Theory of Attachment ​In Adult

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Freud’s major insights into the early experience, close relationships, and defensive mechanisms were preserved with Bowlby’s modern theory of attachment. The more modern view of the child’s tie to the mother, motivation, and development has replaced Freud’s opinions of dependency and drive reduction (Waters, 2005, p. 82). Attachment development is a behavioral control system that is formed over time when affective, cognitive, and learning abilities are affected by the attachment to a caregiver who is a secure base. More secure base relationships are formed over the life span. Earlier experiences influence later relationships.

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Attachment is a process that is a part of natural development. We believe that a mother is essential to a baby. What causes this attachment is not understood yet. A baby is attached even to an abusive mother. Freud believed that being fed was a reason for attachment. Harlow and Zimmerman found that being fed was not the only reason but that warm contact with its caregiver produced the attachment. Schaffer and Emerson in a study in 1960 found that being fed had no relationship to the attachment. Piaget spoke of cognitive schemas which lead to the attachment of mother to child. They begin with the sucking schema and gain many more along the path of development. Bowlby believed in a strong biological basis for attachment and further said that it is the result of an evolutionary selection process. The attachment behaviors included crying, proximity seeking, and clinging as biological needs for security. The tendency of monotherapy to become attached to one person is another feature seen in human beings. If the child loses this attachment, it is lost. Children express the separation from attachment through protests, despair, and detachment which are defense mechanisms. It shows the grasp reflex and crying in a pre-attachment stage which lasts from birth to 6 weeks when The next 8 months see the attachment-in-making phase. The baby’s separation from the mother or other people causes it anxiety. From 8 months to two years is the clear-cut attachment phase which causes anxiety in case of separation from the mother. The baby then forms a reciprocal relationship from 2 years onwards and it recognizes factors that influence the mother’s comings and goings. Ainsworth spoke more of attachment and classified it according to the Strange Situation test into secure, insecure, and disorganized. The insecure were of two types, ambivalent and avoidant. There was yet another group of non classified.

Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969) combined three grand theories to describe how infants formed their first attachments or social relationships (Lamb, 2005, p. 108). He used the theories of cybernetics, evolutionary biology, and psychoanalysis to explain the process of infants’ first social relationship. The protective nurturing by parents was depended upon by infants in their days of vulnerability. The resulting parent-child relationship had a psychological impact on subsequent health, adjustment, and the feeling of security in future relationships. Later interactions with others and his response in difficult and challenging situations are based on his primary social relationship with the primary caregiver (Lamb, 1987).

The attachment theory

The key features of the theory are that Freud’s views of independence and drive reduction are replaced by more modern views of the child’s bonds with the mother, motivation, and development. Children are considered to be more competent and environmentally oriented (Waters et al, 2005, p. 82). Social development research has been familiar with Bowlby’s attachment theory for the past 30 years. Attachment theories have said that the attachment of infants to their peers led to a solid foundation in later life (Waters et al, 2007 p. 84).

Adult attachment

This theory explains the developmental personality styles (Sherry et al, 2007, p.337). Even the most disturbed of behavior can be explained by a developmental logic accounted for by the attachment theory (Ivey, 1991). The personality and life course of an individual depend on the affectionate bonds that a caregiver and the infant had. The attachment theory had the concept of 2 working models: of other and self ( Bowlby, 1973). The working model ‘of other’ develops from experiences of the “accessibility and responsiveness of the caregiver”. The model of self consisted of one’s expectations of one’s own ability “to elicit need-meeting responses from the caregiver” (Bowlby, 1973). The experiences with primary caregivers develop into the working models and then generalize into global proportions. The models have three functions regarding development. They provide the reason for cognitive schemas becoming fixed with no flexibility towards environmental changes which make the world ‘unsafe, unforgiving or punitive’ (Sherry et al, 2007, p. 338). The context of the interpersonal turmoil of individuals who believe in a distorted view of themselves is the second function. The third function of the models is the stimulation of the affective responses influencing an individual’s worldviews and his feelings towards others. Bowlby points out that a person’s specific attachment behaviors or feelings are not totally determined by the early attachments or the working models. Similar experiences of other attachments contribute to their persistence (Sherry et al, 2007, p. 338). Feedforward mechanisms are also thought to influence the final attributes. The constructivist theory says that the feedforward processes are cognitive strategies that are inflexible. These strategies place the new experiences into the existing constructions (Lyddon and Sherry, 2001).

