Insights into Psychology

What Is… Attachment Theory

head with cogs inside

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?


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11 thoughts on “What Is… Attachment Theory”

  1. I had huge attachments issues until I worked through my trauma and learned how to make,(and trusted) healthy attachments. I think this was one of the hardest things for me to accept, and work on during the first few years of therapy.

  2. I know I have huge attachment issues. I do think I have managed to create a somewhat healthy attachment to my husband, but it took a lot of work, a lot of mistakes along the way, and I still have subconscious fears at least that often show up in my dreams.

  3. This is very interesting. I remember studying it in college. Hopefully I don’t have too many issues here, because Mother is always telling me how, when I was a baby, she’d hold me in her arms for hours and hours. I was her first child, so she’d rock me and help me stop crying and all that. She was enamored of her baby.

    I do have a lot of insecurities within relationships. I often feel that i have to help friends in every way that I can (loan my car, edit a book, etc.) because actions speak louder than words, and I need people to know how much I value them in my life. I’m always on hand to cheer someone, because I greatly appreciate it when people cheer me. My sister thinks I’m codependent in this way, but … this is my evil sister we’re talking about. Snort.

    Great post!! Very thought-provoking and informative!

  4. I think I have an inherent distrust of people until they’re proven to be safe, whether that’s attachment related I don’t know. Attachment disorder is very common in adopted children or those in the care system, behavioural traits are similar to ADHD and ASD.

  5. I have found reading about attachment theory helpful, especially for me in understanding how anxious tendencies come out when dealing with avoidant types. However, I think there is a lot more fluidity in style than what the theory purports. I just wrote a blog post yesterday with some of my criticisms/questions of attachment theory. I think parts of it are very helpful (such as understanding avoidant personalities), but I really find myself balking at the idea that anxiously attached people are this way because of the way they were parented as infants. There are lots of people out there who develop anxiety as an adult; wouldn’t all of this go contrary to the idea of a fixed “style”? If you’re inclined to look at my post, I’d love to hear what you think!

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