What Is Attachment Theory?

As a concept that focuses on relationships and bonds, attachment theory is rising in interest and popularity. At The Attachment Project, we value the innovative research that continuously furthers our work. Therefore, with the aim to inform our audience on the foundations of our efforts, we have compiled an overview of what attachment theory is, as well as its impact and influences.

What Is Attachment Theory?

As a concept that focuses on relationships and bonds, attachment theory is rising in interest and popularity. At The Attachment Project, we value the innovative research that continuously furthers our work. Therefore, with the aim to inform our audience on the foundations of our efforts, we have compiled an overview of what attachment theory is, as well as its impact and influences.

In this page you’ll find:

  • The foundation of attachment theory
  • The attachment classification system
  • The stages of attachment
  • The emotional skills we learn from attachment
  • Relationships from an attachment perspective
  • rief overview of our guidelines for attachment classification
  • Influence on other fields and future directions

The History of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory owes its inception primarily to John Bowlby (1907-1990). Trained in psychoanalysis in the 1930s, Bowlby was not entirely satisfied with his studies. From his perspective, psychoanalysis focused too much on our internal world, and consequently ignored the environment we are immersed in [1].

During the early years of his career, Bowlby worked in a psychiatric hospital as he was also trained in developmental psychology and child psychiatry. In fact, it was in this hospital where he found the inspiration for his subsequent innovative work on attachment.

He observed that two children under his care displayed marked differences in behaviors. One child was notably distant and emotionless, while the other was constantly in his vicinity – so much so, that others started to refer to the child as Bowlby’s “shadow” [1].

Bowlby was later mentored by Melanie Klein, a highly influential name in the field, whom he later publicly disagreed with theoretically. The basis of this disagreement centered on Klein’s belief that children’s emotional problems arise solely from internal processes. In contrast to this belief, Bowlby postulated that children’s emotional problems actually arise from how they interact with their environment growing up [1].

A principal aspect of Bowlby’s later career was his focus on mother-child separation issues. He was strongly influenced by Konrad Lorenz’s work, which showed how attachment is instinctual. From Lorenz’s theory, Bowlby gleaned that a newborn baby does not solely need their mother for food, but instead desires the caregiver-child connection that builds between them [2]. Therefore, Bowlby sought to understand what would happen to children when this essential need was not met.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

In essence, Bowlby’s attachment theory posits that attachment bonds are innate [1]. When a child’s immediate need for a secure attachment bond is not met, the child feels threatened and will react accordingly, such as by crying or calling out for their caregiver. Moreover, if the need for a stable bond is not met consistently, the infant can develop social, emotional, and even cognitive problems.

This need for attachment has catalyzed our understanding of human nature, leading up to Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary’s claim that belongingness is an essential human need, much like shelter or water [3].

The Anxious-Avoidant Spectrum

From Bowlby’s initial observations of the children with two highly distinctive behaviors at the psychiatric hospital, a spectrum of attachment behaviors came to life. We can visualize this spectrum holding attachment anxiety on one side and attachment avoidance on the other.

Given certain triggers and subsequent behaviors, one can gravitate toward either side of the spectrum. For example, an anxious attacher who hasn’t heard from their partner for a couple of hours is likely to trigger anxious attachment behaviors such as texting or calling their partner incessantly. In this case, they have demonstrated to be most certainly on the anxious side of the spectrum.

However, as was to be soon discovered through research, this anxious-avoidant spectrum didn’t fully account for the behavioral differences observed in children. There was still some information missing. Let’s dive into how attachment theory developed further.

Ainsworth and Attachment Theory: The Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) – considered to be the second founder of the field of attachment – furthered the development of Bowlby’s theory. Ainsworth crucially contributed to attachment theory with the concept of a secure base [1]. In her view, a child needs an established secure base, or dependence, with their caregivers before venturing into the exploration of the world around them.

The Strange Situation is perhaps the most well-known of Ainsworth’s main contributions [4]. The study was designed to look at the association between attachment and infants’ exploration of their surroundings.

