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Attachment Styles

Attachment Styles

By Stephanie Huang, published Aug 24, 2020


Attachment styles refer to the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. The style of attachment is formed at the very beginning of life, and once established, it is a style that stays with you and plays out today in how you relate in intimate relationships and in how you parent your children.

What is Attachment?
  • Attachment is defined as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969), and may be considered interchangeable with concepts such as “affectional bond” and “emotional bond.”
  • A human being’s first attachment is often established during infancy with the primary caregiver; however, it must be noted that attachment is not unique to infant-caregiver relationships, but may also be present in other forms of social relationships.
  • Attachments of various kinds are formed through the repeated act of “attachment behaviors” or “attachment transactions,” a continuing process of seeking and maintaining a certain level of proximity to another specified individual (Bowlby, 1969).
  • Because caregivers vary in their levels of sensitivity and responsiveness, not all infants attach to caregivers in the same way.
  • Attachment styles are expectations people develop about relationships with others, based on the relationship they had with their primary caregiver when they were infants.

Infant Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues discovered three major patterns that infants attach to their primary caregivers (“mother figures”) from their Strange Situation study (Ainsworth et al., 1978).

The study recruited four different samples of infants at around 1 year of age, and engaged them into the Strange Situation procedure, roughly described below:

An infant was put into an unfamiliar environment with his or her mother and was free to explore the environment; a stranger entered the room and gradually approached the infant; the mother then left the room, returning after the infant spent some time alone with the stranger.

Ainsworth and colleagues observed how comfortable each infant was being physically farther away from the mother in an unfamiliar environment, how each infant interacted with the stranger, and how each infant greeted the mother upon her return.

Based on the observations, they sorted the infants into three major groups.

Avoidant Attachment (Group A)

Children with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid interaction with the caregiver, and show no distress during separation. This may be because the parent has ignored attempts to be intimate, and the child may internalize the belief that they cannot depend on this or any other relationship.

An infant in Group A was characterized as displaying little to no tendency of seeking proximity with the mother. The infant often showed no distress during separation with the mother, interacted with the stranger similarly to how he or she would interact with the mother, and showed slight signs of avoidance (turning away, avoiding eye contact, etc.) when reunited with the mother.

Ainsworth and colleagues interpreted Group A infants’ avoidance behaviors as a defensive mechanism against the mothers’ own rejecting behaviors, such as being uncomfortable with physical contact or being more easily angered by the infants.

Secure Attachment (Group B)

Bowlby (1988) described secure attachment as the capacity to connect well and securely in relationships with others while also having the capacity for autonomous action as situationally appropriate. Secure attachment is characterized by trust, an adaptive response to being abandoned, and the belief that one is worthy of love.

An infant in Group B was characterized as actively seeking and maintaining proximity with the mother, especially during the reunion episode. The infant may or may not be friendly with the stranger, but always showed more interest in interacting with the mother.

Additionally, while the infant tended to be slightly distressed during separation from the mother, the infant rarely cried.

Ainsworth and colleagues interpreted the Group B infants as being securely attached to their mothers, showing less anxiousness and more positive attitudes toward the relationship, likely because they believe in their mothers’ responsiveness towards their needs.

Ambivalent Attachment (Group B)

Ambivalent attachment relationships are characterized by a concern that others will not reciprocate one's desire for intimacy. This is caused when an infant learns that their caregiver or parent is unreliable and does not consistently provide responsive care towards their needs.

An infant in Group C was characterized as being somewhat ambivalent (and resistant) to the mother. The infant often demonstrated signs of resisting interactions with the mother, especially during the reunion episode.

However, once contact with the mother was gained, the infant also showed strong intentions to maintain such contact. Overall, a Group C infant often seemed to display maladaptive behaviors throughout the Strange Situation.

Ainsworth and colleagues found Group C infants to be anxious and unconfident about their mothers’ responsiveness, as the Group C infants’ mothers were observed to lack “the fine sense of timing” in responding to the infants’ needs.

Disorganized Attachment (Group D)

Main and Solomon (1986) discovered that a sizable proportion of infants actually did not fit into Groups A, B, or C, based on their behaviors in the Strange Situation experiment. They categorized these infants as Group D, disorganized attachment type.

