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Attachment Theory and Relationships

Bowlby’s attachment theory provides a strong framework for the comprehension of both the nature of close relationships and the link between the associations of children and how this affects their relationships as adults, as well as, various health issues concerning adults. The following research endeavor reviews the literature concerning the validity and reliability of the attachment styles that can be a predicting factor as to how adults engage in the formation of relationships.

Research presented will also help to elucidate how attachment styles during childhood relate to adult related health issues The following essay will define attachment theory as described by Bowlby and Ainsworth; followed by an analysis how attachments formed in early childhood have an impact on attachments formed during adulthood.

The main focus of the research will examine the evidence concerning attachment assessment methods.

Finally, the research essay will examine the empirical evidence depicting how attachment predicts relationship tendencies in adults along with the risk factors for certain health related issues from the perspective attachment style.

John Bowlby’s theory of attachment has been instrumental in the advancement of modern psychology. According to Bowlby (1982), attachments exist to bring infants into close proximity with their caregivers thereby protecting the infant from harm and predation. The idea of attachment was first postulated by Sigmund Freud and focused on the attachment relationship between mother and child.

Freud analyzed this interaction using psychoanalytic thought, which assumes that an unconscious drive for physical gratification is the basis of attachment. Bowlby (1982) moved away from Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective and proposed an ethological theory of attachment.

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The foundation of this perspective depicts the inherent survival instinct as the catalyst for attachment. At the most basic level, Bowlby theorized that attachment formation is dependent on the formation of trust in the infant. Trust develops from the level of sensitivity the caregiver provides the infant during times of stress.

The result of this interaction is the infant producing an adaptive response and those responses, according to Bowlby (1982), into mental representations, or working models, that are believed to guide the behavior of attachment relationships over time, carrying over into adulthood. The existence of the different types of attachment styles was empirically demonstrated by Ainsworth and colleagues (1978) in studies with infants using the Strange Situation procedure. The Strange Situation procedure involved observing a child’s behavior when they were separated from their primary caregiver.

Ainsworth and colleagues classified the attachment styles of the infant based on the observed strength of the bond between the infant and their caregiver (Ainsworth, et al. , 1978). The various types of attachment styles are typically classified into three categories including: secure attachment, anxious/ambivalent attachment, and avoidant attachment. These attachment styles will be discussed further in relationship to their impact on adult relationships and the effects they have on the general health in adults.

A fourth attachment style was classified much later than what was presented in the Strange Situation, called disorganized attachment, and accounts for only about five to ten percent of the population (Berk, 2007). This fourth attachment style is not part of the research presented in this essay due to the fact that this attachment system is uncommon and there is little research focusing on its effect on adult relationships or on the health of adults. There are generally two distinct groups that researchers fall into when studying the implications of attachment in adulthood.

Those who are typically trained in the developmental tradition, tend to emphasize adults’ representation and how this may influence the level of attachment they have with their own children. The other group, which is typically trained in social psychology, usually focuses their attention on the application of attachment theory to analyze the processes of adult romantic relationships and personality. These two groups are apt to emphasize different points of view to the theory, and conceptualize their findings in diverging ways.

For the purpose of this essay, empirical research from a social psychology perspective will be utilized. The primary focal point will be on the domain of interpersonal relationships between adults from the three attachment categories and their relationships. Secondly, research will be discussed in regards to the links between adult attachment styles and variables such as cognitive functioning and interest in social activities. Lastly, this essay will show support for the proposed theory that attachment styles of children has been linked to the development of disease and chronic illness in adults.

Ainsworth and colleagues (1978), through their experiment termed Strange Situation, coined the terms to describe the different attachment styles that infants experience. The first and most common form of attachment is secure attachment. Secure attachment is traditionally measured in terms of separation anxiety (Pearce, 2009). Infants who are securely attached are quickly comforted upon the return of their attentive primary caregiver after a period of separation and exposure to a stranger in the room.

Securely attached infants also display uninhibited exploration of their environment while the primary caregiver is in sight (Ainsworth et al. , Bowlby, 1982). Avoidant attachment is the second form of attachment that infants can display. Those who exhibit this form of attachment generally do not display any separation anxiety and also show no preference towards the primary caregiver upon their return. It has been theorized that a reason that infants do show a preference towards their caregiver is because the caregiver may be causing the infant stress which the infant instinctively tries to avoid.

The third form of attachment style is the anxious / ambivalent form of attachment. Anxious attachment is comparable to secure attachment in that the infant clings to their primary caregiver and displays separation anxiety (Berk, 2007). The primary difference between the behaviors of securely attached infants and anxiously / ambivalent individuals is that, in the latter, the infants emotions are more pronounced. Anxious infants are not comforted by the caregiver easily, and aggressive behaviors may be displayed when the caregiver is present.

