Strange Situation: Attachment Theory and Effects on Adult Relationships

Almost every Psychology class I’ve taken from Introduction to Psychology through my last round of upper division courses at UC Davis makes some mention of John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. British psychiatrist John Bowlby was able to observe and work with children during and post-World War II. His work was done with children who had been evacuated from their families (primarily in London), and he observed their life outcomes, longitudinally.

The work with these children and others who experienced prolonged separations from their families due to illness or medical procedures, which required isolation, and the observations yielded from the technique he and his student Mary Ainsworth developed (known as the Strange Situation) all led his proposal of different attachment styles.

To test babies’ attachment styles, researchers put them in a room with their mothers as well as a variety of toys and other objects babies are drawn to. Once the mother and the baby were settled in, the mother allowed the child to explore the room and get acquainted with the toys and their surroundings. After a few minutes, a stranger would enter the room and begin conversing with the mother, gradually shifting their attention from the mother towards the infant—allowing the mother to leave the room without the baby noticing.

After a few minutes with the stranger, the mother returns to comfort the child (typically the child would become upset upon noticing their mother’s disappearance). After a few more minutes, the mother would leave again and the stranger would leave too, leaving the infant alone and isolated. Then, the stranger would come in and attempt to comfort the infant just as the mother had earlier. After a few minutes of this, the stranger would leave again and finally the mother would return.

These tests helped developed the attachment theory framework, which proposes the emotional bond between an infant and his or her primary caregiver (most typically the mother—but can also include father, grandparents, etc.) can either be secure or insecure (with the subtypes of ambivalent, avoidant, or in some rare cases disorganized).

Once children are 12 months old, they are usually attached regardless of which type of attachment style they may have.

The overall quality of the attachment bond dictates an insecure (and all of its subtypes) or secure attachment bond. In terms of developing an insecure attachment style, individual differences in temperament (in both the primary caregiver and the infant) and the interactions between the infant and the caregiver can push a child towards an insecure-anxious or insecure-avoidant subtype of attachment styles.

Researchers found that securely attached infants were comfortable exploring the room throughout all stages of the experiment, were fairly easily comforted by their mother during all stages of their observation, and seemed happy about their mother’s return.

Insecure-avoidant infants didn’t explore much, didn’t show a lot of emotion when their mother left, were comforted equally by their mothers and strangers and tended to avoid or ignore their mothers upon their return.

Insecure-ambivalent infants explored the room a bit more than insecure-avoidant infants (but not much), displayed intense separation anxiety when their mothers left and seemed ambivalent or in some cases angry at their mother’s attempts to soothe them upon their return.

Insecure-disorganized is the least common form of attachment style, and unfortunately, this form of attachment is often the result of abuse. Insecure-disorganized infants showed disorganized behavior throughout the experiment. Researchers note their disorientation in the form of wandering, freezing, frightened or confused facial expressions and interactions with caregivers and strangers that were unpredictable—though regular patterns of behavior were difficult to observe in these infants, numerous researchers have noted nearly all infants with this form of attachment classification appeared frightened of their primary caregiver.

In most of my developmental psychology classes, we discussed the hallmark signs and symptoms of each attachment style, the fact that attachment styles can change over the life course (although they typically stay the same for better or worse), and then we were usually required to regurgitate the information on a test. Our discussions ended with adolescence (at the latest).

And yet, I found myself wondering time and time again—what does this mean for adults and how does this theoretical framework potentially influence and maybe even explain some of my relationships?

Substantial research has been conducted on the potential correlation between infant attachment styles and future relationship patterns and outcomes. Reviewing some of the research allowed me to cultivate some compassion for myself and others. It’s a vital tool for understanding our strengths and weaknesses in relationships, and ultimately, change is impossible without first arming oneself with knowledge.

A secure attachment style in childhood is characterized by a bond in which the child sees their parent or primary caregiver as a “safe base.” Meaning they can venture out into the world independently and know that they will always have a “safe base” (in other words, a safe person to come back to). Common traits of securely attached infants (and later children/adults) include higher self-esteem, better relationships with peers and better outcomes in school and at work when compared to insecurely attached peers.

Securely attached adults operate in much the same way, their attachment with romantic partners feels respectful, connected and—obviously—secure. This type of relationship has open and honest communication and an overall feeling of equality and respect. The independence of partners insecurely attached relationships can be confusing for some folks with insecure attachment who may feel that independence is synonymous with detachment or disengagement. People with insecure attachment styles do not have a “safe base” in another person (primary caregiver) and sometimes people with insecure attachment styles can also have an insecure attachment to themselves.

An insecure-ambivalent romantic partner tends to keep an emotional distance between themselves and their partner (as well as others). On the outside, these individuals may appear highly independent, sometimes more independent than may be average or expected for their particular age group in younger individuals. However, this independence can mask detachment from others, with insecure ambivalent individuals often retreating inwards in an attempt to parent or comfort themselves. They can detach from others with ease and even during emotionally charged situations—such as an argument with their partner, where they might shut down (appearing calm to an outside observer) with ease.

