The following essay will explore the attachment theory by discussing how the theory was developed, and what the theory is about. The essay will go on to investigate the impacts of being each of the four proposed attachment styles, including the secure, preoccupied, dismissing and the fearful avoidant attachment styles. Personal examples will be supplied throughout the essay to illustrate some of the salient points raised. Finally the essay will contrast the two opposing perspectives on the durability of attachment styles, concluding that the research on the topic is contradictory, and thus no perspective is clearly more accurate than the other. In conclusion, further personal examples, along with two concept maps highlighting the essays key points can be found in the appendix.
Working for many years in childcare, I have witnessed hundreds of children’s reactions to their parents dropping them off at the crèche each morning. Why is it that some of the children can happily begin to play and graciously bid their loved ones adieu, while others become highly distressed, clinging to their parents legs, screaming until their faces turn blue as their horrified parents quickly escape? How come some children appear as though they couldn’t care less if they never saw their parents again while others become highly anxious at the mere sight of the nursery yet are not comforted by their parents nurturing? These questions can be answered by exploring the attachment theory, along with the four proposed attachment styles including, the secure, preoccupied, dismissing and the fearful avoidant attachment styles. What are the impacts of being one style over another? How do adult attachment styles impact on interpersonal relationships and are how durable are attachment styles? Using the attachment theory, along with personal examples, these questions aim to be explored.
Attachment has been defined as seeking and maintaining proximity to another individual, and suggests that infants have a strong innate need to form bonds with particular individuals. The attachment theory was firstly developed by John Bowlby in 1969, and has remained an influential framework which is still used to explain interpersonal relationships. The theory was inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud, who previously touched on attachment within his psychoanalytic work. Bowlby too was influenced by the work done by Harry Harlow, who discovered infant monkey’s separated from their mothers cling to fluffy covered objects rather then wire-coated food dispensers, indicating the infants need for nurture (Harlow & Suomi, 1970). By examining the work done by Freud and Harlow and by observing the behaviour of infants separated from their primary care givers, Bowlby was able to develop the attachment theory. Bowlby’s original attachment theory identified three attachment styles, these included the anxious, secure and avoidant attachment styles. Bowlby believed that an individuals attachment style was developed during childhood and was influenced by the child’s relationships with their primary care givers. He also held the belief that the attachment style an individual gained during childhood would be durable into adulthood, and would influence the way that individual related to others throughout their lifespan (Bowlby, 1969). This notion has recently been challenged and will be discussed further shortly. Mary Ainsworth was another influential attachment theorist who is known for her ‘strange situation’ experiments. Ainsworth would observe the attachment styles of children by placing the child in a new environment and record their reactions to their primary care givers existing the room and then returning (Tracy & Ainsworth, 1981). The results of this experiment will be referred to shortly.
The latest attachment theory states that individuals can be classified into four attachment styles based on the two dimensions of anxiety and avoidance. The first dimension, attachment anxiety, reflects the degree to which a person worries that a partner will not be available or adequately responsive in times of need. The second dimension, avoidance, reflects the extent to which a person distrusts his or her relationship partners' goodwill and strives to maintain autonomy and emotional distance from the partner (Cassidy, 2000). The four attachment styles involved in the latest attachment theory are the secure, preoccupied, dismissing avoidant, and fearful avoidant attachment styles and will now be explored in further detail.
The first attachment style is referred to as the secure attachment style. Securely attached individuals are low on anxiety and low on avoidance, thus, have positive attitudes towards themselves as well as towards others. To promote a secure attachment style in children, primary caregivers should be available, supportive, dependable, and responsive and should provide children with a secure base and be available as a safe haven. Parents should too be vigilant in caring for their child’s physical and psychological needs. As found in Ainsworth’s strange situation study, a securely attached child is characterized by protesting their primary care givers departure, yet being able to then begin to play happily and later will welcome the return of their parents and will be reassured by their comfort (Tracy & Ainsworth, 1981). Being a securely attached adult too comes with many added benefits. These include having the ability to form close intimate relationships with ease, yet also being comfortable with autonomy. A secure adult will feel a sense of self worth and will have a general expectation that others will be accepting and responsive.
As a child my parents were always there or me when I needed them. I always felt safe and my parents were always consistent and reliable, so I knew what to expect from them in most situations. They also made one thing exceedingly clear, they loved me unconditionally. Having this loving and safe environment allowed me to become a securely attached child. When my parents dropped me at play group I would not become distressed on their departure however on their return I would be delighted.
