Attachment Theory: Can Your Infant Attachment Style Predict Your Approach to Romantic Relationships?

Ahh, yes, the big, complicated, thorny world of love and romantic relationships…this, we’re all at least a bit interested in, and most, if not all of us would rather go through it unscathed—thus, the attempt to understand as much of its intricacies as humanly possible. Psychology, of course, has all but shied away from studying the whats, whos, whens, hows and whys of this “many-splendored thing.” One of the most widely studied facets of romantic love from the psychological perspective is how early childhood experiences may affect the way one interacts and forms romantic relationships with others later on in adult life. Can infant-mother interactions and attachments early in life significantly influence how one seeks and deals with romantic relationships later on?

To gain insight as to how this question might be answered in relation to your personal life, you’ll need a little help from your mother, father, or anyone else who spent time watching you when you were just a baby. Ask them these two questions: When you were around a year old, how did you react when you were left alone with a stranger or someone who was not your usual caregiver? And upon the return of your primary caregiver (meaning the person who primarily took care of you, usually the mother in most cases but may also be another family member or an unrelated person), how did you interact with him or her?

In 1978, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues conducted a study that involved placing infants in such situations and then systematically observing their responses. By exposing infants to stresses such as being in the presence of a stranger and being separated from their primary caregivers, the study shed light on individual differences in infants’ styles of attachment. “Attachment” means an emotional bond formed between two people; in this study meaning the bond between the infant and the mother or other familiar caregiver.

Here’s how Ainsworth’s experiment went: In what came to be famously known as the Strange Situation procedure, a mother brings her infant (12-18 months old) into an unfamiliar playroom and plays with him or her for a short while. Then a stranger comes in and attempts to play with the infant as well, first with the mother still in the room and then alone with the baby as the mother leaves. After three minutes, the mother returns to the playroom and plays with her baby again.

From this experiment, Ainsworth identified three categories of infant attachment styles based on the infants’ reactions to the situation:

1. Secure Attachment Style

The infant cries, protests, or becomes visibly upset when the mother leaves, but happily welcomes her back and plays with her again upon her return. The infant may be comforted by the stranger in the mother’s absence, but clearly prefers the mother to the stranger. A large majority (around 60%) of the infants in the study exhibited this attachment style.

2. Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment Style

The infant loudly protests and becomes extremely distressed when the mother leaves the room, and is especially wary of strangers even when the mother is present. Upon the mother’s return, the infant is not easily soothed and may show conflicting behaviors of wanting to be comforted by the mother by seeking close contact with her, but at the same time wanting to “punish” her for leaving and thus either passively rejects or openly shows anger against her.

3. Avoidant-Insecure Attachment Style

The infant shows little to no distress when the mother leaves, and displays no particular preference between the mother and the stranger. Although the infant may not directly reject attention from the mother when she returns, the infant also does not actively seek contact with her upon reunion and may instead continue to play with the toys in the playroom.

In the late 1980s, the applications of the attachment theory were expanded by other researchers to adult romantic relationships. Adult attachment styles roughly corresponding to each of the infant attachment styles identified by Ainsworth has since then been identified. The four adult attachment styles (pertaining no longer to parent-child relationships but this time to romantic relationships between two adults) are as follows:

1. Secure Attachment Style

This adult attachment style corresponds to the secure attachment style in infants, which is generally considered as the most adaptive attachment style. People with this attachment style seek social interaction and are comfortable with intimacy while being at ease with independence—thus, they can keep a healthy balance between depending on others and having others depend on them. They see themselves in a positive way and find it relatively easy to get emotionally close to others. They also tend to have positive views of their partners and their relationships as a whole, and are not perpetually worried of being alone, abandoned, or unaccepted by others.

2. Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style

Corresponding to the ambivalent-insecure attachment style in infants, anxious-preoccupied adults are, as the category name implies, anxious or preoccupied with attachments. In their romantic relationships, they tend to be what most people would label as “clingy”—overly dependent, very emotionally expressive, and demanding a high level of responsiveness from their partners. If they find that their partners are not responsive enough to their needs for high levels of intimacy, they may blame themselves as they take a less positive view of themselves and often doubt their worth. Seeking high levels of approval, they often worry their partners don’t value them as much as they value their partners, and thus tend to be less trusting as well.

3. Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style

In adulthood, the avoidant-insecure style observed in infants is further subdivided into the dismissive style and the fearful style.

