How Attachment Theory explains romantic relationships

To give you an idea about Attachment theory, I want you to imagine a scene where you’re in a room full of your relatives and friends. One of them is a mother who has brought her baby along. While the mother is busy chatting, you notice the infant beginning to crawl up to you.

You decide to have some fun by frightening the baby, as adults often do for some reason. You widen your eyes, tap your feet quickly, jump and shake your head back and forth rapidly. The baby gets scared and quickly crawls back to its mother, giving you a ‘What’s wrong with you?’ look.

This crawling back of the baby to its mother is known as attachment behaviour and is common not only in humans but also in other animals. This fact led John Bowlby, the proponent of Attachment theory, to conclude that attachment behaviour was an evolutionary response designed to seek proximity with, and protection of, a primary caregiver.

John Bowlby’s Attachment theory

When mothers fed their infants, the infants felt good and associated these positive feelings with their mothers. Also, infants learned that by smiling and crying they were more likely to be fed so they engaged in those behaviours frequently.

Harlow’s studies on rhesus monkeys challenged this perspective. He demonstrated that feeding had nothing to do with attachment behaviour. In one of his experiments, the monkeys sought comfort from a clothed monkey that fed them but not from a wire monkey that also fed them.1

The monkeys only went to the wire monkey for feeding but not for comfort. Besides showing that tactile stimulation was key to comfort, Harlow showed that feeding had nothing to do with comfort-seeking.

Check out this original clip of Harlow’s experiments:

Bowlby held that infants display attachment behaviours to seek proximity and protection from their primary caregivers. This mechanism evolved in humans because it enhances survival. Infants who didn’t possess the mechanisms to rush back to their mothers when threatened had little chances of surviving in prehistoric times.

According to this evolutionary perspective, infants are biologically programmed to seek attachment from their caregivers. Their crying and smiling is not learned but innate behaviours that they use to trigger caring and nurturing behaviours in their caregivers.

Attachment theory explains what happens when caregivers do or don’t respond according to the infant’s wishes. An infant wants care and protection. But the caregivers may not always respond adequately to the infant’s needs.

Now, depending on how the caregivers respond to a child’s attachment needs, the child develops different Attachment styles.

Attachment theory test and Attachment styles

Mary Ainsworth expanded the work of Bowlby and categorized the attachment behaviours of infants into attachment styles. She designed what is known as the ‘Strange Situation protocol’ where she observed how infants reacted when separated from their mothers and when approached by strangers.2

Based on these observations, she came up with the different attachment styles that can be broadly classified into the following types:

1. Secure attachment

When a primary caregiver (usually, a mother) responds adequately to a child’s needs, the child gets securely attached to the caregiver. Secure attachment means the infant has a ‘secure base’ from where to explore the world. When the child is threatened, it can return to this secure base. 

So the key to secure attachment is responsiveness. Mothers who’re responsive to their child’s needs and interact with them frequently are likely to raise securely attached individuals.

2. Insecure attachment

When a primary caregiver responds inadequately to a child’s needs, the child gets insecurely attached to the caregiver. Responding inadequately includes all sorts of behaviours ranging from not being responsive to ignoring the child to being outrightly abusive. Insecure attachment means the child does not trust the caregiver as a secure base.

Insecure attachment causes the attachment system to either become hyperactive (anxious) or deactivated (avoidant).

A child develops the Anxious Attachment style in response to the unpredictable responsiveness on part of the caregiver. Sometimes the caregiver is responsive, sometimes not. This anxiety also makes the child hyper-vigilant to potential threats like strangers. 

On the other hand, a child develops the Avoidant Attachment style in response to a lack of parental responsiveness. The child doesn’t trust the caregiver for its safety and so displays avoidance behaviours like ambivalence. 

Attachment theory stages in early childhood

From birth to about 8 weeks, the infant smiles and cries to attract the attention of anyone nearby. After that, in 2-6 months, the infant is able to distinguish the primary caregiver from other adults, responding more to the primary caregiver. Now, the baby not only interacts with the mother with the use of facial expressions but also follows and clings to her.

By the age of 1 year, the infant shows more pronounced attachment behaviours like protesting the mother’s departure, greeting her return, fear of strangers, and seeking comfort in the mother when threatened.

As the child grows, it forms more attachments with other caregivers such as grandparents, uncles, siblings, etc.

Attachment styles in adulthood

Attachment theory states that the attachment process that happens in early childhood is crucial for the child’s development. There’s a critical period (0-5 years) during which the child can form attachments with its primary and other caregivers. If strong attachments are not formed by then, it becomes difficult for the child to recover.

Attachment patterns with caregivers in early childhood give the child a template of what to expect from themselves and others when they enter intimate relationships in adulthood. These ‘internal working models’ govern their attachment patterns in adult relationships.

Securely attached infants tend to feel secure in their adult romantic relationships. They’re able to have lasting and satisfying relationships. In addition, they’re able to manage conflicts in their relationships effectively and have no problems exiting unsatisfying relationships. They’re also less likely to cheat on their partners.

On the contrary, insecure attachment in early childhood produces an adult who feels insecure in intimate relationships and displays behaviours opposite to that of a secure individual.

Though several combinations of insecure adult attachment styles have been proposed, they can be broadly classified into the following types:

1. Anxious attachment

These adults seek a high level of intimacy from their partners. They become overly dependent on their partners for approval and responsiveness. They’re less trusting and tend to have less positive views about themselves and their partners.