Securely attached persons show a balance between the assimilation and accommodation processes where the former is the feedforward and the latter is the feedback. The insecurely attached persons have more feedforward processes in their working models. They have a tendency to stick closely to their existing beliefs and disbelieve new information which disconfirms old ones. (Sherry et al, 2007, p. 338).

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The theory of adult attachment by Bartholomew is really an extension of Bowlby’s cognitive working models. He also proposed that the models of self and others carry “positive or negative valences” (Sherry et al, 2007, p.338). The extent to which a person has self-worth and believes he should get the proper fair treatment represents the working model of self. The working model of others is the extent of seeing others as trustworthy and available or rejecting and unreliable (Bartholomew, 1990).

Adult attachment styles

The four attachment styles of secure, preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing were based on the working models. The differing combinations of positives and negatives form the four styles. The secure people have a sense of self-worth and the expectation of others of being trustworthy, responsive, and approachable and is represented by a flexible combination of the positive and negative working models (Sherry et al, 2007, p. 338). The preoccupied people have a sense of themselves being unworthy but think of others positively and are externally oriented. The fearfully attached have negative views both ways and they do not trust their own intentions as well as others. The people with a dismissing attachment style think of themselves positively but others negatively. Bartholomew believes that all people show differences in all four types of attachment. This, therefore, necessitates a dimensional approach too to describe attachments.

Applying the attachment theory to evaluate developmental personality styles is best done by combining it with the dimensional approach and the personality dysfunction (Lyddon and Sherry, 2001).

Environmental pressures can be long-lasting as the family home the child lives in may not change for years. Whatever problems have been caused in his development and personality may remain so even after a change is recommended. This would imply that the same environment extended into adulthood. If the developmental personality styles become dysfunctional, attachment experiences become very distressing in quality and intensity (Sherry et al, 2007, p. 338). These children grow up with the same attachments and anticipate the world in the same way as they used to in childhood. As adults, they are unable to adjust as when they were young.

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Assimilative and feedforward mechanisms increase, making the adjustment difficult.

Infant Attachment styles

Evolution has enabled the infant to a close, lasting, and dependent bond with the primary caregiver (Hardy, 2007, p. 27). Infants recognize human faces and attend to them. They also watch their parent’s eyes while feeding. When faced with new stimuli they look at their attachment object for responses. They move away from their caregiver and keep returning for ‘refueling’. The infantile attachment is not based on how the primary caregiver behaves towards the infant (Hardy, 2007, p. 28).

Four infant attachment styles are identified based on quality and not quantity: secure, avoidant, resistant ambivalent, and disorganized disoriented. The secure infants are very attached to the caregiver and protest when taken away or separated from the caregiver. They rush to keep close to their caregiver when reunited. The avoidant attachment style makes the infant ignore the caregiver when he moves away and continues this pattern when the caregiver returns. He avoids the attempts of the caregiver to regain contact and closeness. It amounts to a rejection (Hardy, 2007, p. 28). The resistant-ambivalent pattern is marked by the fixation of the infant on the caregiver. The child seeks the comfort of the caregiver alternately for comfort and reassurance and at times rejects him. The child with a disorganized pattern simultaneously rejects and reaches out for the caregiver. This is due to a conflict in the mind of the maltreated child by the attachment figure (Hardy, 2007, p. 28). Psychopathology in the future is seen in disorganized attachment.

Two theoretical perspectives govern infantile attachment. The developmental psychology perspective emphasizes the formation of internal working models by the infant caused by the early attachment to the primary caregiver. These models define the perception of self and others and contribute to the selective experiences, working in an unconscious manner. The second perspective is the internal interpretive mechanism (Hardy, 2007, p. 28). This mechanism matures during the initial attachment process and leads to the neurocognitive processes which help to interpret new experiences throughout life. Self and object representations come from the early experiences which will influence all future “affective exchanges” and all arise from an unconscious mind. The two perspectives are therefore primarily different in semantics (Hardy, 2007,p. 28).

