Published on August 11, 2021 Updated on September 12, 2022
Not every close relationship we form is an attachment bond…and not everyone we love is an attachment figure. When we talk about attachment theory and attachment styles, we often refer to relationships between infants and caregivers as well as between long-term romantic partners.
In many cases, our parents and intimate partners are our attachment figures, and the relationships we have with them are, indeed, attachment bonds.
“When an attachment bond is broken, we feel intense distress that’s way stronger than what we would feel when separated from someone we don’t have an attachment bond to.”
The attachment bond is the foundation of attachment relationships. Even though this bond might not always be evident, it can usually be noticed when one of the partners is distressed or feels threatened.
There can be all kinds of bonds we have with other people. Still, attachment bonds are unique in their nature. When an attachment bond is broken, (we lose or are, for some reason, separated from our attachment figures) we feel intense distress that’s way stronger than what we would feel when separated from someone we don’t have an attachment bond to.
Attachment bonds can form between infants and their caregivers, as well as between intimate partners. In fact, the two types of attachment bonds have been found to be quite similar. Shaver and his colleagues (1988) conceptualized a parallel between the two.
First, both types of attachment bonds include display of love and affection, such as touching, kissing, caressing, smiling, etc. In both relationships, there’s desire to be close to the attachment figure in times of need; there’s anxiety and sadness when one is separated from the attachment figure; and there’s happiness and a sense of relief when the attachment figure returns or is available again.
Another essential resemblance between the two types of attachment bonds is that both are based on the attunement and responsiveness of the partner. If our attachment figures are sensitive to our needs, pay attention to us when we need them to, and respond to our bids for closeness, we feel secure in the relationship.
When attachment figures are inconsistent or unreliable in providing support, attention, and love, we feel distressed. The more our attachment figures ignore our bids for proximity, the more we’re likely to seek closeness and cling to them.
At some point, however, we start detaching ourselves from the attachment figure, as we learn that our needs will not be met by the other person. Our longing to get our needs met by the attachment figure is deactivated.
These processes appear to be similar in infants and adults and relevant for both types of attachment bonds – the ones with our caregivers (in early childhood) and the ones with our intimate partners (in adulthood).
The attachment figure serves three main purposes.
First, whenever we feel the need of connection, we automatically turn to the attachment figure and seek closeness. In other words, the attachment figure is our go-to person whenever we’re in need of proximity.
Second, the attachment figure provides what’s called ‘a safe haven’: whenever we feel threatened, anxious, or insecure, the attachment figure restores our sense of safety. The attachment figure responds to our state of vulnerability by providing protection, reassurance, attention, support, and a sense of relief.
Third, the attachment figure takes on the role of a secure base for us. This means that the mere presence of the attachment figure can ease feelings of insecurity and provide a sense of safety. Knowing that we can always run to our secure base, we feel courageous and open to exploring the world around us.
For children, exploring is related to the actual act of curiously investigating novelties in the environment. When we grow up, we don’t necessarily do that. Still, a secure base allows us to shift our attention away from attachment-related matters and focus on other aspects of the situations we’re in.
An additional factor that differentiates attachment figures is that, when we lose contact with them, we feel strong pain and anxiety – separation distress. Unwanted separation from attachment figures typically results in protest behaviors – both in children and adults – such as crying or searching for ways to get back to the attachment figure.
If we can’t restore the contact with our attachment figures, we usually dive into desperation, depression, and anxiety.
This type of strong emotional reaction related to separation is not evident for every relationship we have – only for the relationships with our attachment figures.
It’s natural to assume that the term attachment figures refer to parents. Indeed, this is often the case. An attachment figure, however, could be anyone who was close to us while we were growing up – a grandparent, a sibling, a nanny or kindergarten caregiver, etc.
During adolescence and adulthood, close friends, coworkers, coaches, leaders, therapists, relatives, and other people close to us can serve attachment functions. Additionally, people might turn to symbolic figures (like God) or imaginary friends in times of need and attain a similar sense of relief, support, and safety.
As John Bowlby was developing attachment theory, he differentiated between the attachment and affiliation systems – two relatively similar behavioral systems that are both related to the ways we interact with other people.
Even though both systems have to do with our personal relationships, attachment and affiliation serve different purposes and should be differentiated from one another.
So, what are the differences between the two?
The first difference is that attachment interactions usually occur when an individual feels threatened and distressed. In such situations, they would seek support and safety from the attachment figure. The aim would be to restore their own emotional balance and gain a sense of security.
Affiliation interactions, on the other hand, occur when the individual is calm and confident. Affiliation interactions are typically about having fun together or exchanging information, but not about supporting each other in times of danger or adversity.
Second, attachment interactions are exclusive – between the individual and the attachment figure. If we were distressed, we would seek support from our attachment figure, not from any other random person. Affiliation interactions are not that exclusive.
Third, attachment interactions are characterized by stronger emotional involvement. As we mentioned, attachment interactions typically occur in times of need – when the individual is scared, ashamed, anxious, sad, etc. Such emotions are stronger and more intense than the ones that accompany affiliation interactions, such as play or exploration.
In addition, attachment relationships differ from affiliation relationships in their typical duration. While affiliation interactions can be short-term and casual, attachment relationships are usually long-term, and their cessation causes strong distress for both partners.
The fact that attachment and affiliation interactions are different on several levels doesn’t mean that they exclude each other.
In a relationship with an attachment figure, we often engage in affiliation interactions, such as going grocery shopping with our mothers, going to the movies with our partners, scheduling our next appointments with your therapists, etc.
If none of the partners in the relationship feels threatened or fears separation from the other one, attachment issues might not become salient at all. None of the partners will seek proximity and safety from the other one in an attempt to relieve emotional distress.
On the contrary, both partners are calm and in a good mood: they enjoy each other’s company and engage in, say, play or exploration together. In that case, we’re talking about affiliation interactions within an attachment relationship.
Attachment is an important part of relationships. Our attachment styles might affect the way we interact with others in various contexts. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that attachment is not always salient in every single relationship and social interaction we have in our lives.
Not everyone we like or feel close to is an attachment figure. Not every relationship we have is an attachment relationship. And not every bond we form is an attachment bond.
We share these differentiations with you, because they are quite important for understanding attachment theory in its core.
If you’re new to attachment theory and couldn’t quite understand everything we talked about in this blog post, don’t worry – we got you covered!
In our blog, you can get acquainted with attachment theory and get to know more about each attachment style – secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. And don’t miss the top 10 traps you might fall into, when you first discover attachment theory.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change (Second Edition). The Guilford Press.
Mikulincer, M., & Selinger, M. (2001). The interplay between attachment and affiliation systems in adolescents’ same-sex friendships: The role of attachment style. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(1), 81-106.
Shaver, P. R., Hazan, C., & Bradshaw, D. (1988). Love as attachment: The integration of three behavioral systems. In R. J. Sternberg & M. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 68–99). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Weiss, R. S. (1998). A taxonomy of relationships. Journal of social and personal relationships, 15(5), 671-683.