John Bowlby, the founding father of attachment theory, argued that the attachment style formed in early childhood often continues to shape a person’s behavior far into adulthood, permeating all future liaisons. The attachment style of adults, however, need not completely reflect the child’s early interactions with a caregiver. Sometimes it undergoes a radical shift from one attachment extremity to the other.
In a longitudinal study of people’s attachment styles, psychologists Lee A. Kirkpatrick and Cindy Hazan found that after four years, 70 percent of their sample had the same attachment style as they did at the outset. Thirty percent had thus undergone changes in attachment. Other studies have confirmed that about 30 percent of people undergo changes in their attachment style over various time periods. People who feel secure as children tend to feel more secure with their romantic partners as adults. But the internal model of relationships that is formed in early childhood continues to be updated and revised in light of later experiences.
Adult attachment is mediated by personal relationships throughout life. Peers and romantic partners eventually take over the role of the primary attachment figure. In the best of cases, they become the source of safety, stability, and confidence. In the worst of cases, they become the source of anxiety, self-doubt, and mistrust.
So, the nature of friendships and romantic relationships can influence adult attachment in much the same way that early child-caregiver interactions can. Persistent bullying, a cruel partner, or a cataclysmic breakup can cause a person with a secure attachment to become insecure, or an anxiously attached person to become avoidant. Loyal friendships, healthy relationships, and improvements in interactions with parents can turn an insecure attachment style into a more secure one.
A longitudinal study carried out by psychologist Joanne Davila and her colleagues revealed that the likelihood that your attachment style will change depends on your susceptibility to change. How susceptible you are to change, in turn, depends on how stable your inner relationship model is. An incoherent or weakly defined mental model is more likely to undergo changes than a stable one.
For example, if you have learned again and again that an attachment figure eventually disappears or abandons you, your insecure attachment style is less likely to change than if you have seen that attachment figures are sometimes very attentive and sometimes completely absent. The more fuzzy your attachment-related beliefs, the more likely you are to undergo changes in attachment style at some point during your lifetime. Therein lie the vicissitudes of fate.
The researchers also found that participants with a personality disorder or a personal or family history of psychopathology were more prone to attachment style fluctuations. This is unsurprising, given that many personality disorders, including psychopathy, involve a disturbance in the way intimate relationships are viewed.
Narcissistic personality disorder, for example, involves a grandiose and complacent sense of self, exaggerated self-importance, addiction to fame and celebrity as well as severely disturbed and fluctuating interpersonal relations. Narcissists’ mental representations of themselves and their relationships to others are typically fragmented and poorly structured. Think Steve Jobs.
A third factor that can elicit drastic alterations in a person’s attachment style is a major life-altering event, for example, a difficult transition from elementary school to middle school, a maddening breakup, the horror of the estrogen- and testosterone-driven teen years, the unforeseen death of a loved one. Nerve-wracking transitions like these can mirror conditions where a parent abandons a child. Moving onto middle school means parting with childhood educators and old friends. Losing a lover or spouse can trigger feelings of abandonment. These changes can be so emotionally powerful that the mental working models representing relationships change or get messed up. Relationships no longer mean a safety net but something transient and hurtful.
I am the author of On Romantic Love.