This type of behavior is considered to be an adaptive response that is used to solicit a response from an otherwise unresponsive caregiver.

Attachment Theory and Adult Relationships

Many have argued that identifying both the beginnings and the extent of emotions that are experienced in a relationship is critical if one seeks to understand the essential aspects of a relationship. Many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of attachment relationships (Bowlby, 1982).

Surprisingly, there is little research to date that attempts to explain the rationale for the cause of emotions in relationships; specifically how significant relationship experiences at critical developmental stages, forecast the intensity of emotions practiced in adult attachment relationships. One of the first studies conducted in this area was by Main and colleagues (1985) using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) as a narrative-based interview in which participants provide five adjectives that describe their relationship to each parent and then provide specific memories that support each adjective.

Several studies have associated attachment styles to relationship satisfaction; however, there is a perceived lack of understanding as to what mechanisms of the attachment styles that influence relationship satisfaction have been scarcely understood. Attachment plays a pivotal role in the dynamics of how adults interact with each other and this interaction relates to how relationships are formed and maintained. Results produced from the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) (Main et al, 1985), indicated that adults who have formed secured attachments during childhood are more likely to form romantic partnerships that are warm and responsive.

Securely attached adults tend to have more positive views of themselves and their partners and in the way they perceive their relationships (Simpson & Rholes, 2012). Securely attached adults characteristically experience lower levels of anxiety than those with other attachment styles. A possibility for the lower levels of anxiety in securely attached individuals is that failure in the relationship does not elicit an anxiety-provoking, distracting concern, because the expected attachment, on average, tends to be supportive, and reassuring (McWilliams & Bailey, 2010).

Independent success is not dependent on the relationship outcome for securely attached adults as it may be for those with other attachment styles. Securely attached individuals focus on building greater intimacy with their attachment figures and experience functional anger, which generally facilitates more constructive, relationship-enhancing goals (Simpson et al, 2007). The anxious / ambivalent attached adult is normally viewed as being fearful and avoidant when in most situations and especially when forming meaningful relationships. The fear response is usually a fear of failure.

The possibility of failure elicits anxiety – provoking concerns for the anxious / ambivalent person (Simpson et al, 2007). These individuals view themselves as incapable of either providing love and intimacy to others or being capable of receiving love and intimacy from romantic partners. Insecurity is not manifested the same in all individuals but the basic mistrust of love and closeness is a common theme among this level of attachment in adults. Those who are anxious / ambivalent adults may be troubled with high levels of stress and display a higher tendency towards impulsiveness in their relationships.

This stress is compounded if both members of the relationship demonstrate characteristics of this type of attachment style. In contrast to those who have secure attachments, adults who present characteristics of anxious / ambivalent attachment, typically experience and express less positive and more negative emotions in their relationships (Simpson et al, 2007). These individuals habitually are concerned with fears of being abandoned, misused, or failing to meet their basic needs of security when engaging in relationships.

For this reason, those with this attachment style typically experience less positive emotions in their relationships and report a high level of negativity when describing their relationships. Bowlby (1982), as well as other researchers, believe that close relationships formed during childhood with primary caregivers who are supposed to be providing the ground work for the establishment of security and trust, have a direct impact on how adults form and maintain relationships across the lifespan. The third attachment style is avoidant.

Avoidant infants are indifferent or ignore the return of the caregiver after separation (Westen, 2006). These children may not necessarily reject the attention of the caregiver but they do not tend to seek out the attention of the caregiver as well. The avoidant style of attachment negates energy away from intimacy and hampers positive emotions in personal relationships. For those experiencing this form of negative attachment believe that becoming close to their partners heightens their fear of rejection.

Considerable research indicates that different forms of attachment styles direct individuals to foster their emotions and behaviors in different ways (Simpson et al, 2007). Typically, those who have avoidant style of attachment avidly seek to diminish the possibility of negative relationships that could potentially create the danger of rejection or abandonment. This form of attachment can also be seen as a type of self-preservation strategy. Attachment styles and the relation to chronic health issues in adults

Many researchers and psychologists have argued that the experiences that incur in early childhood hold a prestigious place in influencing later life outcomes. Researchers have also focused their attention on how the role of adverse incidents gone through in childhood has strong links towards adult physical illness. Furthermore, the quality of close relationships, especially marital relationships, affects immune functioning, rendering individuals vulnerable to various diseases (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006).

