Attachment

The Latest on Attachment Style and What it Means for You

Attachment style gets a new look in the way relationship researchers measure it.

Posted Oct 29, 2019

Attachment style is one of the most significant factors affecting the quality of adult relationships. It is closely connected to your sense that you can rely on others as steady sources of support and nurturing. If you have a secure attachment style, you can handle intimacy without feeling discomfort, either at becoming close to another person or at giving that person some space. If your attachment style is insecure, you’ll either become afraid of losing your close relationships or try to protect yourself from the pain that would occur if you did.

As important as attachment style is to understanding adult relationships, there remains debate in the scientific literature about how it should be both conceptualized and measured. Researchers agree on the basic distinction between security and insecurity; It's the definition of insecurity that becomes problematic. Indeed, if you’ve ever tried one of those online tests that tap your own level of comfort in relationships, you might have found that some tests use three, others four, and still others just the two basic attachment style categories.

The University of Glasgow’s Tiago Zortea and colleagues (2019) laid out how this messy history has played out in relationship research. The original concept of attachment style, based on actual research on children, specified the three categories of secure, anxious (fearful of being abandoned), and avoidant (preferring to remain distant from others). Some years later, the three categories were redefined into four – secure, anxious, avoidant, and “anxious-ambivalent” (being fearful of relationships but also wanting them). The next approach defined a different set of four styles – secure, preoccupied (similar to anxious-ambivalent), fearful, and dismissing.

On top of this proliferation of theoretical approaches, researchers have also disagreed about whether it is better to place adults into categories based on their predominant attachment style or instead to allow the scoring of attachment style to be tapped along the two basic dimensions of anxious and avoidant. This simplified approach would still capture those elements of being uncomfortable with intimacy, fearful of being abandoned, and a tendency to become clingy, but would dispense with the idea of "types." Unfortunately, as the Scottish team notes, “although the use of dimensional models has been increasingly employed, typological models and methods are still largely used to guide much of the work within attachment theory research .... Inconsistencies such as these consequently limit understanding of adult attachment itself."

The most widely accepted categorical attachment measure, known as the Relationship Styles Questionnaire (RSQ), is based on the four-category model defining the four styles as secure, preoccupied, dismissing, and fearful. No previous study, the Glasgow researchers point out, has put the RSQ sufficiently to the test. The purpose of their research was to provide such stringent analysis. Using an online sample of over 700 UK-based adults (average age 25; 76% female; 82% heterosexual), obtained through social media, Zortea et al. conducted two sets of statistical analyses of the RSQ, each using data from half of the sample. In the first sample, the authors simply observed which items formed natural scales. In the next sample, they tested whether those natural scales would hold up to more rigorous, so-called “confirmatory,” analyses.

Supporting the Zortea et al. predictions, the RSQ analyses indeed showed that the four-category model didn't meet adequate statistical tests because the items clustered “into categories/factors that are inconsistent with the theory."

In other words, items supposedly associated with a specific attachment style didn't fall into one single category. Some items clustered together with items from different types, and some didn't even relate to a type at all. After testing a series of models that would best fit the data, the authors concluded that the dimensional approach far exceeded any of the categorical types. 

With this finding in mind, take a look at the items that best fit the RSQ’s two-dimensional structure:

Anxiety

  1. I worry about being alone.
  2. I often worry that romantic partners don’t really love me.
  3. I worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.
  4. I often worry that romantic partners won’t want to stay with me.
  5. I worry about being abandoned.
  6. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like.
  7. I worry about having others not accept me.

Avoidance

  1. I worry about having others not accept me.
  2. I worry about others getting too close to me.
  3. I am nervous when anyone gets too close to me.
  4. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others.
  5. Romantic partners often want me to be closer than I feel comfortable being.

As you try to rate these items for yourself, note that agreement signifies high anxiety/avoidance and disagreement signifies low ranking on the two dimensions. You can also see that this test has the advantage of being relatively brief, with 12 items compared to the 30 originally developed in the RSQ. As it dispenses with types, there's no need to sift through all of the confusing distinctions previously proposed as involving insecure attachment. 

You might have noticed, as you were answering these items, that the term "others" could have multiple meanings. Who would be abandoning you if you were abandoned? This is a point that the Scottish researchers emphasize in their critique of existing attachment style measures. If no reference point is given for the items, you could be answering about anyone, from a parent to a sibling to a romantic partner or even your boss. Furthermore, you might feel securely attached one day only to have the foundation ripped out from under you when you arrive back home from a long day to see your partner has packed up and left you for someone else. Does your attachment style suddenly change completely?

Not only is it better to think of attachment style from a dimensional point of view, Zortea et al. propose that the “individual differences in adult attachment are continuously distributed not only at the general level of attachment representations but also in the context of specific relationships (e.g., attachment with partners, friends, and parents)." In other words, attachment style is neither a category nor a trait.

To sum up, this simpler and seemingly more realistic approach to attachment style should lead you to rethink the way you check out your own sense of security and desire for closeness in relationships. If you’re trying to improve the quality of your relationships, this improved understanding can give you a new way to measure, and then achieve, the long-term fulfillment that comes from a secure sense of closeness.

References

Zortea, T.C., Gray, C.M., O'Connor, R.C. (2019) Adult attachment: Investigating the factor structure of the Relationship Scales Questionnaire. Journal of Clincial Psychol. 2019; 1– 19. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22838