November 22, 2015
By Simcha Samuel, PhD, Psychologist
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
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:
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!
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