Ever wonder why some individuals seem to effortlessly trust people, while others fear rejection or become uncomfortable when relationships get serious? Many of us have heard that our connections with our parents may play a role in our relationships as adults (Bowlby, 1969, 1982), but how exactly does this work? And does this mean that those of us who had difficult upbringings are doomed to have problematic friendships and marriages later in life?
Researchers have been studying these questions for decades, in part because relationships have been shown to contribute to our health and happiness.
As children, our primary attachment figures usually consist of our parents (often the mother in North American cultures). Research originating with Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) showed that
- Children whose parents are consistently responsive may develop what is called “secure attachment”. This means that, for example, each time her baby cries, the mother responds in an appropriate and reliable way. Through these experience, these children learn that their caregivers can be trusted to meet their needs.
- Children whose caregivers respond in an inconsistent way may develop what is called “ambivalent/resistant attachment”. For instance, when her child is upset, the mother may provide warmth and reassurance sometimes, but she may be unresponsive or critical at other times. Because these children do not know what to expect, they may then become anxious that their caregivers will not be available when they are needed.
- Kids whose parents act in a consistent but critical/rejecting way develop what is called “avoidant attachment”. These parents are reliably harsh or cold with their children. These kids then learn that their caregivers cannot be counted on to address their needs.
- A fourth category called “disorganized attachment”, which is related to situations like abusive parenting, was later added by Mary Main and colleagues (Main & Hesse, 1990; Main & Solomon, 1990).
Wondering how they measure attachment styles in kids? This brief video provides a good demonstration:
As teens and adults, we form connections with secondary attachment figures like friends or dating partners. Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) described adult attachment like this:
- Secure attachment: These adults have a positive view of themselves, and a positive view of others. They believe that they deserve to be loved, and that others can be depended on to provide this care for them. They tend to feel comfortable in relationships with others.
- Preoccupied attachment: These adults have a negative view of themselves, and a positive view of others. They desperately want to be accepted by others, but they doubt that they merit such love and attention. They can be anxious that their friends or partners will reject them. They are sometimes described as “clingy”.
- Dismissing attachment: These individuals have a positive view of themselves, and a negative view of others. They prefer to focus on independence and self-sufficiency rather than relationships. They may feel uncomfortable if someone wants to become close with them.
- Fearful attachment: These individuals have a negative view of themselves, and a negative view of others. They do not feel like they deserve to be cared for by others, and they view relationship partners as undependable.
Preoccupied, dismissing, and fearful attachment are types of insecure attachment. Preoccupied people can be seen as pulling others towards them, while dismissing people can be viewed as pushing others away from them.
Is there a direct link between our attachment style as kids and as adults? Do insecurely attached kids all become insecurely attached adults? Not necessarily! Studies show that there is only a moderate relationship between our attachment styles over time (Fraley, 2002; Pinquart, Feussner, & Ahnert, 2013), suggesting that some people do change attachment styles! How does this happen? One possibility is that people can have “corrective attachment experiences”; someone who was insecurely attached as a child may, for example, go on to have a really supportive best friend, a loving partner, or a close connection with another relative like a grandparent. Even though they did not form a secure attachment to their parents, these other experiences can show them that some individuals can be trusted, and just as importantly, that they themselves are worthy of love.
Curious what your attachment style is? You can find out by completing this quick questionnaire: What is your attachment style?
There are many ways that your attachment style can impact your relationships. For example, a preoccupied person may repeatedly ask for reassurance that his partner still loves him, while a dismissing person may find himself pushing relationship partners away (perhaps even feeling “trapped” or “claustrophobic” when others seem to get too close). A fearfully attached individual may find themselves playing “push-pull games” and testing to see if their relationship partners will stick around. A therapist can help individuals identify their relationship patterns and work to improve them if they are problematic. For example, relaxation and stress-management techniques can help preoccupied individuals manage the anxiety/fear that others will abandon them.
Finally, learning about your attachment style can help you gain more self-awareness, self-compassion and insight into why you may feel or act certain ways – whether it be at the beginning, middle or end of a relationship. And remember - knowledge is power!
Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: Assessed in the strange situation and at home. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a
four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.
Bowlby, J. (1969, 1982). Attachment and loss: Volume l - Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Fraley, R. C. (2002). Attachment stability from infancy to adulthood: Meta-analysis and dynamic modeling of developmental mechanisms. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 6, 123–151.
Main, M., & Hesse, E. (1990). Parents' unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behavior the linking mechanism?
Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention, 1, 121-160.
Pinquart, M., Feussner, C., & Ahnert, L. (2013). Meta-analytic evidence for stability in attachments from infancy to early adulthood. Attach Hum Dev, 15, 189-218. doi: 10.1080/14616734.2013.746257