Disorganized attachment is classified by children who display sequences of behaviors that lack readily observable goals or intentions, including obviously contradictory behaviors or stilling/freezing of movements.

Main and Solomon found that the parents of Group D infants often had unresolved attachment-related traumas, which caused the parents to display either frightened or frightening behaviors, in turn resulting in the Group D infants to be confused or forcing them to rely on someone that they were afraid of at the same time.


Adult Attachment Styles

The different attachment styles may be viewed essentially as different internal working models of “relationships” that evolved out of event experiences (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).

internal working model of attachment

This would suggest that early interactions with caregivers could not only shape how an infant understood and behaved in relationships (as exemplified by infant attachment styles), but that such impact could be carried forward into adulthood.

Additionally, other relational experiences in life could also mold one’s working model of relationships throughout one’s lifetime.

Adult Attachment Interview

Mary Main and her colleagues developed the Adult Attachment Interview that asked for descriptions of early attachment-related events and for the adults’ sense of how these relationships and events had affected adult personalities (George, Kaplan, & Main, 1984).

It is noteworthy that the Adult Attachment Interview assessed “the security of the self in relation to attachment in its generality rather than in relation to any particular present or past relationship” (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985), i.e. the general state of mind regarding attachment rather than how one attached to another specific individual.

Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) analyzed adults’ responses to the Adult Attachment Interview and observed three major patterns in the way adults recounted and interpreted childhood attachment experiences and relationships in general.

Secure (Autonomous)

Secure adults tended to hold positive self-image and positive image of others, meaning that they had both a sense of worthiness and an expectation that other people were generally accepting and responsive.

Adults who demonstrated a secure attachment style during the attachment interview valued relationships and affirmed the impact of relationships on their personalities.

Secondly, they displayed a readiness of recalling and discussing attachment that suggested much reflection prior to the interview. Finally, they showed objectivity in assessing their attachment figures and past experiences without any idealization.

Notably, many secure adults may in fact experience negative attachment-related events, yet they are able to objectively assess people and events and assign positive value to relationships in general.

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

A dismissive-avoidant attachment style is demonstrated by adults who hold a positive self-image and a negative image of others. They prefer to avoid close relationships and intimacy with others in order to remain a sense of independence and invulnerability.

Dismissive-avoidant adults deny experiencing distress associated with relationships and downplay the importance of attachment in general, viewing other people as untrustworthy.

Preoccupied Attachment

A preoccupied attachment style is demonstrated by adults who are overly concerned with the uncertainty of a relationship.

Preoccupied adults hold a negative self-image and a positive image of others, meaning that they have a sense of unworthiness but generally evaluated others positively.

As such, they strive for self-acceptance by attempting to gain approval and validation from their relationships with significant others. They also require higher levels of contact and intimacy from relationships with others.

Additionally, they were preoccupied with dependency on their own parents and still actively struggled to please them.


Romantic Attachment Styles

While Main and colleagues’ (1985) categorization of adults’ conceptualization of attachment relationships was important, it focused on the high-level concepts of attachment through mainly inquiring about parent-child relationships.

Many attachment interview questions were related to the adults’ relationship with their own parents and children), and did not capture other types of attachment relationships, e.g. relationship between two adults.

One crucial form of attachment relationships between two adults is a romantic relationship. Hazan and Shaver (1987) kicked off research in this field by analyzing self-reported questionnaires that asked adults to characterize their most important romantic relationships.

Hazan and Shaver (1987) identified three distinct attachment styles within romantic relationships that roughly corresponded to both infant attachment styles and Main et al. (1985)’s characterization from the Adult Attachment Interview.

Secure Lovers

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

Their relationships also tended to last longer. Secure lovers believed that, although romantic feelings may wax and wane, some romantic love would never fade.

Through statistical analysis, Secure lovers were found to had had warmer relationships with parents during childhood.

Avoidant Lovers

Avoidant lovers were characterized by fear of intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and jealousy. Avoidant lovers were often unsure of their feelings towards their romantic partners, believed that romantic love could rarely last, and felt that it was hard for them to fall in love.

Compared to Secure lovers, Avoidant lovers reported colder relationships with parents during their childhood, and found their mothers particularly cold and rejecting.

Ambivalent Lovers

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

Ambivalent lovers believed that it was 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.