Researchers have also focused on the role of early adverse experiences in laying the foundations for adult physical illness (Puig et al, 2012). The different level of childhood attachment styles is positively correlated to the incidence of chronic illness as adults. Incorporating assessments of relationship interaction in the early stages of human development may give insight of how the quality of childhood attachments in infancy directly impact adult health.

Secure attachment is considered to be the best functional form of all of the attachment forms and thus is hypothesized to have the increased likelihood of general better health in adulthood. In relation to cancer, attachment may be unrelated to the development of cancer, but a positive association between secure attachment ratings and cancer could have emerged because those with secure attachment may be more likely to survive cancer (Puig et al, 2012). According to the attachment theory proposed by Bowlby (1982), the quality of early care that children receive is internalized and then shapes their social functioning in adulthood.

Research suggests that infant attachment relationships are associated with aspects of health in childhood that may be linked to health across the life span (Anderson & Whitaker, 2011). The findings of the research conducted by Anderson & Whitaker (2011) suggest that individuals who were classified as secure during the origins of care giving report the fewest health problems as adults than those who were inconsistently secure or consistently insecure. Other research indicates that adults forming insecure attachment styles as children uniquely predict categories of physical illness (McWilliams & Bailey, 2012).

Insecure attachments include the anxious / ambivalent and avoidant style of attachment. Generally speaking, those persons who have developed insecure attachments during childhood have an increased susceptibility to stress. Stress has been linked to a wide range of psychological and physical ailments in adolescents and adults. Those exhibiting insecure attachments have also been theorized to have a greater propensity towards substance abuse and food addictions, which has been known to cause numerous health roblems. Individuals with insecure attachment often display refractory behaviors in that they do not seek help for these types of behaviors and also have difficulty seeking proper medical attention when health issues arise most likely due to their basic mistrust of people who are in a position to help them. The most logical assessment for this behavior is strongly suggested to be linked to the lack of strong bonding relationships formed during infancy (McWilliams and Bailey, 2010).

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard (2011), the consequences of adversity early in life can be serious and long-lasting, affecting the body’s ability to, for example, regulate metabolism, fight disease, and maintain a healthy heart—as well as a healthy brain. Reducing toxic stress in early childhood is therefore an important strategy for lifelong health promotion and disease prevention. Findings of recent developmental research have concluded that individuals who are insecurely attached tend to have poorer quality relationships across the first 20 years of life (Simpson, Collins, Tran, & Haydon, 2007).

The quality of adult relationships is possible causes of chronic stress which inhibits biological processes, which leads insecure adults to encounter more physical illness later in life than those who have formed secure attachments. Individuals classified as having the anxious / ambivalent are prone to inflammatory responses when exposed stressors (Gouin et al. , 2008). Anxious attachment ratings were more strongly associated with feeble health conditions and the ratings for avoidant attachments were found to be greater.

Avoidant attachment ratings were significantly associated with those conditions that primarily involve symptoms of pain, such as arthritis, back pain, severe headaches, and other forms of chronic pain (McWilliams & Bailey, 2010). Anxious attachment rating were associated as involving the cardiovascular system, including stroke, heart attack, and high blood pressure. With the propensity of insecure attachments leading to the onset of various health conditions, it is reasonable to assume that those with inadequate health conditions lead to relationship discord and thus foster relationship insecurity.

Bowlby (1980) believed that life’s deepest and most intense emotions arise in the foundation of attachment relationships. Bowlby’s concept of internal working models was a catalyst for the increased interest in the continuity of attachment patterns from infancy through adulthood (Westen, et al, 2006). These relationships are rooted in the attachment formations that develop during early childhood with caregivers. Until recently, little research has been conducted on the correlation between the different attachment styles children experience as determinants of the experience and development of romantic relationships formed as adults.

The above reviewed research suggests that these interactions may imply a link to forming secure relationships experienced during earlier periods of development. Studies directed at the association between attachments and learned dispositions regarding relationships are growing in popularity. This type of research is of interest to anyone who is engrossed in the study of attachment in adulthood, regardless of affiliation to a psychology study or training. Attachment theories remain dominant throughout the lifespan (Ainsworth, 1989).

Secure attachment proves to be the strongest indicator that adults will form committed, lasting romantic relationships. Insecure attachment origins supports the general theory that adults are highly susceptible by situational events and have coping mechanisms that are consistent with the particular form of insecurity they manifest (Simpson, et. al. , 2012). Those who have experienced anxious/ambivalent attachments have been found to display greater dysfunctional anger toward their partners and more distressed when encountered with a fear-inducing situation and have been noted to receive less support from their partners.

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Attachment Theory and Relationships. (2018, Oct 28). Retrieved from

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