The neural connection

The effective exchanges between the infant and caregiver lay a foundation for neurological development and cause neural networks to be formed in the right hemisphere.

The infant’s personality and relationship with others will be influenced by neural activity.

The continuity of the inner affective experience is the sense of self. The right hemisphere has connections with the autonomous nervous system and so physical reactions to the affective stimuli are also influenced (Hardy, 2007, p. 28). Reception, interpretation, and communication of emotion and empathic interpersonal experiences are dominantly influenced by the right hemisphere.

Attachment is thereby understood to be the “synchronized dyadic bioenergetic transmissions” between the infant and caregiver. The caregiver’s ability to transfer the processing of the affective states contributes to the infant’s early brain development (Hardy, 2007, p. 28). Intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences occur due to metabolic changes in the brain and are caused by information processing. The maintenance of homeostasis and equilibrium in the nervous system depends on the reciprocal interactions with the caregiver. If the dyadic relationship is disturbed, plenty of energy is expended for maintaining equilibrium. If this mechanism fails, the neural system goes into a shocking state and disturbs normal development.

When internal and external processes fail, the child feels hopeless and helpless (Hardy, 2007, p. 29).

The relationship between affective disorders and unresolved attachment

An association has been found between attachment insecurity and physical illness. (Hardy, 2007, p. 29). Increases in the susceptibility to stress, relying on external affect regulation, and help-seeking behaviors have been found to be aetiological factors in this association. An inconsistent and unstable state of self becomes evident as the difficulty to maintain social and interpersonal relationships. The ego is the internal system that contributes to our instinctive urges. The ego and the right brain provide the regulation of higher-level functioning (Hardy, 2007, p. 29).


Attachment theory says that adult interpersonal relationships are influenced by the earliest social relationships in the mother-infant one. As this is the point of the groundwork for the attachment, prevention applied at this level would prevent future sequelae. Primary prevention would mean that adults who have attachment difficulties are treated first to prevent the formation of insecure attachments with their children (Hardy, 2007, p. 30).

Pre-existing attachment insecurity needs to be treated by efforts to promote the regulation of affective response to external stimuli. The person is exposed to various stimuli which would trigger affective responses which may be changed by interventions to train the person. Emotional stability would be improved.

Modern Views

New researchers, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and developmental psychologists believe that human beings grow up in more complex social groups than the dyad relationship of mother and child (Hewlett & Lamb, in press). They also say that other significant experiences also contributed to the formation of personality and development (Lamb, 2005, p. 108). Significant relationships with fathers and siblings have also affected the individual’s future social relationships (Lamb and Lewis, 2004). The infant is influenced by his interactions and quality of relationships with all members of his family (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, & Raymond, 2004). Earlier researchers probably concentrated on the dyad relationship in the light of the nuclear families of Western societies, quite unlike other cultural and ethnic groups where the joint family system still existed. Even Bowlby in his attachment theory has mentioned that the mother-infant dyad is surrounded by complex social groups of relatives who participate in the feeding, socializing, teaching, and protection of young infants (Lamb, 2005, p. 109).

The picture of the dyad relationship with the mother is changing in modern environments where the mother is also employed. Unrelated care providers are looking after infants, toddlers, and young children (Lamb and Ahnert in press). Many researchers and critics feel that the mother-child attachment and relationship may be damaged. However meaningful relationships can be formed with other adults and peers, something that is not seen in a nuclear family with a mother-child dyad relationship.

Parenting has many facets to the relationship with the child, far beyond the caretaking of the dyad relationship (Bornstein, 2002). Parents prepare their children for the world by attending to their cognitive, social, and communicative training. The children thereby develop skills and behaviors through their dyadic and extra-dyadic domains which are hardly related (Bornstein and Tamis Le Monda, 1990). Parental behavior may be imitated in distress and nondistress signals. Attention spans, symbolic play, and distress of the child may have implications. Attachment theories were not wrong but their focus was narrow and limited to just one area of the parent-child relationship.