Four-Category Models

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991)

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) developed a new four-category model that was able to capture different kinds of attachment experiences and categorize adults after conducting both interviews and self-reports.

The four categories, Secure, Anxious-Preoccupied, Fearful-Avoidant, and Dismissive-Avoidant, were divided based on a 2x2 matrix: positive-negative self-image x positive-negative image of others.

Bartholomew-and-Horowitz 1991

Figure 1. Model of adult attachment. Adapted from “Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model,” by K. Bartholomew and L. M. Horowitz, 1991, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, p. 227.

This model was an attempt to consolidate both the methodologies (interview vs. self-report) and the foci (parent-child vs. romantic relationships) of Main et al. (1985) and Hazan and Shaver (1987)’s studies on adult attachment styles.

Bartholomew and Horowitz’s four-category model became the model that is most used nowadays to understand adult attachment patterns.

Brennan, Clark, and Shaver (1998)

Another way of conceptualizing these four categories was explored by Brennan, Clark, and Shaver (1998), who analyzed the four working models using a different set of dimensions: degree of attachment anxiety and degree of attachment avoidance.

Brennan, Clark and Shaver1988

In this matrix, the Secure adults were characterized by low anxiety and low avoidance; the Anxious-Preoccupied adults were characterized by high anxiety and low avoidance; the Fearful-Avoidant adults were characterized by high anxiety and high avoidance; and the Dismissive-Avoidant adults were characterized by low anxiety and high avoidance.

The Influence of Attachment on Childhood and Adult Relationship

According to Bowlby’s theory (1988) when we form our primary attachment we also make a mental representation of what a relationship is (internal working model) which we then use for all other relationships in the future i.e. friendships, working and romantic relationships.

According to 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.

Childhood Friendships

According to attachment theory, the child who has a secure attachment style should be more confident in interactions with friends.

Considerable evidence has supported this view. For example, the Minnesota study (2005) followed participants from infancy to late adolescence and found continuity between early attachment and later emotional/social behavior. Securely attached children were rated most highly for social competence later in childhood, were less isolated and more popular than insecurely attached children.

Hartup et.al (1993) argues that children with a secure attachment type are more popular at nursery and engage more in social interactions with other children. In contrast, insecurely attached children tend to be more reliant on teachers for interaction and emotional support.

Parenting Style

There is evidence that attachment styles may be transmitted between generations.

Research indicates an intergenerational continuity between adults attachment types and their children, including children adopting the parenting styles of their own parents. People tend to base their parenting style on the internal working model so attachment type tends to be passed on through generations of a family.

Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) found a strong association between the security of the adults’ working model of attachment and that of their infants’, with a particularly strong correlation between mothers and infants (vs. fathers and infants).

Additionally, the same study also found that dismissive adults were often parents to avoidant infants, whereas preoccupied adults were often parents to resistant/ambivalent infants, suggesting that how adults conceptualized attachment relationships had a direct impact on how their infants attached to them.

An alternative explanation for continuity in relationships is the temperament hypothesis which argues that an infant’s temperament affects the way a parent responds and so may be a determining factor in infant attachment type. The infant’s temperament may explain their issues (good or bad) with relationships in later life.

Romantic Relationships

There also 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.

The internal working model influences a person’s expectation of later relationships thus affects his attitudes towards them. In other words there will be continuity between early attachment experiences and later relationships.

Adult 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.

This is illustrated in Hazan and Shaver’s love quiz experiment. They conducted a study to collect information of participants’ early attachment styles and their attitudes towards loving relationships. They found that those who were securely attached as infants tended to have happy lasting relationships.

On the other hand, insecurely attached people found adult relationships more difficult, tended to divorce and believed love was rare. This supports the idea that childhood experiences have significant impact on people’s attitude toward later relationships.

The continuity hypothesies is accused of being reductionist because it assumes that people who are insecurely attached as infants would have poor quality adult relationships. This is not always the case. Researchers found plenty of people having happy relationships despite having insecure attachments. Therefore the theory might be an oversimplification.

Brennan and Shaver (1995) discovered that there was a strong association between one’s own attachment type and the romantic partner’s attachment type, suggesting that attachment style could impact one’s choice of partners.

To be more specific, the study found that a Secure adult was most likely to be paired with another secure adult, while it was least likely for an avoidant adult to be paired with a secure adult; when a secure adult did not pair with a secure partner, he or she was more likely to have an anxious-preoccupied partner instead.

