Attachment Theory: The Basics

Attachment is a concept my therapist has discussed with me at various times in regard to my relationship with my parents. Being the amateur scholar I am, I have read a bit about attachment theory to better understand and see if aspects of it fit my past experience. Below is a conjoined summary of the following sources:

Beginnings of Attachment Theory and Research: Infant Attachment Patterns

Attachment theory was developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s. Bowlby developed the theory after observing the separation of infants from their parents. He noted that it is common for infants to try very hard to prevent separation from parents, and, if separated, to try to regain proximity to the absent parents. Bowlby posited that the attachment behavioral system is a product of natural selection that developed because throughout the ages babies who stayed close to their parents, or attachment figures, had a better chance for survival. [Personal note: As a believer in God and His creation of the world and all that is in it, I disagree with Bowlby's assumption that attachment is a product of natural selection; I do, however, agree with the notion that attachment is rooted in human biology. End personal note.]

Attachment serves three basic purposes: 1) It provides a safe haven. 2) It provides a secure base. 3) It regulates physiological arousal.

  1. The safe haven is a real and felt entity, providing both physical and emotional safety. It is a “place” where a child can be safe and feel safe.
  2. The secure base provides a stable shelter from which a child can venture with confidence and explore the larger environment.
  3. The regulation of physiological arousal a child experiences when comforted by a responsive parent promotes his ability to self-regulate and self-soothe on an emotional and physiological level.

Mary Ainsworth's famous “Strange Situation” experiment led to the categorization of relational behaviors into attachment patterns. In the Strange Situation study, 12-month-old infants were observed with mothers, when separated from mothers, and when reunited with mothers. Ainsworth found that there are three distinct attachment patterns in infants: 1) secure; 2) anxious-resistant, an insecure pattern; and 3) avoidant, another insecure pattern.

  1. Secure infants are noticeably upset when separated from their mothers and readily welcome contact and comfort when reunited with their mothers.
  2. Anxious-resistant infants experience high levels of distress when separated from their mothers but seem conflicted when reunited with their mothers; they seem to desire comfort but they also defiantly resist being comforted.
  3. Avoidant infants do not seem very disturbed when separated from their mothers and attempt to avoid their mothers or avert their attention to other things when reunited with their mothers.

Current Attachment Research: Infant and Adult Attachment Patterns

In recent decades, researchers began to study attachment in adults, widening the scope of attachment to relationships other than the parent-child relationship. Research findings authored by Brennan, Clark, and Shaver (1998) iterate that there are two dimensions of adult attachment patterns: anxiety and avoidance. These dimensions recall aspects of Ainsworth's insecure infant attachment patterns.

Researchers have also continued to study infant attachment. Replications and descendants of Ainsworth's Strange Situation repeatedly revealed the need for a fourth category of infant attachment, so the disorganized attachment pattern was added to the three existing categories. The four infant attachment patterns have counterparts in the four adult attachment patterns.

Comparison of Infant Attachment Patterns with Adult Attachment Patterns.

Though there are clearly defined and widely recognized categories of attachment, attachment is, as Allen puts it, “somewhat fluid” (p. 41). Most people have multiple attachment figures throughout the course of their lives. It is possible to have different attachment patterns with different attachment figures. It is also possible for attachment patterns with one attachment figure to change over time. Though these possibilities exist, according to Fraley (2010), the factors that promote change in an individual's attachment patterns are not clearly understood and remain an important area of future research.