They may worry about the stability of their relationships, over-analyse text messages and act impulsively. Deep down, they don’t feel worthy of the relationships they’re in and so try to sabotage them. They get caught in a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy where they continually attract indifferent partners to maintain their inner anxiety template.

2. Avoidant attachment

These individuals view themselves as highly independent, self-sufficient, and self-reliant. They feel they don’t need intimate relationships and prefer not to sacrifice their independence for intimacy. Also, they tend to have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of their partners.

They don’t trust others and prefer investing in their abilities and achievements to maintain a healthy level of self-esteem. Also, they tend to suppress their feelings and distance themselves from their partners in times of conflict.

Then there are avoidant adults with a negative view of the self who desire, but are afraid of, intimacy. They also mistrust their partners and are uncomfortable with emotional closeness.

Studies have shown that children with abusive childhood experiences are more likely to develop avoidant attachment styles and find it difficult to maintain close relationships.3

Since our attachment styles in adulthood roughly correspond to our attachment styles in early childhood, you can figure out your attachment style by analysing your romantic relationships. If you’ve largely felt insecure in your romantic relationships than you have an insecure attachment style and if you’ve largely felt secure, then your attachment style is secure.

Still, if you’re not sure you can take this short quiz here to figure out your attachment style.

Attachment theory and Social Defence theory

If the attachment system is an evolved response, as Bowlby argued, the question arises: Why did the insecure attachment style evolve at all? There are obvious survival and reproductive benefits to secure attachment. Securely attached individuals thrive in their relationships. It’s the opposite for insecure attachment style.

Yet, developing insecure attachment is an evolved response too despite its disadvantages. So, for this response to evolve, its advantages must have outweighed its disadvantages.

How do we go about explaining the evolutionary advantages of insecure attachment?

Threat perception triggers attachment behaviours. When I asked you to imagine scaring that child at the beginning of this article, your movements resembled those of a charging predator which was a common threat to humans in prehistoric times. So it makes sense that the child quickly sought the safety and protection of its mother.

Individuals typically respond to a threat either by the flight-or-flight (individual level) response or by seeking help from others (social level). Cooperating with each other, early humans must have increased their odds of survival by defending their tribes from predators and rival groups.
When we look at Attachment theory from this social defence perspective, we find that both secure and insecure attachment styles have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Individuals with avoidance attachment style, who’re self-reliant and avoid proximity to others, strongly rely on the fight-or-flight response when confronted with a threat. This way, they’re able to take the necessary action quickly and guide others to do so too, inadvertently increasing the chances of survival of the entire group.4

At the same time, these individuals make bad team leaders and collaborators because they tend to avoid people. Since they’re prone to suppressing their emotions, they tend to dismiss their own perceptions and sensations of threat and are slow to detect signs of dangers.5

Individuals with anxious attachment style are hyper-vigilant to threats. Since their attachment system is hyperactivated, they’re heavily reliant on others to deal with a threat rather than engage in fight-or-flight. They’re also quick to alert others when they detect a threat.6

Secure attachment style is characterized by low attachment anxiety and low attachment avoidance. Secure individuals maintain a balance between individual and social level defence responses. However, they’re not as good as anxious individuals when it comes to detecting danger and not as good as avoidant individuals when it comes to taking quick action.

Both secure and insecure attachment responses evolved in humans because their combined advantages outweighed their combined disadvantages. Prehistoric humans faced a wide variety of challenges and having a mix of secure, anxious, and avoidant individuals equipped them better to deal with those challenges.

Limitations of Attachment theory

Attachment styles are not rigid, as initially proposed, but continue to develop with time and experience.7

This means that even if you’ve had an insecure attachment style for the most part of your life, you can shift to a secure attachment style by working on yourself and learning to fix your internal working models. 

Attachment styles may be a strong factor influencing behaviour in close relationships but they’re not the only factors. Attachment theory doesn’t say anything about concepts like attractiveness and mate value. Mate value is simply a measure of how valuable a person in the mating market.

A low mate value person might feel insecure in a relationship not because they have an insecure attachment style but because they’re paired with a high-value mate that they’re afraid of losing.

References

  1. Suomi, S. J., Van der Horst, F. C., & Van der Veer, R. (2008). Rigorous experiments on monkey love: An account of Harry F. Harlow’s role in the history of attachment theory. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science42(4), 354-369.
  2. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.
  3. McCarthy, G., & Taylor, A. (1999). Avoidant/ambivalent attachment style as a mediator between abusive childhood experiences and adult relationship difficulties. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines40(3), 465-477.
  4. Ein-Dor, T., & Hirschberger, G. (2016). Rethinking attachment theory: From a theory of relationships to a theory of individual and group survival. Current Directions in Psychological Science25(4), 223-227.
  5. Ein-Dor, T. (2014). Facing danger: how do people behave in times of need? The case of adult attachment styles. Frontiers in psychology5, 1452.
  6. Ein‐Dor, T., & Tal, O. (2012). Scared saviors: Evidence that people high in attachment anxiety are more effective in alerting others to threat. European Journal of Social Psychology42(6), 667-671.
  7. Mercer, J. (2006). Understanding attachment: Parenting, child care, and emotional development. Greenwood Publishing Group.

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