The second attachment style is referred to as the dismissing attachment style. Individuals with a dismissing attachment style are low in anxiety but high in avoidance. In other words, they have positive attitudes towards themselves, but are high in avoidance of others. In children, a dismissing attachment style is usually formed when a child’s bids for comfort were rejected. Dismissing attachment styles are often the result of primary care givers who are uncomfortable with close bodily contact, and tend to pick up their babies in an abrupt and controlling manner, and having restricted emotional expressiveness. Ainsworth observed dismissing children were best characterized by not becoming distressed by their parents departure, and too not being bothered by their return (Tracy & Ainsworth, 1981). Adults who are dismissing in their attachment style feel a sense of self worthiness, yet have a negative disposition towards other people. Such adults protect themselves against disappointment by avoiding close relationships and maintaining a sense of independence and invulnerability.
The third attachment style is known as the preoccupied style, these individuals experience high anxiety with low avoidance. Thus, preoccupied individuals feel a sense of unlovabililty and unworthiness combined with a positive evaluation of others. A preoccupied style is often formed when primary care givers are inconsistent in their parenting, sometimes loving and responsive, but only when they can manage, not in response to the infant's signals (Cassidy, 2000). Adults with this style strive for self acceptance by gaining the acceptance of valued others. The forth and final attachment style is referred to as the fearful avoidant style. It is characterized by both high anxiety and high avoidance. Individuals with this attachment style feel unworthy and unlovable and also view others negatively by seeing them as rejecting and untrustworthy. As a result they avoid close relationships with others in an attempt to protect themselves from rejection.
The degree to which parental attachment patterns have an influence on adult romantic attachments has been controversial and sparked a considerable amount of debate and discussion (Fraley, 2002). Bowlby believed that an individuals attachment style was developed in childhood and remained stable into adulthood. According to the attachment theory, the degree of security an infant experiences is based on the responsiveness and availability of the child’s primary care givers. After repeated experiences, the child develops a set of knowledge structures or an inner working model which represents the numerous interactions the child has had with their primary care givers. The child learns that if their primary care givers are responsive, they can count on them and others when needed. On the contrary, if the child’s care givers are cold, inconsistent or unresponsive, the child will learn they can not count on them or others for comfort. This working model is thought to persist through an individuals life time and it acts as a guide for future relationships and thus an individuals attachment style is though to be relatively durable (Fraley, 2002). Consistent with this view, is the notion that adults seem to be particularly attentive to experiences and information which is consistent with their internal expectation about the world, often referred to as the confirmation bias. For example, a study conducted by Simpson, Rholes, & Nelligan, (1992) found that individuals with avoidant working models who held the view that others were unreliable viewed ambiguous social situations to be negative. They too were found to be less likely to seek emotional support from their partners than secure individuals, leading to their confirmation that others are unreliable. A longitudinal study conducted by Roisman et al (2005) sought to explore whether infant attachment styles could predict adult attachment styles. The study found that a secure state of mind regarding one’s current romantic partnership as well as a higher quality romantic relationship were foreshadowed by a secure attachment relationship with a primary caregiver in infancy.
For me personally, my secure attachment style was durable into adulthood. I am currently in a relationship of over four years with my partner Adam. I can support all of the research that suggests having a secure attachment style enhances ones adult relationships; we have an intimate, trusting relationship where we feel comfortable sharing our thoughts and feelings. We both know we can rely on each other for support and neither of us doubt the integrity of our relationship. We too value our time apart, having a sense of independence as well as being an intricate part of a couple.
However more recent theorists disagree with this notion. They propose that the durability of attachment styles is dependent on the stability of the individuals environment. Experiences of being in new relationships, and forming new attachments, can bring about changes in working models of the self and others. For instance, experiences with both current and former romantic partners may contribute to representations of attachment figures and may, in fact, override the influence of representations generalized from representations of the parent (Turan & Horowitz, 2007) Thus, if a partner truly has hostile intent, if a partner truly is likely to be hurtful or likely to abandon the relationship, even an individual who had been securely attached is likely to develop negative representations. Contrary to the previous studies mentioned, research done by Zhang and Labouvie-Vief (2004) noted that other studies findings on the stability of attachment styles was inconsistent. Zhang & Labouvie-Vief found that over a six year period from young to middle adulthood, adult participants attachment styles were quite fluid and flexible, thus suggesting attachment styles may not be concrete.
I personally support the research that suggests ones attachment style can alter with the relationship one is in. For example, I consider myself to be securely attached, however in one of my first relationships I was with a person who had a preoccupied attachment style. He was very possessive and insecure and this did end up rubbing off on me. His insecurities made me feel insecure, however I believe that my internal secure attachment over came this because I left the relationship and sought a secure partner.