The aim of the Strange Situation was to observe the infant’s exploratory behavior with their mother, in her absence, as well as in the presence of a stranger. This was one of the main experiments to drive the establishment of an attachment classification system. It allowed for the distinction between a child’s ambivalent and dismissing behaviors upon reuniting with their mother [1,5].

The Attachment Classification System

From the Strange Situation, Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Classification (SSC), which is the cornerstone of how we categorize attachment styles today. Ainsworth distinguished three attachment styles:

Secure – the child displays distress when separated from the mother, but is easily soothed and returns their positive attitude quickly when reunited with them.

Resistant – the child displays intense distress when the mother leaves but resists contact with them when reunited.

Avoidant – the child displays no distress when separated from their mother, as well as no interest in the mother’s return.

Adding Disorganized Attachment

Ainsworth had several Ph.D. students working with her – one of whom became notorious for their significant contributions to attachment theory.

Namely, Mary Main observed a unique behavior in one infant: in a moment when the infant was frightened by thunder, they surprisingly ran towards the experimenter instead of their own mother.

Based on this interaction, Main decided to focus her research on identifying peculiar behaviors such as this, leading to the identification of the fourth element in the classification of attachment: the disorganized attachment style – which incorporated both resistant and dismissing behaviors [6,7,8].

The attachment spectrum (Figure 1) stemmed from both Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s contributions to the theory.

The Stages of Attachment

In the 1960s, Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson identified that human social connections start at birth, and that the bond between an infant and caregiver only grows stronger over time. Furthermore, attachment styles also develop over time, and this was illustrated in the four stages that Schaffer and Emerson developed in 1964 [9].

Their study was conducted in such a way that babies were followed-up through interviews with their mothers, every 4 weeks throughout their first year after birth, and then one more time at 18 months. Their research resulted in the development of the following stages:

Asocial Stage
0-6 weeks. Babies don’t distinguish between humans, although there is a clear preference for humans over non-humans. The infants form attachment with anyone who comes their way.

Indiscriminate Stage
6 weeks – 6 months. The bonds with their caregivers start to grow stronger. Infants begin to distinguish people from one another, and they do not have a fear of strangers.

Specific Attachment Stage
7+ months. This is when separation anxiety becomes prevalent, particularly from their main caregivers or close adults. At this point, infants develop a feeling of distress when surrounded by strangers.

Multiple Attachments Stage
10+ months. Attachment with the infant’s primary caregiver grows even stronger. The infant is increasingly interested in creating bonds with others that are not their caregivers.

Learning Relationship Skills From Attachment

Our main attachment relationships, especially those in our earliest stages of life, have a unique influence on how we handle other relationships later on [10]. An important role that these attachment relationships have is to teach us healthy affect regulation.

Affect regulation, or emotion regulation, is the extent to which we can experience emotions and process these in a healthy way.

Emotion regulation is especially important when we encounter negative experiences. As infants, these negative experiences are a key opportunity to cultivate this skill. It is also in these moments that we learn how, or to what extent, we can rely on our caregivers to support us [11]. Thus, if we don’t feel protected or understood by our caregivers, this can teach us that they are not reliable sources of safety or love.

Moreover, we learn emotion regulation and relationship skills directly through our caregivers’ behaviors. Basically, we mirror our caregivers’ actions; for instance, if we notice that our cries bring about distress in our caregiver, we feel greater distress in return [12]. Thus, an infant develops a sense of self by assessing their impact on their surroundings. If their caregivers consistently react to the child negatively or neglect them in some way, the child will develop a distorted version of themselves and their capacity to interact with their environment [12].

Relationships Through the Lens of Attachment Theory

Today, attachment theory is regularly applied to a vast array of relationships, but this was not always the case. In the 1980s, Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver introduced their views on attachment, arguing that its classification system could be applied to romantic relationships as well as the original caregiver-child format [10]. Their argument relied on the premise that relationships/love take many shapes and forms, and an attachment reaction typically follows.

