Attachment theory is possibly the most useful theory that has come out of relationship science. According to this theory, people have different attachment styles, which represent the ways in which we relate to the people we care about. Some people tend to be open and trusting (secure attachment): they feel comfortable relying on loved ones and rarely worry about being rejected or abandoned. Some people tend to be more needy and insecure (anxious attachment): they want to be close to their loved ones, but they tend to worry that loved ones will reject them or misunderstand them. Finally, some people prefer to keep their distance (avoidant attachment): they have a difficult time trusting others, and aren't comfortable getting close and opening up to people. You can read more about these attachment styles here.

Researchers know that people’s attachment styles can explain a lot about the roots of their behavior in their relationships.1 In other words, we can predict a great deal about how someone will behave in a relationship just by examining their attachment style (far more than we can predict based on other features of a person, like gender, for example). But where do these attachment styles come from?

The theory postulates that attachment styles form very early in life based on the care our parents provided.2 In other words, early childhood experiences teach us how relationships work, and those lessons get “transferred” to other important relationships – such as friendships and romantic relationships – later in life. This is a provocative part of attachment theory because it suggests that the quality of care a person receives during childhood influences their strategies for navigating close relationships in adulthood. However, until recently, researchers have had only indirect evidence of this path from early childhood care to later attachment styles.

In an impressive study recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science,3 Zayas and colleagues observed and recorded mothers interacting with their 18-month-old babies in the lab. The researchers then coded mothers’ quality of care toward their babies. For example, mothers were coded as giving high-quality care if they were warm and attentive toward their babies, as opposed to intrusive or inattentive. Twenty years later, the researchers contacted these same children (now young adults) and surveyed them about their close relationships. The researchers found that the individuals who received the best quality care from their mothers at 18 months old also reported the most secure attachment to friends and romantic partners in early adulthood.

Overall, Zayas and colleagues’ research provides evidence for what attachment researchers have been suggesting for a long time: parents play a pivotal role in shaping our expectations and tendencies in close relationships, including our adult romantic relationships.

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This article was originally written for Science of Relationships: a website about the psychology of relationships that is written by active researchers and professors in the field.

1. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guildford Press.

2. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol 1. Attachment (2nd Ed.) New York: Basic Books.

3. Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Aber, J. (2011). Roots of adult attachment: Maternal caregiving at 18 months predicts adult peer and partner attachment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 289-297.

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