Attachment is the emotional bond that forms between infant and caregiver, and it is the means by which the helpless infant gets primary needs met. It then becomes an engine of subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. The early social experience of the infant stimulates growth of the brain and can have an enduring influence on the ability to form stable relationships with others.
Attachment provides the infant's first coping system; it sets up a mental representation of the caregiver in an infant's mind, one that can be summoned up as a comforting mental presence in difficult moments. Attachment allows an infant to separate from the caregiver without distress and to begin to explore the world around her.
Neuroscientists believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to setting it in motion in the first place and a hormone—oxytocin—that fosters the process.
Attachment develops through everyday interactions as a caregiver attends to an infant's needs. The bond between infant and caregiver is usually so well established before the end of the first year of life that it is possible to test the nature and quality of the bond at that time.
As a result of their work with many child-caregiver pairs, researchers have described several basic patterns of attachment. In their studies, researchers briefly separate young children from their caregiver and observe their behavior before and after they are reunited with the caregiver.
- Children with a secure attachment may be distressed upon separation but warmly welcome the caregiver back through eye contact and hug-seeking.
- Anxious-resistant attachment describes a child who is frightened by separation and continues to display anxious behavior once the caregiver returns.
- Avoidant attachment denotes a child who reacts fairly calmly to a parent’s separation and does not embrace their return.
- Disorganized attachment is manifest in odd or ambivalent behavior toward a caregiver upon return—approaching then turning away from or even hitting the caregiver—and may be the result of childhood trauma.
A majority of children tend to show “secure” attachment behavior in studies, while others seem “insecure,” showing one of the other patterns.
Secure attachment in children has been theorized to result from sensitive, responsive caregiving, and insecurity from its lack. While there is evidence that parenting can influence attachment security, it’s also clear that other factors—including genetics—play a formative role.
British psychoanalyst John Bowlby proposed that children’s attachment behaviors (such as showing distress at a parent’s absence) are part of an evolved behavioral system that helps ensure they are cared for. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth later began to experimentally study variations in how children respond to separation from parents. Others have expanded attachment theory to adult relationships.
Attachment security and behaviors have been studied in adult relationships, and attachment-related patterns that differ between individuals are commonly called "attachment styles." There seems to be an association between a person’s attachment characteristics early in life and in adulthood, but the correlations are far from perfect.
Many adults feel secure in their relationships and comfortable depending on others (echoing “secure” attachment in children). Others tend to feel anxious about their connection with close others—or prefer to avoid getting close to them in the first place. Studies of persons with borderline personality disorder, characterized by a longing for intimacy and a hypersensitivity to rejection, have shown a high prevalence and severity of insecure attachment.
Attachment styles in adulthood have labels similar to those used to describe attachment patterns in children:
- Anxious-preoccupied (high anxiety, low avoidance)
- Dismissing-avoidant (low anxiety, high avoidance)
- Fearful-avoidant (high anxiety, high avoidance)
However, attachment styles may be better thought of as dimensional, where a person rates as relatively high, low, or somewhere in the middle in their levels of attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. Also, a person may not exhibit the same kind of attachment pattern in every close relationship.
A person may have high attachment anxiety if she worries a lot about being abandoned or uncared for. This is measurable by one’s agreement with statements such as “I worry about being alone” and “I often worry that romantic partners don’t really love me." Someone high in attachment avoidance likely worries about other people getting “too close.”
People with a secure attachment style tend to fare better on outcomes such as relationship stability and sexual satisfaction, research suggests, and may be less likely to engage in disruptive acts such as partner surveillance or harmful sexual behavior.
Attachment styles can change substantially over time, research suggests, and may differ from relationship to relationship. Enduring a terrible relationship might lead to a less secure attachment orientation; a history of supportive relationships may lead to increased security. Therapy, in providing a safe connection and an opportunity to learn relational skills, may also be helpful.