With this perspective in mind, we can begin to see how attachment is not a static aspect of ourselves – it fluctuates depending on a specific relationship and situation. While we do have our first encounter with an attachment relationship at birth, with our caregivers, this is not the only relationship that will influence how we relate to others. From childhood onwards, the people closest to us all have an impactful role in our development.

What Is an Attachment Bond?

An attachment bond is one that we establish with the closest people in our lives, typically, our caregivers, close family, or intimate partners.

Therefore, not every relationship we have will have an attachment bond. Instead, these bonds form in the relationships with people that we need, such the ones that fulfill basic physical needs (e.g. food and shelter), or emotional needs (e.g. the need to belong).

Attachment bonds or attachment figures are the connections whose absence causes us the most suffering. For this reason, losing an attachment bond is a highly distressing experience, which is usually marked by anxiety and sadness.

However, loss can feel very different depending on the type of relationship and bond that was developed. On the flip side, reuniting with an attachment figure after some time apart can bring about immense happiness and joy, and even a sense of relief.

Our Classification of Attachment

From the inception of attachment theory onwards, vast amounts of research and studies have been conducted and published by renowned professionals. At The Attachment Project, we endeavor to keep abreast of this work and the most recent findings in the field, and use it to guide us in delivering scientifically and theoretically sound information.

Having said as much, and recognizing the evolution of attachment theory, we’ll leave you with a very brief overview of the classification of attachment as we understand it, entirely based on previous work and research:

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is characteristic of people who easily trust others. These individuals are attuned to their own emotions and can easily attune to those of others. They are comfortable with intimacy and can easily communicate their thoughts and feelings.

The secure attachment is characterized by the ability to:

  • Handle conflict calmly
  • Feel comfortable both in relationships and on your own
  • Differentiate thoughts from feelings
  • Maintain a balanced sense of self and confidence
The Conditions for Secure Attachment

Recently, a study designed to specifically examine secure attachment identified the conditions necessary to raise a securely attached child [13].

If these conditions are not met, an insecure attachment style is likely to develop. The five conditions for secure attachment are as follows:

  • The child feels safe.
  • The child feels seen and known.
  • The child feels comfort, soothing, and reassurance.
  • The child feels valued.
  • The child feels supported to explore.

On the other hand, the following experiences can lead to an insecure attachment to form during childhood:

Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment (or preoccupied) can often be identified in people who essentially have an extra-sensitive nervous system. These individuals may struggle with hyperactivation of emotions, as well as hypervigilance for something going wrong. The scariest thing they can imagine is being abandoned by their loved ones.

Most likely, their attachment anxiety stems from an inconsistent parent who would be attentive at times yet misattuned at other times.

The main signs of anxious attachment are the following:

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment (or dismissive) is often present in individuals who tend to downplay their emotions or dismiss them completely. These people are typically highly independent and self-reliant, and their greatest fear is usually intimacy and vulnerability.

This attachment style tends to develop when caregivers were not emotionally attuned to their child or who were generally emotionally distant.

The main tell-tale signs of an avoidant attacher are:

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachment (or fearful-avoidant) is typically identified in individuals who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse. [8]. The disorganized attachment style is characterized by demonstrating inconsistent behaviors and having a hard time trusting others.

This style develops in children whose caregivers were a source of perceived fear, instead of safety and connection.

Disorganized attachment can be identified from:

The Attachment Style Quiz

You may have come across the Attachment Style Quiz on our website – it is our preferred method of individual assessment on attachment styles. The Experiences in Close Relationships – Relationship Structures (ECR-RS) Questionnaire, was originally developed by R. Chris Fraley and is scientifically tested and validated [14,15].

The quiz is free and easy to complete, and you can find out your attachment style in just 5 minutes.
There are other assessment alternatives you may want to opt for, which we’ve outlined in our blog post on commonly used attachment style tests. One such recommended measurement is the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), which must be conducted by a trained professional. If you want to further explore your attachment style, we suggest bringing the materials from our website (your quiz results and any relevant articles) to a mental health practitioner.

Influence and Future Directions

Attachment theory has influenced developmental psychopathology, especially the investigation of family relationships, and even the cross-cultural aspects of attachment [1].

