The connection between childhood attachment styles and adult relationships.
Posted Sep 19, 2017
John Bowlby, a renowned psychologist, focused a great deal on attachment behaviors. He noted that an “attachment behavior is any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world” (Bowlby, 1988, p. 27).
Attachment behaviors are observed throughout the lifecycle; however, they are most obvious during early childhood and in response to a threat. Mary Ainsworth, a famous attachment researcher, examined children through her use of the strange situation paradigm, which focused on their reactions in the presence of a stranger and absence and reunification with their mothers. Ainsworth identified three main attachment types: secure attachment, insecure-resistant attachment, and insecure-avoidant attachment (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).
Research has shown that childhood attachment styles are consistent with those found in adulthood. The attachment styles which individuals develop during childhood, as a result of their interactions with their caregivers, will be similar to the attachment styles exhibited in their adult romantic relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Attachment styles can affect our partner selection, the way in which we relate to our significant others, and the behaviors we display during the course of our relationship. As a result, when examining relationship-related behaviors, attachment styles should be considered.
Relationship-Related Outcomes of Attachment Style
Many contemporary researchers assess attachment using two continuous orthogonal dimensions: avoidance and anxiety. The dimensions of anxiety and avoidance capture a great deal of the variability in adult attachment styles (Brennan et al., 1998, as cited in Etcheverry, Le, Wu, & Wei, 2013). Furthermore, levels of attachment and anxiety can influence people's evaluations of their romantic partners and relationships (Rusbult et al., 2001, as cited in Etcheverry et al., 2013).
The anxiety dimension relates to how often a person feels as if he/she is going to be rejected by his/her partner. As a result, people who have a great deal of anxiety tend to maintain close proximity to their partners due to fear of abandonment. Those who are high on the anxiety scale are hyper-focused on attachment and “intensely desire closeness and intimacy in their relationships” (Etcheverry et al., 2013, p. 547).
Individuals with attachment-related anxiety experience stress over possible abandonment and have little trust in their attachment figures. They feel insecure when not in close proximity to their partners and often ruminate about their relationships (Rholes, Paetzold, & Friedman, 2008). They spend a great deal of time focusing on what is or what can go wrong.
Levels of avoidance relate to how comfortable a person feels with emotional intimacy (Butzer & Campbell, 2008). Research has shown that “people who score higher on avoidance tend to be less invested in their relationships and strive to remain psychologically and emotionally independent of their partners (Hazan & Shaver, 1994, as cited in Butzer & Campbell, 2008, p. 141).
Etcheverry et al. (2013) note that high avoidance is associated with “less valuing of close relationships, and less reliance on relationships to fulfill attachment needs” (p. 547). Those who are high in attachment-related avoidance distance themselves from their partners, as they assume that these figures will not be responsive when needed. Essentially, they avoid getting too close for fear of losing their partners.
Butzer and Campbell (2008) conducted a study of 116 married Canadian couples. They measured the couples’ levels of attachment and marital and sexual satisfaction. The results demonstrated that individuals with high levels of anxiety and avoidance were less sexually satisfied in their marriages. Furthermore, those who had avoidant partners were also less sexually satisfied (Butzer & Campbell, 2008).
Individuals who score low on both the anxiety and avoidance dimension are securely attached. Securely attached individuals tend to be the most well-adjusted and comfortable in their relationships. Having a secure attachment to one’s partner also plays a large part in overall relationship satisfaction (Rholes, Paetzold, & Friedman, 2008).
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). An interpretation of individual differences. Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation (pp. 31-322). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1988). The origins of attachment theory. A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development (pp. 20-38). New York: Basic Books.
Butzer, B., & Campbell, L. (2008). Adult attachment, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction: A study of married couples. Personal Relationships, 15(1), 141-154. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2007.00189.x
Etcheverry, P. E., Le, B., Wu, T., & Wei, M. (2013). Attachment and the investment model: Predictors of relationship commitment, maintenance, and persistence. Personal Relationships, 20(3), 546-567. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01423.x
Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987) Romantic Love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.
Rholes, W. S., Paetzold, R. L., & Friedman, M. (2008). Ties that bind: Linking personality to interpersonal behavior through the study of adult attachment style and relationship satisfaction. In F. Rhodewalt (Ed.), Personality and social behavior (pp. 117-148). New York: Taylor & Francis Group.