Attachment theory suggests that the bonds that we form as children with our primary caretakers, set the tone for how we will develop emotionally intimate relationships as adults. John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst, attempted at understanding the intense distress that infants experienced after being separated from their parents. He deducted his research down to a motivational system which he called the attachment behavioral system–“designed” by natural selection to regulate proximity to an attachment figure (parent). He later recognized that there are individual differences in the way children appraise the accessibility of the attachment figure and how they regulate their attachment behavior in response to threats. Then came the strange situation.; see the video below.

Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby’s, began to study these individual differences through a laboratory paradigm.

 “In the strange situation, most children (i.e., about 60%) behave in the way implied by Bowlby’s “normative” theory. They become upset when the parent leaves the room, but, when he or she returns, they actively seek the parent and are easily comforted by him or her. Children who exhibit this pattern of behavior are often called secure. Other children (about 20% or less) are ill-at-ease initially, and, upon separation, become extremely distressed. Importantly, when reunited with their parents, these children have a difficult time being soothed, and often exhibit conflicting behaviors that suggest they want to be comforted, but that they also want to “punish” the parent for leaving. These children are often called anxious-resistant. The third pattern of attachment that Ainsworth and her colleagues documented is called avoidant. Avoidant children (about 20%) don’t appear too distressed by the separation, and, upon reunion, actively avoid seeking contact with their parent, sometimes turning their attention to play objects on the laboratory floor.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that researchers began to consider the possibility that attachment processes may play out in adulthood. Two researchers noted the correlation between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners shared the following features:

  • both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  • both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
  • both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  • both share discoveries with one another
  • both play with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
  • both engage in “baby talk”

End result? Romantic relationships are attachments and that romantic love is a property of the attachment behavioral system, as well as the motivational systems that give rise to caregiving and sexuality.

Take aways:

“If adult romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then we should observe the same kinds of individual differences in adult relationships that Ainsworth observed in infant-caregiver relationships.

If adult romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then the way adult relationships “work” should be similar to the way infant-caregiver relationships work.

Whether an adult is secure or insecure in his or her adult relationships may be a partial reflection of his or her experiences with his or her primary caregivers.”

” Bowlby believed that the mental representations or working models (i.e., expectations, beliefs, “rules” or “scripts” for behaving and thinking) that a child holds regarding relationships are a function of his or her caregiving experiences. For example, a secure child tends to believe that others will be there for him or her because previous experiences have led him or her to this conclusion. Once a child has developed such expectations, he or she will tend to seek out relational experiences that are consistent with those expectations and perceive others in a way that is colored by those beliefs. According to Bowlby, this kind of process should promote continuity in attachment patterns over the life course, although it is possible that a person’s attachment pattern will change if his or her relational experiences are inconsistent with his or her expectations. In short, if we assume that adult relationships are attachment relationships, it is possible that children who are secure as children will grow up to be secure in their romantic relationships. Or, relatedly, that people who are secure as adults in their relationships with their parents will be more likely to forge secure relationships with new partners.”

Reference the picture below for more attachment styles.

Finally, how do we develop a more secure attachment style?

It’s as simple as opening up to your partner by sharing personal details about yourself, including what attachment style you are feeling. It can also be like engaging in activities to increase intimacy such as partner yoga. Other advice includes getting closer with a friend; a grandparent; a sibling (if available); with an adult at school or work; with an adult of extended family; becoming more involved in the community; and going to therapy.

It’s much harder to put in the work than most want to believe. It’s okay if you’re not ready to put in the work that it takes to form a secure attachment, hell, I know I’m not.. I’ve got too much on my plate. But it all starts with awareness and acceptance and then trickles down from there. We’re not all lucky enough to have a secure primary caregiver, but we are blessed with a heart and a brain and it is up to us to take care of it the best way we know how. Even if that means starting with ourselves.

Thanks for reading.


Adult Attachment Theory and Research

Can You Cultivate a More Secure Attachment Style?

Relationships that appear to contribute to the development of an earned- secure attachment