At The Attachment Project, we seek to increase mental health awareness through informing our audience about the multiple influences of attachment on various areas of life.

For instance, there is a growing body of work on the association between organizational psychology and attachment theory psychology [20], and that line of research deals with how attachment impacts our behaviors and emotions in the workplace. Moreover, there are multiple links between attachment and a number of mental health concerns, such as eating disorders, addiction, ADHD, ASD, and issues with language development.

Another interesting connection is to be found between attachment and early maladaptive schemas. Maladaptive schemas are, in a nutshell, limiting beliefs that are formed based on repeated patterns of trauma in early childhood. Last but not least, attachment has a profound influence on many aspects of our personal relationships, such as jealousy, loneliness, and compassion.

We are eager to continue exploring the field, with the aim to help you, our readers, learn more about yourselves and gain the necessary insights to build the relationships and lives you truly want and deserve.

Curious to learn more about your attachment style?

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  • how your attachment style developed
  • how it influences different aspects of your daily life, such as your self-image, romantic relationships, sexual life, friendships, career, and parenting skills
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[2]Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 52(4), 664–678.
[3] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.
[4] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Wittig, B. A. (1969). Attachment and the exploratory behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. In B. M. Foss (Ed.), Determinants of infant behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 113-136). London: Methuen.
[5] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C, Waters, E., Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
[6] Main, M. & Weston, D.R. (1981) The quality of the toddler’s relationship to mother and to father: related to conflict behavior and the readiness to establish new relationships. Child Development, 52(3), 932–40.
[7] Main, M. (1999) Disorganized Attachment in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood: An Introduction to the Phenomena. Unpublished manuscript, Mary Main & Erik Hesse personal archive; Hinde, R. (1966, 1970) Animal Behavior, 2nd edn. New York: McGraw.
[8] Main, M. & Solomon, J. (1986) Discovery of a new, insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In M. Yogman & T.B. Brazelton (eds) Affective Development in Infancy (pp.95–124.) Norwood, NJ.
[9] Schaffer, H.R., Emerson, P.E. (1964). The development of social attachments in infancy. Monograph of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29(3), 1-77.
[10] Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524.
[11] Buckholdt, K.E., Parra, G.R., Jobe-Shields, L. (2013). Intergenerational Transmission of Emotion Dysregulation Through Parental Invalidation of Emotions: Implications for Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 324-332.
[12] Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development. Chapter 9 in Winnicott, D.W. (ed.) Playing & Reality. Tavistock Publications.
[13] Brown, D. P., & Elliott, D. S. (2016). Attachment disturbances in adults: Treatment for comprehensive repair. WW Norton & Co.
[14] Fraley, R. C., Heffernan, M. E., Vicary, A. M., & Brumbaugh, C. C. (2011). The Experiences in Close Relationships—Relationship Structures questionnaire: A method for assessing attachment orientations across relationships. Psychological Assessment, 23(3), 615–625.
[15] Fraley, R. C., Niedenthal, P. M., Marks, M. J., Brumbaugh, C. C., & Vicary, A. (2006). Adult attachment and the perception of emotional expressions: Probing the hyperactivating strategies underlying anxious attachment. Journal of Personality, 74, 1163-1190.
[16] Keller, H. (2018). Universality claim of attachment theory: Children’s socioemotional development across cultures. PNAS, 115(45), 11414-11419. [17] Bakermans-Kranenburg, M., van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (2009). The fist 10,000 Adult Attachment Interviews: Distributions of adult attachment representations in clinical and non-clinical groups. Attachment & Human Development, 11(3), 223-263.
[18] Sprecher, S. (2020). Trends Over Time in Emerging Adults’ Self-Reports on Attachment Styles. Emerging Adulthood, 1-6.
[19] Cullen, W., Gulati, G., Kelly, B.D. (2020). Mental health in the COVID-19 pandemic. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 113(5), 311-312.
[20] Yip, J., Ehrhardt, K., Black, H., Walker, D.O. (2017). Attachment theory at work: A review and directions for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(2), 185-198.

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