Attachment Styles & Their Role in Relationships

By Saul Mcleod, PhD | Published May 02,


Attachment theory, developed by Bowlby to explain emotional bonding between infants and caregiver, has implications for understanding romantic relationships.

John Bowlby (1969) believed that attachment was an all or nothing process. However, research has shown that there are individual differences in attachment styles.

Attachment styles refer to the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. The concept involves one’s confidence in the availability of the attachment figure for use as a secure base from which one can freely explore the world when not in distress as well as a safe haven from which one can seek support, protection, and comfort in times of distress.

Attachment theory as secure, preoccupied, dismissive, fearful behavior models outline diagram. Labeled educational psychological types with influence from childhood parenting vector

In humans the attachment behavioural system does not conclude in infancy, or even childhood, but instead is active throughout the lifespan, with individuals gaining comfort from both physical and mental representations of significant others (Bowlby, 1969).

There appears to be continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships. This idea is based upon the internal working model where an infant’s primary attachment forms a model (template) for future relationships.

Internal Working Models

  • The social and emotional responses of the primary caregiver (usually a parent) provide the infant with information about the world and other people, and also how they view themselves as individuals.
  • For example, the extent to which an individual perceives himself/herself as being worthy of love and care, and information regarding the availability and reliability of others.
  • John Bowlby (1969) referred to this knowledge as an internal working model, which begins as a mental and emotional representation of the infant’s first attachment relationship and forms the basis of an individual’s attachment style.
  • Romantic relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships, such as parents, friends, and romantic partners (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991)
  • However, other researchers have proposed that rather than a single internal working model which is generalised across relationships, each type of relationship comprises a different working model. This means that a person could be securely attached with their parents, but insecurely attached with romantic relationships.

internal working model of attachment

According to John Bowlby (1969) later relationships are likely to be a continuation of early attachment styles (secure and insecure) because the behavior of the infant’s primary attachment figure promotes an internal working model of relationships which leads the infant to expect the same in later relationships.

In other words there will be continuity between early attachment experiences and later relationships. This is known as the continuity hypothesis.

Romantic Attachment Styles

Adult attachment styles describe people's comfort and confidence in close relationships, their fear of rejection and yearning for intimacy, and their preference for self-sufficiency or interpersonal distance.

Attachment styles comprise cognitions relating to both the self (‘Am I worthy of love’) and others (‘Can I depend on others during times of stress’).

Adult attachment styles derived from past relationship histories are conceptualised in the form of internal working models. Here individuals can hold either a positive or negative belief of self and also a positive or negative belief of others, thus resulting in one of four possible styles of adult attachment.

The model of others can also be conceptualised as the avoidant dimension of attachment, which corresponds to the level of discomfort a person feels regarding psychological intimacy and dependency.

Alternatively, the model of self can be conceptualised as the anxiety dimension of attachment, relating to beliefs about self-worth and whether or not one will be accepted or rejected by others (Collins & Allard, 2001).

Bartholomew and Horowitz proposed four adult attachment styles in terms of working models of self and others; including secure, dissmissive, preoccupied, and fearful.

Attachment styles as secure, anxious, avoidant or fearful outline diagram. Labeled educational axis scale with high or low avoidance and anxiety as influence to people relationship vector

Secure Attachment

Securely attached adults hold both a positive working model of self and of others, and therefore are comfortable with both intimacy and autonomy.

Such individuals typically display openness regarding expressing emotions and thoughts with others and are comfortable with depending on others for help, while also being comfortable with others depending on them (Cassidy, 1994).

Secure lovers characterized their most important romantic relationships as happy and trusting. They are able to support their partners despite the partners’ faults.

Preoccupied Attachment

Preoccupied individuals hold a negative working model of self and a positive working model of others.

Such individuals crave intimacy but also remain anxious regarding whether other romantic partners will meet their emotional needs.

Autonomy and independence can make them feel anxious.

In addition, they can become distressed should they interpret recognition and value from others as being insincere or failing to meet an appropriate level of responsiveness.

Their attachment system is prone to hyperactivation during times of stress, emotions can become amplified, and overdependence on others is increased (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).

Dismissive Attachment

Dismissive individuals hold a positive working model of self and a negative model of others, meaning they have difficulty with intimacy and value autonomy and self-reliance (Cassidy, 1994).

Their internal working model is based on an avoidant attachment established during infancy.

Dismissive lovers are characterized by fear of intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and jealousy. They are often unsure of their feelings towards their romantic partner, believing that romantic love could rarely last, and that it was hard for them to fall in love (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).

Proximity seeking is appraised as unlikely to alleviate distress resulting in deliberate deactivation of the attachment system, inhibition of the quest for support, and commitment to handling distress alone, especially distress arising from the failure of the attachment figure to be available and responsive (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).

Dismissive individuals have learned to suppress their emotions at the behavioural level, although they still experience emotional arousal internally (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).

This has negative outcomes in terms of cutting themselves of strong feelings, whether their own or others, thus influencing their experiences of romantic relationships.

Preoccupied lovers characterized their most important romantic relationships by obsession, desire for reciprocation and union, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction and jealousy.

They believe that it is easy for them to fall in love, yet they also claimed that unfading love was difficult to find. Compared to Secure lovers, Ambivalent lovers reported colder relationships with parents during their childhood (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).

Fearful Attachment

Fearful individuals hold a negative model of self and also a negative model of others, fearing both intimacy and autonomy.

They display attachment behaviours typical of avoidant children becoming socially withdrawn and untrusting of others.

“Like dismissing avoidant, they often cope with distancing themselves from relationship partners, but unlike dismissing individuals they continue to experience anxiety and neediness concerning their partner’s love, reliability and trustworthiness” (Schachner, Shaver & Mikulincer, 2003, p. 248).

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Cite this Article (APA Style)

Mcleod, S. (2022, May 02). Attachment Styles & Their Role in Relationships. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/attachment-styles-in-relationships.html

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