What Is… Attachment Theory

Attachment theory: four attachment styles

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, which links emotional bonds in social relationships, human development, and evolutionary influences.

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, and infants will persist in seeking it regardless of the caregiver’s response.

Based on early experiences, people will develop an internal model of what interpersonal relationships should look like. This is called an attachment behavioural system.

The theory identifies four attachment styles, which can be determined by examining an infant’s behaviour upon reunion with the primary caregiver following separation. These are associated with certain patterns of behaviour, and they can influence personality development. The styles are:

  • Secure: infants were distressed by separation from parents, but were easily comforted when the parents returned; this results from primary caregivers being sensitive to the child’s needs
  • Anxious-ambivalent: when reunited after separation from parents, the infant seeks comfort but also seeks to punish the parents; this pattern results from unpredictably responsive caregiving
  • Anxious-avoidant: infants showed minimal distress with separation, and when reunited, either ignored or avoided parents; this stems from having attachment behaviours rebuffed
  • Disorganized: this occurs when there is no consistent attachment behaviour, and is related to flooding of the attachment system by difficult emotions like fear

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 the 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, caregiving quality can impact the body systems involved in regulating stress.

Attachment in adulthood

Researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Hazer extended attachment theory to adult romantic relationships. They identified four styles: 

  • Secure: relationships tend to be honest and interdependent, and better able to balance intimacy and interdependence
  • Anxious-preoccupied: may feel desperate for love, affection, or being fixed by a partner, but being clingy or demanding may actually push the partner away
  • Dismissive-avoidant: maintain independence and isolation, and tend to shut down emotionally during conflict
  • Fearful-avoidant: fearful of getting close, try to avoid their feelings

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 brings to 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?



The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

10 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. 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.

  4. 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!

Leave a Reply