Some of the most rewarding experiences in people’s lives involve the development and maintenance of close relationships. Attachment refers to a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. For example, some of the greatest sources of joy involve falling in love, starting a family, being reunited with distant loved ones, and sharing experiences with close others. Not surprisingly, some of the most painful experiences in people’s lives involve the disruption of important social bonds, such as separation from a spouse, losing a parent, or being abandoned by a loved one. Why do close relationships play such a profound role in human experience? Attachment theory is one approach to understanding the nature of close relationships.


Mother and father are holding their child in the air.
Close relationships are the fabric of society, and are integral to the maintenance of our species. [Image by Rajesh Balouria Family Parents Kids CC-0

Attachment theory was originally developed in the 1940s by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who was attempting to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Bowlby (1969) observed that infants would go to extraordinary lengths to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish proximity to a missing parent. For example, he noted that children who had been separated from their parents would often cry, call for their parents, refuse to eat or play, and stand at the door in desperate anticipation of their parents’ return. Drawing on evolutionary theory, Bowlby (1969) argued that these behaviors are adaptive responses to separation from a primary attachment figure—a caregiver who provides support, protection, and care.

It was not until his colleague, Mary Ainsworth, began to systematically study infant– parent separations that a formal understanding of these individual differences emerged. Ainsworth and her students developed a technique called the strange situation, a laboratory task for studying infant, parent attachment (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). In the strange situation, 12-month-old infants and their parents are brought to the laboratory and, over a period of approximately 20 minutes, were systematically separated from and reunited with one another. In the strange situation, most children (about 60%) behave in the way implied by Bowlby’s theory. Specifically, they become upset when the parent leaves the room, but, when he or she returns, they actively seek the parent and are easily comforted by him or her. Children who exhibit this pattern of behavior are often called secure.

Other children (about 20% or less) are ill at ease initially and, upon separation, become extremely distressed. Importantly, when reunited with their parents, these children have a difficult time being soothed and often exhibit conflicting behaviors that suggest they want to be comforted, but that they also want to “punish” the parent for leaving. These children are often called anxious-resistant. The third pattern of attachment that Ainsworth and her colleagues documented is often labeled avoidant. Avoidant children (about 20%) do not consistently behave as if they are stressed by the separation but, upon reunion, actively avoid seeking contact with their parent, sometimes turning their attention to play objects on the laboratory floor.

Ainsworth’s work was important for at least three reasons. First, she provided one of the first empirical demonstrations of how attachment behavior is organized in unfamiliar contexts. Second, she provided the first empirical taxonomy of individual differences in infant attachment patterns. According to her research, at least three types of children exist: those who are secure in their relationship with their parents, those who are anxious-resistant, and those who are anxious-avoidant. Finally, she demonstrated that these individual differences were correlated with infant–parent interactions in the home during the first year of life. Children who appear secure in the strange situation, for example, tend to have parents who are responsive to their needs. Children who appear insecure in the strange situation (i.e., anxious-resistant or avoidant) often have parents who are insensitive to their needs, or inconsistent or rejecting in the care they provide.

Attachment and Culture

In the years that have followed Ainsworth’s ground-breaking research, researchers have investigated a variety of factors that may help determine whether children develop secure or insecure relationships with their primary attachment figures. As mentioned above, one of the key determinants of attachment patterns is the history of sensitive and responsive interactions between the caregiver and the child. In short, when the child is uncertain or stressed, the ability of the caregiver to provide support to the child is critical for his or her psychological development. It is assumed that such supportive interactions help the child learn to regulate his or her emotions, give the child the confidence to explore the environment, and provide the child with a safe haven during stressful circumstances.

A number of longitudinal studies are emerging that demonstrate prospective associations between early attachment experiences and adult attachment styles and/or interpersonal functioning in adulthood. For example, Fraley, Roisman, Booth-LaForce, Owen, and Holland (2013) found in a sample of more than 700 individuals studied from infancy to adulthood that maternal sensitivity across development prospectively predicted security at age 18.

Simpson, Collins, Tran, and Haydon (2007) found that attachment security, assessed in infancy in the strange situation, predicted peer competence in grades 1 to 3, which, in turn, predicted the quality of friendship relationships at age 16,which, in turn, predicted the expression of positive and negative emotions in their adult romantic relationships at ages 20 to 23.

It is easy to come away from such findings with the mistaken assumption that early experiences “determine” later outcomes. To be clear, attachment theorists assume that the relationship between early experiences and subsequent outcomes is probabilistic, not deterministic. What this means is that having supportive and responsive experiences with caregivers early in life may set the stage for positive social development, but that doesn’t mean that attachment patterns are set in stone. Even if an individual has far from optimal caretaker experiences in early life, attachment theory suggests that it is possible for that individual to develop well-functioning adult relationships through a number of corrective experiences, including relationships with siblings, other family members, teachers, and close friends.

Security is best viewed as a culmination of a person’s attachment history rather than a reflection of his or her early experiences alone. Those early experiences are considered important not because they determine a person’s fate, but because they provide the foundation for later experiences.

It is essential to note that the attachment theory work of Bowlby and Ainsworth focused on Westernized caretaking ideals in their determination of healthy, secure attachment. As previously discussed, what is considered “ideal” in Westernized culture is not necessarily prioritized in other cultures. Sensitivity and caution is required in determining if observed attachment patterns are adaptive within the context of the child’s environment.


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Culture and Psychology by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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