In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is attachment theory.
Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth originally developed attachment theory. According to Wikipedia, it focuses on “how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat”.
Attachment in early life
Infants automatically seek attachment to familiar caregivers, and display attachment behaviours in order to maintain proximity of the caregiver. Attachment to a primary caregiver is highly important for emotional development and emotion regulation. Wikipedia says that infants will persist in seeking this attachment “even if this caregiver is not sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them.” Based on early experiences, people will develop internal models of what interpersonal relationships should look like.
Wikipedia describes four attachment styles that are determined by examining an infant’s behaviour upon reunion with the primary caregiver following separation: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. These attachment patterns are associated with certain patterns of behaviour, and can influence personality development. With secure attachment, the primary caregiver is sensitive to the child’s needs. Anxious-ambivalent results from unpredictably responsive caregiving. Anxious-avoidant seems to stem from having attachment behaviours rebuffed. Disorganized type is related to flooding of the attachment system by things like fear. Subsequent researchers have identified further subtypes.
Attachment in early life has a range of implications for the infant as they progress through life. Early attachment styles tend to be consistently related to the development of interpersonal relationships later in life, as well as functioning across multiple domains. Those who develop a strong internal working model for interpersonal relationships are able to form more stable attachments later on. Youngsters who defensively exclude information from their awareness have problems with development of effective internal models.
This sort of repression can lead to dissociation and disconnection between emotional response and causative factor. On a biological level, Wikipedia observes that “There is some evidence that the quality of caregiving shapes the development of the neurological systems which regulate stress”.
Attachment in adulthood
Researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Hazer extended attachment theory to adult romantic relationship. They dentified four styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. Balancing intimacy and independence is easier when there is secure attachment.
Attachment theory-oriented psychotherapy aims to reappraise ineffective working models for relationships between the self and others. Psychoanalytic-oriented psychotherapy does this in part by delving into the transference the client imposes on interactions with the therapist.
I was lucky to have very secure attachment as an infant and throughout childhood, with a very attentive, consistent, and loving primary caregiver (my mother). However, far too often this is not the case. I wonder what impact, if any, early attachment has had on the development of my illness and my current difficulties in feeling safe with other people. On the other hand, I wonder how people who have had insecure attachment in their early years can best be helped to form more adaptive attachment schemas as adults.
Is attachment something that’s had a significant effect on your life?
- Wikipedia: Attachment_theory
- Inge Bretherton. (1992) The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775.
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.