The way a person builds their relationships as an adult, mainly when referring to intimate relationships, is mostly affected by their childhood experiences. Many contemporary researchers and psychology practitioners use this theory to explain adults’ maladaptive behaviors towards their partners. Bowlby developed it in an attempt to explain the type of distress experienced by children when they are separated from their caregiver, usually their mother. The central premise is that an infant experiences emotional distress in response to detachment from the primary caregiver as an evolutionary response to not being able to take care of themselves. Behavior such as crying, frantically searching, and other ways of showing distress are typical for infants who do not see their caregiver in close proximity.
Recent developments of this theory aim to apply maladaptive attachment behavior to explaining adults’ behavior in intimate relationships. Generally, there are two types of behavior – avoidance or anxiety that are applied to explain adult attachment. An implication of applying the attachment theory when exploring adult behavior is the link between the maladaptive schemas and mental health problems, mainly depression and feelings of loneliness. Even though many researchers agree that attachment theory and emotional distress during childhood can explain the behavior of adults and the type of attachment they have to their intimate partner, the approach received a lot of criticism. This paper will examine the main aspects of the attachment theory and the theories of adult behavior developed based on it.
Initially, the theory of attachment was developed to explain the distress that children who are separated from their parents’ experience because of these traumatic events. As the role of a caregiver is essential for an infant because they rely on them in their ability to obtain food and satisfy other basic physiological needs. Some researchers hypothesized that the type of attachment could predefine an adult’s behavior in romantic relationships. More specifically, the trauma experienced by children that form maladaptive attachment schemes can be transferred to one’s adult life, affecting intimate relationships and influencing personality disorders. The initial research into the attachment theory mainly focused on children, however, in recent decades, it was used to explain attachment in adult romantic relationships.
Criticism of the Theory
Since this theory was developed to explain the behavior of infants, some scholars question its applicability towards adult behavior. Many researchers critique the attachment theory, for example, Fitzgerald (2020), but it remains to be a valuable resource for explaining the development of romantic relationships. The criticism is connected to the origins of the theory and its applicability to fully accounting for personality disorders, such as the borderline personality disorder of adult individuals. According to Holmes (2017), this theory is based on “caregivers’ capacity to act as a “secure base” for offspring who are stressed, threatened, ill, or exhausted” (p. 1). From this perspective, it is difficult to apply the theory to the relationship between adults, since with the latter, the role of the caregiver is not present. Therefore, the critics refer to the attachment theory’s focus on the distress of infants and the lack of research applicable to the adult population that would link the two aspects of this theory.
There is an agreement that childhood experiences, especially emotional experiences connected to caregivers, affect the adult’s life, and susceptibility to developing different psychological disorders. Scholars and practitioners use the attachment theory as the basis for childhood psychology theory (Holmes, 2017). Clinical specialists do not support the use of attachment theory and its assessment tools in their practice. However, some practitioners advise using Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) that has been shown to have a good effect on adults when addressing attachment scheme issues (Johnson, 2019).
The attachment theory has a lot of limitations concerning the variety of factors that can have an impact on an individual’s development. For example, the theory does not consider gender, race, culture, social class, and other related factors (Fitzerald, 2020). This may be the reason why studies that target the behavior of adults based on the attachment theory show mixed results (Dagan et al., 2018).
Another aspect of the attachment theory that lacks clarity is how the attachment style develops or is mitigated over a lifetime. As a person grows up, they gain a mental record of success when receiving comfort and proximity from a caregiver (Fitzerald, 2020). It is unclear why some people still develop maladaptive schemas despite having positive experiences with their caregivers. Moreover, recent research by Davis et al. (2016) suggests that simple techniques such as mindfulness applied by adults can serve as a mediator for the harmful impact of childhood attachment experiences. Therefore, current research does not provide sufficient evidence to support the use of attachment theory when examining adult behavior.
Patterns of Attachment
Avoidance and anxiety are two behavior patterns that explain the attachment behavior of adults. Simpson and Rholes (2017) state that one’s orientation towards a romantic partner can be either characterized as either avoidance or anxiety. The first approach implies that a person tries to avoid any contact that can lead to emotional attachment. The latter implies that an individual feel anxious in relationships with partners, although they want to form an emotional connection with another person. Both of these theories can be used to assess the degree of comfort that an individual feels within a relationship and the feeling of anxiousness or avoidance they have (Simpson & Rhodes, 2017). However, another scenario linked to the attachment style is the development of maladaptive schemas, which are responses to stressful events. Therefore, the attachment theory affects an adult’s behavior in multiple dimensions and can result in two types of behavior in a relationship – avoidance or anxiety.
The current theoretical view of romantic relationships between adults addresses them as a derivative of a childhood attachment relationship. Fraley (n.d.) argues that the majority of contemporary researchers use this approach in their studies. Some researchers even link maladaptive attachment to the development of depressive symptoms. Kim et al. (2017) found that attachment style affects the likelihood of having depression and feelings of loneliness in the future, based on their studies of university students. Thus, current research targets the exploration of attachment concerning different mental health problems, suggesting that this model is valid.
When using the attachment theory, romantic relationships should be used as an analogy for the caregiver and care recipient. Exploration behavior in children can be used as an analogy for the same behavior in adults. In other words, when adult partners meet each other. A responsive partner’s behavior can be compared with the behaviors of a responsive caregiver, and one can make a hypothesis that they have a comparable effect on an individual (Fraley, n.d.). As a result, an infant’s feeling of security or insecurity regarding their caregiver can affect the perception of an adult towards their partner. Therefore, there is evidence supporting the link between childhood beliefs about the caregiver and subsequent perceptions of a romantic partner.
Overall, attachment theory applied to relationships between adults is mainly based on the idea that close emotional connections between children and their parents affect the type of attachment they develop in the future with their romantic partners. This paper examined the basis of the attachment theory, developed by Bowlby, to explain the distress infants experience when separated from their caregiver. The central premise of this theory is that attachment is an evolutionary necessity for mammals because their children cannot survive without receiving care. Some scholars and practitioners link childhood attachment to problems experienced by adults in their intimate relationships. Others suggest that maladaptive schemes can affect the wellbeing of an individual and the likelihood of developing depression. Attachment theory suggests that other types of behavior patterns in relationships can be developed by an individual, which is maladaptive and is a response to stressful events. However, the use of attachment theory for adults is criticized because it does not account for a large number of factors – gender, social class, culture, and others and because the existing research on the topic produced mixed results.
Davis, T., Morris, M., & Drake, M. (2016). The moderation effect of mindfulness on the relationship between adult attachment and wellbeing. Personality And Individual Differences, 96, 115-121. Web.
Dagan, O., Facompré, C., & Bernard, K. (2018). Adult attachment representations and depressive symptoms: A meta-analysis. Journal Of Affective Disorders, 236, 274-290. Web.
Fitzgerald, M. (2020). Criticism of attachment theory. ResearchGate, Web.
Fraley, C. R. (n.d.). Adult attachment theory and research. Web.
Johnson S. (2019). Attachment theory in practice. The Guilford Press.
Holmes, J. (2017). Attachment theory. Wiley-Blackwell.
Kim, E., Cho, I., & Kim, E. (2017). Structural equation model of smartphone addiction Based on adult attachment theory: Mediating effects of loneliness and depression. Asian Nursing Research, 11(2), 92-97. Web.
Simpson, J. F., &Rholes, S. W. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. CurrOpin Psychol.,13, 19–24. Web.