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Friday
Jul152011

Attachment Theory: Explaining Relationship “Styles”

Have you ever known someone who seems insecure?  They could be highly jealous, petty, paranoid, or emotionally distant. They could resist being touched or comforted when they’re upset, or they could go from being happy to furious at the drop of a hat, leaving their partners scratching their heads.

Fortunately, there’s an explanation for these behaviors, and it lies in “attachment theory.”1,2 First introduced about half a century ago, attachment theory is now used to explain individual differences (also called “styles”) in how people think, feel, and behave in relationships. The word “attachment” refers to emotionally significant interpersonal bonds people form throughout their lives, first with parents, then friends, lovers, partners, and children.

Longitudinal research has shown that childhood experiences (starting within the first 12 months of life) profoundly influence relationships in adulthood.3,4 Parents that are consistently responsive, available, and emotionally intelligent can instill or “teach” good relationship behaviors to their children. These children subsequently grow up to be more socially adept and well-adjusted. They trust that their romantic partners can be counted on, and view their relationships as beneficial and wonderful. They are comfortable with closeness and intimacy with others, and do not hesitate to seek social support when needed. Such people are labeled “secure,” and are predicted to have happy relationships in their adult years because they have learned what behaviors are appropriate.

Other children do not fare as well. Parents who are inconsistently available (or consistently unavailable) “teach” their children that others cannot be fully trusted or counted on for social support, and that closeness and intimacy in relationships is dangerous. Fear is a core aspect of this relational insecurity. Insecure people are afraid that they will be betrayed, abandoned, rejected, or worse if they become attached to someone.2

One type of insecurity makes people become obsessive, clingy, and experience dramatic fluctuations in their emotional states (mood swings). These people are generally referred to as “preoccupied” or “anxious ambivalent.” Anxious ambivalent folks are more likely to pay very close attention to their partners’ behaviors because they are perpetually worried that their partners don’t love them as much as they do. They sometimes express wanting to “merge” together completely with their partner and erase any personal boundaries or identities, bringing new meaning to the phrase “attached at the hip”--like how celebrity couples have nicknames that are a combination of their names (e.g., “Bennifer,” or “Brangelina”). This excessive and often unhealthy closeness tends to scare their partners away, which further confirms their suspicion that they will be rejected. Thus, they feel their obsessive behavior is justified (a vicious cycle).

Another type of insecure personality is referred to as “avoidant” or “dismissive.” People who display avoidance are also afraid of what will happen if they get too close to someone, but their strategy is to actively resist intimacy in the first place. Avoidant people are generally not supportive and responsive when their partners are distressed, and feel uncomfortable turning to others when they need support themselves. They assume that others will behave badly, so they push their lovers away in an effort to create emotional distance. This attempt to deflect or avert deep feelings often backfires. Avoidant people cannot escape thinking about their close relationships no matter how hard they try not to. Scientists refer to this as the “ironic rebound effect,”5 similar to what would happen if someone said, “Don’t think of a white horse.”

Someone’s “attachment style” can influence how they feel in their relationships (satisfaction, love, etc.), as well as a wide variety of behaviors including communication, conflict, break-ups, and sex.2,6 For example, anxious ambivalent individuals deal with rejection and break-ups by jumping from one serious relationship to the next very quickly (rebounding). Avoidant individuals are more likely to seek superficial physical/sexual encounters with others (e.g., one-night stands) outside the context of a committed relationship. 

If you are worried that you are insecure, keep this in mind: most people are secure, and even those who have some insecurity may only be mildly or moderately insecure (stay tuned for our upcoming post on measuring attachment). If you feel you have difficulties in relationships, change is certainly possible, and often happens when individuals with some insecurity experience warm and supportive relationships with secure people, who can show them the proper trust and support that they never received before.

Chris Fraley, an eminent social psychologist, has a good summary on the basics of attachment theory/research here.

Learn more about measuring attachment in our post here.

Read more about attachment and Harry Potter here.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.

2Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

3Waters, 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.

4Treboux, D., Crowell, J. A., & Waters, E. (2004). When 'New' Meets 'Old': Configurations of Adult Attachment Representations and Their Implications for Marital Functioning. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 295-314.

5Mikulincer, M., Dolev, T., & Shaver, P. R. (2004). Attachment-Related Strategies During Thought Suppression: Ironic Rebounds and Vulnerable Self-Representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 940-956.

6Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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