How attached are you to your romantic partner? Do you think these attachments have anything to do with how you were raised?
That may seem like a weird question, but psychologists have found that there is a strong connection between the relationship we have with our parents and how we approach romantic relationships as an adult. Adults display one of four different attachment styles. While some people are more secure in their relationships, others are more disorganized, ambivalent, or anxious. Your attachment style could make a big difference in how you view yourself in a relationship, how you treat your partner, or how you handle a breakup.
Studies on attachment styles go back to the 1950s and have evolved to include observations on how adults become attached to their romantic partners.
Everyone falls under one of four attachment styles:
- Secure attachment
- Ambivalent attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Disorganized attachment
Each of these styles are defined by the behaviors that people display when the attachment figure (parent, partner, etc.) is present or not present.
When a child feels secure, they are likely to display more exploratory behaviors. These behaviors include exploring the environment with ease, being sociable with others, and enjoying intimacy without anxiety.
On the other hand, if the child does not feel secure, they are likely to display attachment behaviors. These attachment behaviors include:
- Searching for the attachment figure
- Following the attachment figure as they leave
- Staring at the place where the attachment figure last was
What We Seek
From our first waking moments, our parents provide us with our basic needs. They feed us, put a roof over our head, and protect us. These needs form the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - we seek these needs before we seek anything else.
When children display these attachment behaviors, they are looking to fulfill these needs. Attachment behaviors aim to bring the attachment figure closer. When the person is close enough to the attachment figure, they are more likely to feel that their needs will be met and that they will be safe and secure. Safety and security may be physical, emotional, or even financial.
At an early age, these attachment figures are the parents. As the person grows into an adult, the attachment figure may be a lover or partner.
Important Figures in Attachment Theory
John Bowlby was the first psychologist to study attachment styles theory. He didn’t classify attachment into different styles, but he did set the foundation for studying these styles.
Bowlby wanted to know why children experienced separation anxiety when they were removed from their parents. Psychologists before him believed that separation anxiety and attachments to parents were learned behavior. Instead, Bowlby believed that attachment was an evolutionary process. After all, parents provide those basic needs that are necessary for survival. He theorized that children formed attachments as a part of an innate desire to stay alive.
Schaffer and Emerson
When do these attachment styles start to form? This is the question that psychologists Schaffer and Emerson tried to answer in their experiments in the 1960s. They found that infants went through different stages in which they formed attachments to primary or secondary caregivers. By eleven months, the infants showed a preference or one caregiver over another. But they also start to form bonds with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other caregivers. Once the infant has formed an attachment to one primary caregiver, they may display behaviors related to separation anxiety or stranger anxiety.
Where do the four attachment styles come from? Well, three of them come from Mary Ainsworth’s work on the attachment styles theory. Ainsworth is credited alongside Bowlby as one of the pioneers of this theory. Her Strange Situation Classification (SSC) helped to identify three attachment styles and the behaviors that go along with these styles.
During the SSC, Ainsworth observed infants between the ages of 12-18 months through a one-way mirror. The children interacted with both their mother and a stranger in different scenarios. The scenarios lasted about three minutes each:
- The baby was briefly in the room with their mother and the experimenter
- The baby and mother were left alone.
- A stranger joined the mother and baby in the room.
- The mother left the baby and stranger alone in the room.
- The mother returned and the stranger left.
- The baby was left alone in the room.
- The stranger returned.
- The mother returned as the stranger left.
How did the infants react to all of these scenarios? Did they search for the attachment figure (mother) or were they content exploring the room and playing with toys?
Ainsworth recorded the infant’s behavior and how intensely the behavior was displayed.
She noticed that the infants generally fell under one of three categories. 70% of the infants felt secure when the mother was around. During these moments of security, even when the stranger was around, the infant felt comfortable exploring their environment. They were distressed when the mother left, but happy when the mother returned. These babies were categorized as having a secure attachment style.
The second group of infants, only 15% of the infants observed, were more distressed than the first. They resisted the stranger and even resisted the mother when she returned to the room. These infants were highly unlikely to explore the area around them. Ainsworth classified these infants as having a resistant attachment style, also known as the anxious attachment style.
The last group of infants, the final 15%, did not appear to be that attached to the mother. They weren’t distressed when the mother left and weren’t overly thrilled when the mother came back. Infants in this group seemed as comfortable with the stranger as they did with their mother. Ainsworth classified these children as having an avoidant attachment style.
Main and Solomon
Until the 1980s, these three attachment styles were the most accepted. The disorganized-insecure attachment was added in 1986. Ainsworth did observe attachment behaviors that described children in this category, but they were not classified as their own group until Main and Soloman’s observations. These behaviors include:
- Wandering or displaying undirected movements
- Looking confused
- Other contradictory behaviors
Main and Soloman observed that these children typically experienced maltreatment and their trauma went unresolved. Due to the lack of closure on this treatment, the children were not sure of how to act and this frustration sometimes led to aggression.
Hazan and Shaver
When we read about attachment styles, we are more likely to relate them to our adult relationships. You might take a quiz to see what your attachment style is or contemplate how this affects your relationship with your partner. But until 1987, psychologists only talked about attachment styles as they related to children.
In 1987, Hazan and Shaver observed adults in romantic relationships and noticed the parallels between these relationships and the relationships between children and their parents. Both sets of people engage in bodily contact. Both feel more safe and secure when the other person is around. From these observations, Hazan and Shaver argued that a romantic partner may act as an attachment figure.
What Is Your Attachment Style?
Attachment styles can change as a person grows up. Not everyone with an absent parent is ambivalent or avoidant in nature. Therapy, mindfulness, and healthy relationships can help people become more secure in their adult romantic relationships.
Learn more about the attachment styles to figure out where you fit into Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theories of attachment.