Dismissive-avoidant adults avoid forming deep emotional connections with others because they often view other people less positively than they see themselves, thus “dismissing” them and preferring to view close romantic relationships as relatively unimportant and something they don’t really need to have. Desiring a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency, they find it difficult to allow themselves to depend on others for anything. They tend to be somewhat uncomfortable with intimacy and often find that others want to get closer with them than they feel comfortable being. Preferring to be invulnerable to any feeling of attachment, they tend to suppress their feelings, seek less intimacy with romantic partners, and deal with rejection by distancing themselves from the source of rejection.

4. Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style

The second subdivision of the avoidant-insecure attachment style is the fearful style. While dismissive-avoidant adults avoid intimacy because others are devalued, fearful-avoidant adults avoid intimacy because they fear rejection. Often, they have conflicting feelings about close romantic relationships, as they seek emotional closeness but at the same time feel uncomfortable with intimacy. They tend to view themselves less positively and see themselves as unworthy of the attention their partners are giving them, so they are often suspicious of their partners’ true intentions. Finding it hard to depend on and fully trust others, they too suppress their feelings and seek less intimacy like the dismissive-avoidant style.

Was the attachment style you had as an infant (as relayed to you now by your parents or primary caregiver) consistent with what you perceive to be your current attachment style as an adult? The continuity of personality development—that is, whether an infant’s inborn dispositions, social environment, and early experiences can predict what his or her personality will be later on in adult life—is an area of particular interest in the study of personality development. Instinctively, we might tend to assume that our early childhood experiences have a strong impact on how we turn out as adults, but in the scientific study of psychology, establishing the link often proves to be much more complicated than we expect.

For instance, we could not definitely conclude that a child with a particular infant attachment style will grow to be an adult with the corresponding adult attachment style. And this isn’t necessarily bad news—if the continuity between infant and adult attachment styles were so straightforward and definite, it would doom some of us to having less ideal attachment styles as adults and we may forever mourn our pre-destined failings and dissatisfaction in our romantic relationships just because we were not observed to have secure attachment styles as babies.

Also, having such a direct and established continuity between infant and adult attachment styles is bound to scare a couple of parents out there who might’ve observed insecure attachment styles in their babies, not to mention put an immense amount of pressure on them to provide the “right kind” of parenting for their children to establish only the secure attachment style. For this was one of the most controversial conclusions that Ainsworth put forward in her study of infant attachment styles—that the kind of attachment style an infant develops essentially depends on the way mothers (or other primary caregivers) treat their babies in the first year of life.

Ainsworth believed that mothers who were sensitive and could accurately respond to their babies’ signaled needs raised children who were securely attached, while mothers who were not sensitively responsive, less affectionate and anxious or less skilled in handling their babies created insecurely attached infants. While this sparked the notion that there is a single “right way” of parenting, further studies have shown evidence that maternal or caregiver sensitivity alone was not the sole deciding factor on whether or not a child develops a secure attachment style. For instance, one study showed that about two-thirds of all children do develop secure attachment styles under a wide variety of parenting styles. Also, several researchers have pointed out that children’s inborn predispositions or temperaments may play a role in the attachment style they develop—for instance, a child with a “difficult” temperament who is observed to be more prone to crying from birth is also more likely to develop an insecure attachment style even with a high degree of sensitive responsiveness on the part of the caregiver. But of course, it is advised for parents to err on the side of caution and still do what they can in creating a responsive and nurturing environment for their babies, avoiding erratic, neglectful, and abusive parental practices.

Ultimately, the significance of studying the link between infant and adult attachment styles and their impact on one’s romantic relationships has less to do with telling people the die has been cast and they won’t get to live happily-ever-afters if they had established anything other than the secure attachment style early in life. Rather, it has more to do with highlighting the importance of self-awareness and the recognition of individual differences when it comes to attachment styles in romantic relationships. That there are different categories of adult attachment styles teaches us that different people would naturally have different expectations from their romantic partners, different insecurities as romantic partners themselves, and different views of romantic relationships as a whole.

Awareness of your own attachment style and how you might currently be replaying “scripts” you learned early in childhood can lead you to make better choices in the present and take charge of how you are steering that love boat for the future. This, in combination with the awareness of your partner’s attachment style as well, can be a powerful tool in cultivating a more understanding relationship between the two of you and help you to fare well, find fulfillment, and cultivate enduring happiness…yes, even in that big, complicated, thorny world of love and romantic relationships. ♥


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