants and children, it is of considerable importance. It resulted, for example, in the ending of the forced separation and isolation of sick children from their parents in hospitals, which was believed by psychologists at the time to be beneficial for the child but it was not.

One of Bowlby's ideas is that the main function of attachment between an infant and his/her mother (or principle carer) is to provide security and safety and not just food which had previously been thought by psychologists as the basis of the relationship. Bowlby's thinking was revolutionary at the time, it had been an acceptable approach in child care, prior to his work, that physical affection to a child even distress and sick children would spoil or have a detrimental effect on the child. It was common practice to keep sick children in hospital separated from their parents. After Bowlby's theory had been accepted this was reversed and accommodation was provided for parents to stay with their sick children in hospital.

Harry Harlow an American psychologist conducted experiments with infant rhesus monkeys in the 1950s to investigate Bowlby's idea. The monkeys were introduced to two types of artificial, surrogate monkey mothers. The surrogates mothers were constructed of wire frames, one was just wire but equipped with a babies feeding bottle containing milk and the other 'mother monkey' was covered in a fur like material but could not feed. Observations showed that the infant monkeys preferred to be with the fur-covered surrogate rather than the one providing food and suffered less distress due to the physical comfort they received from their fur covered 'mother'. This result was taken to show that the infant monkeys were seeking more than nutrition from being with adults of its species and this result was believed true for human infants too.

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While Harlow's experiment does not show that the relationship applies equally to human infants, a study by Shaffer and Emerson, (1964, cited in Pendry, 1998) shows close attachment develops between human infants and none or infrequent feeding humans with whom they have close contact, thus supporting Bowlby's view. The nature of the attachment bond the infant and child forms with his/her principal carer is thought to influence the nature of close relationships with others in adult life and their reaction to loss. This was a significant idea linking how we experience care as infants and children to how we experience relationships in adult life.

Bowlby and his colleague Mary Ainsworth worked together in post World War II Britain and from this work the concept of the 'Internal Working Model' developed, that is how the individual sees themselves (e.g. lovable/unlovable) and their expectations of how others will view them (e.g. trustworthy/untrustworthy). This model develops in infancy through the pattern of the attachment, the interaction the infant experiences with his/her mother. The infant learns to expect outcomes from the mother, when needs are consistently, inconsistently or rarely met. Initially, this influences the infant's relationship with his/her mother. As the child grows and experiences other relationships these alter the Internal Working Model' of how the individual views themselves and others finally extending to influence the individuals expectations of how others view them and how they view others in adult close relationships (Zhang and Hazan, 2002: 226).

The next significant step in furthering this investigation was carried out by Mary Ainsworth into the ways infants are attached to their mothers. Mary Ainsworth conducted experiments in the 1970s where in a controlled environment, for a short time she separated infants, aged between 12 and 18 months from their mothers. She then observed the child's reactions.

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Secure Attachment In some cases the child reacted to the separation by searching, sobbing and crying for its mother. When the mother and the child were reunited the child continued to cry and cling to their mother but as the bond between them was re-established and the child's anxiety stopped and so did the crying and clinging. The child was able to leave its mother and explore its environment. When the infant perceived a threat (e.g. a stranger entering the room), they returned to the safety of their mother, once they perceived the threat had passed, they recommenced their exploration. This pattern of behaviour Mary Ainsworth described as 'Secure Attachment'. The infant is upset when their mother leaves but feels confident she will return. This type of behaviour Ainsworth though the healthiest relationship and called it 'Secure Attachment'.

Avoidant- Insecure Attachment However, this was not always observed and Mary Ainsworth, she also observed children she termed as having 'avoidant attachment'. These children didn't react with distress when separated from their mother and avoided their mothers when reunited. In addition, they didn't appear to prefer their mothers to a stranger who might enter a room with the child and his/her mother. Mary Ainsworth suggested that this might happen where the child experienced 'abusive or neglectful caregivers'. If the infant experiences anxiety when seeking reassurance from their caregivers the child is likely to learn to avoid them, unable to see what use they are to the child over a complete stranger.

Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment The final form of attachment observed was ambivalent /resistant attachment. These children will become extremely distressed when separated from their carer. However, when the carer returns the infant will reject the carer maybe becoming angry then clinging to their carer if the carer attempts to put the child down. This has been interpreted as a reaction to the carer's ambivalent treatment of the child, sometimes giving the child attention when it isn't needed and withholding it when the child needs it. The nature and quality of the care depends on the needs of the caregiver rather than the needs and requests of the dependent child. The child learns that his/her attempts to get help and comfort are rewarded one moment and ignored the next; they get ambivalent reactions from their carer, so their behaviour reflects this.

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The Link to Adult Romantic Relationships Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver (1987) investigated and showed a link between infant attachment and attachment in adult romantic relationships. They analysed questionnaires to show that the occurrence of attachment styles is 'roughly' the same in infants and adults; that based on attachment style, adults experience romantic relationships in a way that could be anticipated e.g. avoidant adults remembered their mothers as cold and rejecting and with adult partners they avoided closeness; that attachment style is related to the 'mental model of self, the 'Inner Working Model'.

George and Main (cited in Stovall-McClough, 2006: 4-5) developed the 'Adult Attachment Interview' to ascertain and characterise the ‘Internal Working Model’ in adults. To do this, an adult describes their memories (not what actually happened) of their parents and childhood and how they think their parents determine their present personalities.

Adult attachment styles are described (Bogaert and Sadava, 2002: 192) as Secure: 'trusting in intimacy, develop closeness . . . tend to feel stable and committed in their relationships and rarely worry about being abandoned'. Avoidant individuals 'uncomfortable with intimacy . . . emotionally distant. . . difficulty trusting and depending on others . . . ', uncomfortable with closeness. Anxious-Ambivalent individuals had 'relationships fraught with dependency and conflict. . . they view others as undependable and untrustworthy . . . worry their partner does not love and/or will abandon them.'

These classifications have been used in studies of adult romantic relationships in addition to Bartholomew's four categories: secure, dismissing, preoccupied and fearful (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991: 228). Research has shown (Bogaert and Sadava, 2002: 193) that the bond between two partners who are 'securely attached' is likely to be more enduring than those between insecure partners; they are also less likely to have been divorced. It has also been shown (Kirkpatrick and Davis 1994, quoted in Feeney 1994: 334) that 'avoidant individuals tend to be paired with anxiously-ambivalent partners ' and further that 'anxiously-ambivalent' women can have long term relationships with secure men but also avoidant men.

Where one of the partners in an adult romantic relationship is avoidant and the other anxious-ambivalent, this is sometimes termed a 'pursuer/distancer' relationship. The anxious-ambivalent partner tries to get closer to the avoidant partner, they in turn become more emotionally distant, causing the other partner to attempt to get nearer and so on. Simpson (1999: 25-26) reports that anxious-ambivalent partners are 'more hypervigilant', very suspicions and are 'emotionally volatile' leading to unstable relationships. ^

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Bartholomew, K., and Horowitz, L.M., (1991). 'Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 61, No. 2, 226-244.

Bogaert, A.F. and Sadava, S., (2002). 'Adult attachment and sexual behaviour', Personal Relationships. 9: 191-204

Bretherton, I., (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth' Developmental Psychology, 28: 759-775.

Byng-Hall, J., (1991). 'An appreciation of John Bowlby: his significance for family therapy', Journal of Family Therapy. 13: 5-16.

Cassidy, J., (2001). Truth, lies, and intimacy: An attachment perspective', Attachment & Human Development. Vol. 3, No. 2: 121-155.

Feeney, J., (1994). 'Attachment style, communication patterns, and satisfaction across the life cycle of marriage', Personal Relationships. 1:333-348.