Insecure-avoidant partners live in an emotional state of intense fear and anxiety—internally they’re afraid of being too close as well as too far away from others emotionally. Try as they might, people with this attachment style are unable to mute their fears and end up feeling overwhelmed, although on the outside it might not be readily apparent. Insecure-avoidant individuals are often described as erratic or unpredictable in terms of both their moods and methods of communication by outsiders who are unaware of the intense emotional turmoil going on unknown to the outside world.

Adults with an insecure-avoidant attachment style typically have relationships with dramatic highs and lows. When one is terrified at the prospect of abandonment but equally afraid of emotional intimacy (“I might get hurt”), the whole relationship can feel off kilter. Unfortunately, this form of attachment with its emotional “push-pull” style of both clinging and avoidance means anxious ambivalent individuals may (in extreme situations) find themselves in abusive relationships.  

An insecure-disorganized (called insecure-fearful when applied to adult romantic relationships) adults report that they desire emotionally close partnerships, but find it difficult to fully trust others. They frequently worry about the possibility of getting hurt if they allow themselves to get close to others, and though they want a close relationship they typically feel uncomfortable or unsafe with emotional intimacy. They tend to suppress or deny their feelings and they seek less intimacy in their relationships.

Studies of adult romantic relationship outcomes have investigated whether attachment styles influence the satisfaction and duration of relationships. Several studies have tied attachment styles to relationship satisfaction.

People with secure attachment styles report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships than those with insecure attachment styles. While this link between attachment styles and levels of satisfaction has been firmly established, the mechanism which causes this remains unknown.

Some proposed explanations include the style of communication, strategies for coping with stress and conflict and perceived support from their partner. While one or all of these might play a role, the question of what the mechanism actually is merits further research.

All of this information may seem overwhelming and, for some, defeating. But the first step towards changing—or patting yourself on the back and maintaining a secure attachment style—is awareness. Individuals with insecure attachment styles don’t need to be ruled or defined by their childhood attachment styles.

Change is possible, and it usually takes place in two ways: 1. They can challenge themselves by choosing a partner with a secure attachment style and allow themselves the emotional breathing space to grow and develop in that relationship; or, 2. Seek therapy and allow a professional to guide them through the process of forming a secure attachment style. Either way, change is possible—no matter how frightening and challenging it may seem.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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Strange Situation: Attachment Theory and Effects on Adult Relationships

Almost every Psychology class I’ve taken from Introduction to Psychology through my last round of upper division courses at UC Davis makes some mention of John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. British psychiatrist John Bowlby was able to observe and work with children during and post-World War II. His work was done with children who had been evacuated from their families (primarily in London), and he observed their life outcomes, longitudinally.

The work with these children and others who experienced prolonged separations from their families due to illness or medical procedures, which required isolation, and the observations yielded from the technique he and his student Mary Ainsworth developed (known as the Strange Situation) all led his proposal of different attachment styles.

To test babies’ attachment styles, researchers put them in a room with their mothers as well as a variety of toys and other objects babies are drawn to. Once the mother and the baby were settled in, the mother allowed the child to explore the room and get acquainted with the toys and their surroundings. After a few minutes, a stranger would enter the room and begin conversing with the mother, gradually shifting their attention from the mother towards the infant—allowing the mother to leave the room without the baby noticing.

After a few minutes with the stranger, the mother returns to comfort the child (typically the child would become upset upon noticing their mother’s disappearance). After a few more minutes, the mother would leave again and the stranger would leave too, leaving the infant alone and isolated. Then, the stranger would come in and attempt to comfort the infant just as the mother had earlier. After a few minutes of this, the stranger would leave again and finally the mother would return.

These tests helped developed the attachment theory framework, which proposes the emotional bond between an infant and his or her primary caregiver (most typically the mother—but can also include father, grandparents, etc.) can either be secure or insecure (with the subtypes of ambivalent, avoidant, or in some rare cases disorganized).

Once children are 12 months old, they are usually attached regardless of which type of attachment style they may have.

The overall quality of the attachment bond dictates an insecure (and all of its subtypes) or secure attachment bond. In terms of developing an insecure attachment style, individual differences in temperament (in both the primary caregiver and the infant) and the interactions between the infant and the caregiver can push a child towards an insecure-anxious or insecure-avoidant subtype of attachment styles.

Researchers found that securely attached infants were comfortable exploring the room throughout all stages of the experiment, were fairly easily comforted by their mother during all stages of their observation, and seemed happy about their mother’s return.

Insecure-avoidant infants didn’t explore much, didn’t show a lot of emotion when their mother left, were comforted equally by their mothers and strangers and tended to avoid or ignore their mothers upon their return.