Research has shown that later relationships and adaptation were not exactly predicted by the dyad relationship. The quality of parental behavior provides only a partial explanation of the attachment while the attachment variation explains the variations in future adjustments (Lamb, 1987). Other attachments to siblings, grandparents, and peers are equally important. Attachment theory needs to include these other relationships to fully evaluate the effect of social relationships in the adaptation of a child in future relationships. Relationships between care providers and infants have added features not explained by the attachment theory and which may not be seen in the mother-infant relationship. Juvenile care providers have a relationship with their wards but care, protection or provisioning do not enter the picture (Hewlett & Lamb, in press). The personalities of children are also shaped by selectively reinforcing and punishing behaviors (Lamb & Roopnarine, 1979). Peer relationships have some features of parent-child dyadic relationships (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987).

Instruments for assessing attachment styles

The Relationship Scales Questionnaire (Griffin and Bartholomew, 1994b) is used to assess attachment in adulthood. Of the 30 items, 5 are making scores for the secure, 4 for fearful, 5 for dismissing, and 4 for preoccupied. 3 items are reverse scored. If the score is higher in any dimension, the person’s attachment would be showing a leaning towards the respective construct.

The 5 items in the secure scale are dealing with self and others.

The Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory III is an instrument that is a self-report that measures personality and clinical functioning (Millon et al, 1997). A score of 75 on any scale is considered significant.

The Attachment Theory in Social Research

Social work involves working among both parents equally in the event of an issue of attachment. The Children’s Act Section 17 implies that both have equal responsibility where a child is concerned. Social workers are not allowed to differentiate or insist on the mother as the responsible parent. Fathers were marginalized in the earlier attachment theory. Protection at times of danger is the goal of attachment (Howe, 2006, p.128). The vulnerable child which experiences fear, anxiety, confusion, or abandonment has its attachment behaviors triggered.

It is in an emotionally dysregulated state. A sensitive caregiver understands her child’s necessity for proximity. Social work entails the provision of substitute parents for abandoned, neglected, and orphaned children (Howe, 2006, p. 129). The carers must be stress-free and psychologically available, attuned, and responsive to the child. Recently it has been shown that good social support is similar to placing the child in good homes. Effective emotional support, information, and wisdom from experience make these foster parents efficient. Training helps foster and adoptive parents to provide a suitable and warm close proximity to needy children. Maltreated children who undergo a hostile and helpless caring environment have disturbed behaviors (Howe, 2006, p. 130). They need plenty of encouragement before they can confide in and be close to the adoptive or foster parents. Behaviourally based attachment interventions provide a nurturing relationship. Video-taped parent-child interaction help to modify unwanted behaviors in caregivers. Therapy aims at making more positive internal models. Sessions are arranged where the caregiver and the infant interact together in the presence of a social worker. Gaining the child’s trust is a major step in foster parenting. Maltreated children in poor caregiving environments develop disorganized behavior. The next carer has to take precautions to gain the trust of the child before beginning further attachment roles (Howe, 2006, p. 131). The development of suitable interventions for psychiatric patients and abandoned children who had attachment problems is possible with the attachment theory.


The attachment theory is a descriptive one. It does not provide for interventions as therapy. Bowlby contributed the attachment theory for understanding the dyadic relationship and the development of the child following its attachment to a primary caregiver. The early dyadic relationship has a bearing on the future interpersonal interactions of the child as an adult.

Adult and infant attachment styles have been identified. The relationship of affective responses to the right hemisphere of the brain helps us to change the consequences of therapy of disordered personalities. The development of suitable interventions for psychiatric patients and abandoned children who had attachment problems is possible with the attachment theory. This could also help psychiatric nurses gain self-awareness of their affect regulation and interpersonal communication patterns. The types of interventions which are most effective for creating a change are yet to be found.


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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Theory of Attachment ​In Adult." January 14, 2022.

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PsychologyWriting. "Theory of Attachment ​In Adult." January 14, 2022.