Moreover, whenever an avoidant or anxious adult did not pair with a secure partner, he or she was more likely to end up with an avoidant partner; an anxious adult was very unlikely to be paired with another Anxious adult.

Adult attachment style also impacts how one behaves in romantic relationships (jealousy, trust, proximity-seeking, etc.) and how long these relationships can last, as discussed in earlier paragraphs about Hazar and Shaver (1987)’s findings.

These are in turns related to overall relationship satisfaction. Brennan and Shaver (1995) found that inclining towards a Secure attachment type was positively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction, whereas being either more avoidant or anxious was negatively associated with one’s relationship satisfaction.

In terms of attachment-related behaviors within relationships, being inclined to seek proximity and trust others were both positively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction.

Being self-reliant, ambivalent, jealous, clingy, easily frustrated towards one’s partner, or insecure in general were all negatively correlated with one’s relationship satisfaction.

The attachment style and related behaviors of one’s partners were also found to impact one’s relationship satisfaction. Not surprisingly, having a Secure partner increased one’s relationship satisfaction.

However, an Avoidant partner was the only type of partner that seemed to contribute negatively towards one’s relationship satisfaction, while an Anxious partner had no significant impact in this aspect.

The partner’s inclination to seek proximity and trust others increased one’s satisfaction, while one’s partner’s ambivalence and frustration towards oneself decreased one’s satisfaction.


Critical Evaluation

It must be kept in mind that one may exhibit different attachment styles in different relationships.

A study conducted on young adults revealed that participants possessed distinct attachment patterns for different relationship types (parent-participant, friendship, and romantic relationship) and did not experience one “general attachment orientation,” except for some overlap in anxiety experienced in both friendship and romantic relationships (Caron et al., 2012).

Such empirical evidence serves as a reminder that attachment style may be context-specific and that one should not regard results from any assessments as the sole indicator of one’s attachment style. Additionally, it is also noteworthy that one’s attachment style may alter over time as well.

Across different pieces of research, it was found that around 70% of the people had more stable attachment styles, while the remaining 30% were more subjected to change.

Baldwin and Fehr (1995) found that 30% of adults changed their attachment style ratings within a short period of time (ranging from one week to several months), with those who originally self-identified as anxious-ambivalent being the most prone to change.

In a 20-year longitudinal study, Waters et al. (2000) conducted the Adult Attachment Interview with young adults who had participated in the Strange Situation experiment 20 years ago. They found that 72% of the participants received the same secure vs. insecure classifications as they did during infancy.

The remaining participants did change in terms of attachment patterns, with the majority – though not all – of them having experienced major negative life events.

Such findings suggest that attachment style assessments should be interpreted more prudently; furthermore, there is always the possibility for change – and it even need not be related to negative events, either. 

About the Author

Stephanie Huang holds a Master of Education degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her academic interests mainly lie in the fields of developmental psychology, social-emotional learning, and informal education. She is currently a Research Intern with Research Schools International (US) and a Museum Education Intern with STEAMLab (Taiwan).

How to reference this article:

Huang, S (2020, Nov 03). Attachment styles. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment-styles.html

APA Style References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Baldwin, M.W., & Fehr, B. (1995). On the instability of attachment style ratings. Personal Relationships, 2, 247-261.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L.M. (1991). Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226–244.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Volume I. Attachment. London: Hogarth Press.

Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (p. 46–76). The Guilford Press.

Brennan, K. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1995). Dimensions of adult attachment, affect regulation, and romantic relationship functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(3), 267–283.

Caron, A., Lafontaine, M., Bureau, J., Levesque, C., and Johnson, S.M. (2012). Comparisons of Close Relationships: An Evaluation of Relationship Quality and Patterns of Attachment to Parents, Friends, and Romantic Partners in Young Adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 44(4), 245-256.

George, C., Kaplan, N., & Main, M. (1984). The Adult Attachment Interview. Unpublished manuscript, University of California at Berkeley.

Harlow, H. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 573-685.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524.

Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50(1-2), 66-104.

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy. Ablex Publishing.

Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71(3), 684-689.

How to reference this article:

Huang, S (2020, Nov 03). Attachment styles. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment-styles.html

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