Insecure-ambivalent infants explored the room a bit more than insecure-avoidant infants (but not much), displayed intense separation anxiety when their mothers left and seemed ambivalent or in some cases angry at their mother’s attempts to soothe them upon their return.

Insecure-disorganized is the least common form of attachment style, and unfortunately, this form of attachment is often the result of abuse. Insecure-disorganized infants showed disorganized behavior throughout the experiment. Researchers note their disorientation in the form of wandering, freezing, frightened or confused facial expressions and interactions with caregivers and strangers that were unpredictable—though regular patterns of behavior were difficult to observe in these infants, numerous researchers have noted nearly all infants with this form of attachment classification appeared frightened of their primary caregiver.

In most of my developmental psychology classes, we discussed the hallmark signs and symptoms of each attachment style, the fact that attachment styles can change over the life course (although they typically stay the same for better or worse), and then we were usually required to regurgitate the information on a test. Our discussions ended with adolescence (at the latest).

And yet, I found myself wondering time and time again—what does this mean for adults and how does this theoretical framework potentially influence and maybe even explain some of my relationships?

Substantial research has been conducted on the potential correlation between infant attachment styles and future relationship patterns and outcomes. Reviewing some of the research allowed me to cultivate some compassion for myself and others. It’s a vital tool for understanding our strengths and weaknesses in relationships, and ultimately, change is impossible without first arming oneself with knowledge.

A secure attachment style in childhood is characterized by a bond in which the child sees their parent or primary caregiver as a “safe base.” Meaning they can venture out into the world independently and know that they will always have a “safe base” (in other words, a safe person to come back to). Common traits of securely attached infants (and later children/adults) include higher self-esteem, better relationships with peers and better outcomes in school and at work when compared to insecurely attached peers.

Securely attached adults operate in much the same way, their attachment with romantic partners feels respectful, connected and—obviously—secure. This type of relationship has open and honest communication and an overall feeling of equality and respect. The independence of partners insecurely attached relationships can be confusing for some folks with insecure attachment who may feel that independence is synonymous with detachment or disengagement. People with insecure attachment styles do not have a “safe base” in another person (primary caregiver) and sometimes people with insecure attachment styles can also have an insecure attachment to themselves.

An insecure-ambivalent romantic partner tends to keep an emotional distance between themselves and their partner (as well as others). On the outside, these individuals may appear highly independent, sometimes more independent than may be average or expected for their particular age group in younger individuals. However, this independence can mask detachment from others, with insecure ambivalent individuals often retreating inwards in an attempt to parent or comfort themselves. They can detach from others with ease and even during emotionally charged situations—such as an argument with their partner, where they might shut down (appearing calm to an outside observer) with ease.

Insecure-avoidant partners live in an emotional state of intense fear and anxiety—internally they’re afraid of being too close as well as too far away from others emotionally. Try as they might, people with this attachment style are unable to mute their fears and end up feeling overwhelmed, although on the outside it might not be readily apparent. Insecure-avoidant individuals are often described as erratic or unpredictable in terms of both their moods and methods of communication by outsiders who are unaware of the intense emotional turmoil going on unknown to the outside world.

Adults with an insecure-avoidant attachment style typically have relationships with dramatic highs and lows. When one is terrified at the prospect of abandonment but equally afraid of emotional intimacy (“I might get hurt”), the whole relationship can feel off kilter. Unfortunately, this form of attachment with its emotional “push-pull” style of both clinging and avoidance means anxious ambivalent individuals may (in extreme situations) find themselves in abusive relationships.  

An insecure-disorganized (called insecure-fearful when applied to adult romantic relationships) adults report that they desire emotionally close partnerships, but find it difficult to fully trust others. They frequently worry about the possibility of getting hurt if they allow themselves to get close to others, and though they want a close relationship they typically feel uncomfortable or unsafe with emotional intimacy. They tend to suppress or deny their feelings and they seek less intimacy in their relationships.

Studies of adult romantic relationship outcomes have investigated whether attachment styles influence the satisfaction and duration of relationships. Several studies have tied attachment styles to relationship satisfaction.

People with secure attachment styles report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships than those with insecure attachment styles. While this link between attachment styles and levels of satisfaction has been firmly established, the mechanism which causes this remains unknown.

Some proposed explanations include the style of communication, strategies for coping with stress and conflict and perceived support from their partner. While one or all of these might play a role, the question of what the mechanism actually is merits further research.

All of this information may seem overwhelming and, for some, defeating. But the first step towards changing—or patting yourself on the back and maintaining a secure attachment style—is awareness. Individuals with insecure attachment styles don’t need to be ruled or defined by their childhood attachment styles.

Change is possible, and it usually takes place in two ways: 1. They can challenge themselves by choosing a partner with a secure attachment style and allow themselves the emotional breathing space to grow and develop in that relationship; or, 2. Seek therapy and allow a professional to guide them through the process of forming a secure attachment style. Either way, change is possible—no matter how frightening and challenging it may seem.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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