Attachment in Adults
by Ardel S. Payne, MFT, Ph.D.
John Bowlby, co-founder of attachment theory with Mary Ainsworth, maintained that attachment behaviors “characterize human beings from the cradle to the grave” and that “while attachment behavior is most obvious in early childhood, it can be observed throughout the lifecycle, especially in emergencies.” He also suggested that working models regulate attachment related processes and personality dynamics throughout the life course, and that a theory of developmental pathways should replace (Freudian) theories which propose specific phases of development in which a person may be fixated or regress to. In other words, a person’s development over time is fluid and experience-based.
According to Sperling and Berman, a working definition of adult attachment can be defined as “the stable tendency of an individual to make substantial efforts to seek and maintain proximity to one or a few specific individuals who have the potential of providing physical and/or psychological security.” This tendency is regulated by internal working models, or what that person has come to expect from their environment based on their experiences in it.
The three major conceptualizations of adult attachment are: attachment as a state which is activated when the attachment figure is unavailable; attachment as a trait, or a tendency to form particular types of attachment relationships and to respond to these relationships similarly; and attachment as an interactive process between two people in an ongoing relationship.
Research in the concept of adult attachment as a state has examined the reaction of adults to disruption of the attachment bond. Harkening back to Bowlby’s earliest research dealing with infant responses to separation, it was predicted that adults would have reactions similar to the infant stages of protest, despair and detachment. Indeed, it was found that adults do show a consistent pattern of reaction to marital separation (Weiss, 1975) and death of a spouse (Parkes, 1972; Glick, Weiss & Parkes, 1974), which is comparable to those seen in infants separated from their attachment figures. These behaviors of protest, despair and detachment are thought to be a normative response of an individual to the loss of an attachment figure, and undoubtedly informed the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross on the stages of grief (denial, anger, bartering, depression and acceptance).
There is a general consensus that adults exhibit stable characteristics in their intimate relationships, although these styles may have changed from their childhood experiences and may show more stability during adulthood. Also, the relationship between different childhood attachments and the development of adult attachment as a single trait has not yet been clarified. When a child has an attachment relationship with both mother and father, does only one, both, or a synthesis of both determine the type of attachment relationship one forms within an adult intimate relationship?
The exact number of adult attachment styles or classifications also remains unclear. Most theorists maintain that there is one secure style and numerous insecure styles. Some researchers have suggested two insecure styles, others three and still others four. Ainsworth’s tripartite model of “secure,” “avoidant,” and “anxious/ambivalent” was adopted by Shaver and his colleagues in several studies of heterosexual love and attachment. Main and her colleagues in Berkeley also adopted a tripartite model which they later expanded to include four categories of adult attachment, “autonomous,” “dismissing,” “preoccupied,” and “unresolved.”
Researchers have classified adults on the basis of their presumed attachment to their parents or significant others as secure, avoidant (dismissing), preoccupied (anxious/ambivalent), or fearful (unresolved). Secure adults have been described as coherent in their ability to reflect on their past, comfortable with a wide range of emotions, self-confident, and trusting and comfortable with closeness. Avoidant (dismissing) adults have been described as idealizing and unable to recall their childhood, uncomfortable with intimacy, lacking confidence, and hostile and lonely. Anxious/ambivalent (preoccupied) adults have been described as confused and anxious, clinging, dependent and jealous, and overly expressive. Finally, fearful (unresolved) adults have been described as socially inhibited and unassertive and they show a combination of avoidant and preoccupied traits.
The third way of conceptualizing adult attachment is as an interaction. This approach incorporates the aspects of Bowlby’s theory in which reciprocal interaction patterns and goal-directed feedback mechanisms are emphasized. Recent research has begun to examine attachment as it relates to present interactions within adult intimate relations. Kobak & Hazen studied the relationship between adult attachment styles and marital interactions and found significant correlations between attachment security on the one hand and marital interaction and marital quality on the other. Specifically, one’s attachment security affects one’s tendency to be rejecting of the partner. Adults with secure attachment had more positive interactions and fewer conflicts than those with insecure attachments.
Assessing adult attachment has generally taken two very different forms: self-report questionnaires and interview formats. The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) was developed by Main, George, & Kaplan to assess the adult’s internal working models with respect to attachment relationships, or their “state of mind regarding attachment.” I find it is not only a powerful tool for assessment, but as a jumping off point for therapeutic work.
(Adapted from Doctoral Dissertation, 1996.)
[ Back to Articles ]