John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth worked together to form the attachment theory (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). Bowlby’s research focused on a child’s tie to the mother and its disruption through separation, deprivation, and bereavement (Bretherton, 1992). Ainsworth expanded on his ideology by introducing the concept of secure base from which an infant has an attachment figure and their exploration behaviours (Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969). The Strange Situation experiment by Ainsworth places one-year olds in a low or high stress condition and looks at what the child does upon the return of the mother (Bretherton, 1992). In the experiment, the mother and infant are placed in a playroom where an unfamiliar woman – a stranger, later joins them. The stranger engages with the child and the mother leaves the room. The next step involves the second separation in which the stranger is removed from the room, leaving the infant completely alone. Finally, the stranger returns, followed by the return of the mother. Ainsworth found that infants explored the playroom more intently in the presence of their mothers than after a stranger entered or while the mother was absent (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). The study focused primarily on the reunion of the infant with the mother. The pattern of infant reunion behaviours in particular manifested the infant’s attachment style to their mother. The infant-mother attachment patterns based on Ainsworth’s classifications are: secure, avoidant, and ambivalent (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Hazan and Shaver explain the following individual differences manifested by the three attachment styles (Hazan & Shaver, 1994).
In a secure infant-mother attachment, the infant showed some distress when the mother left the room but they had a model that she would return. Since the mother has been consistent throughout the child’s first couple years, the child’s internal working model assures of their mother’s return. In the moment of separation, the child is able to self-soothe and regulates their emotions because their mother has been there with them when they have been previously in distress and were taught how to self-soothe. The secure child’s reaction in the Strange Situation experiment involved happily greeting the mother upon her return, and returning to playing with the toys as before.
In an anxious/ambivalent infant-mother attachment, the child became angry towards their mother, evident by throwing a tantrum and may be followed by ignoring the mother (Heinicke & Westheimer, 1965 cited in Hazan & Shaver, 1994). An anxious child may have learned to cope with an inconsistency in the mother’s response to their distress by trying to reach out more. Screaming or crying more would accomplish this. Based on their internal working model, they are not fully aware that the mother might come back. Upon her return, they stayed clinging to the mother because they did not want her to leave, rather than exploring the playroom.
In an anxious/avoidant infant-mother attachment, the child does not acknowledge the mother’s return. Their internal working model leads them to believe that they are on their own due to the fact that their parent is not there when they are in need. In order to have proximity to their parent, they think they have to be avoidant. They learn that their parents will only talk to them or give them attention if they are being “good” by being “quiet”.
Researchers have also identified a fourth pattern, disorganized/disoriented attachment (Main & Solomon, 1990 cited in Hazan & Shaver, 1994) where the infant does not have a coherent strategy for managing an anxiety-provoking situation. The infant displays a mixture of avoidant and ambivalent behaviours, which arises when the infant’s caregiver is depressed, disturbed, or abusive in some way (Crittenden, 1988; Main & Hesse, 1990 cited in Hazan & Shaver, 1994).
Attachment Styles and Individual Differences
The classifications set by Ainsworth can be problematic, as people cannot be placed into a single category. People often have a combination of attachment styles where they are able to see two of the three classifications of infant-mother attachments. Moreover, different attachments play out in different relationships. Usually, there is a default style that stays throughout a person’s life a bit more consistently (Hazan & Shaver, 1994). To get away from the idea of categories, it is beneficial to look at continuums. Bartholomew created four styles: secure preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing (Bartholomew, 1990). Two dimensions are incorporated into Bartholomew’s continuum, including avoidance of intimacy and anxiety over abandonment (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Individuals can fall under low or high avoidance and anxiety. The continuum recognizes that there are differences in the way people cope with distress and regulate their feelings of security, which depend on their history of regulating distress with caregivers during childhood and adolescence (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1973; Bretherton, 1985; Kobak & Sceery, 1988). People’s experiences with attachment figures leads to the development of generalized representations about whether others will be responsive and supportive in times of need and whether the self is worthy of support and care (Collins, Feeney, & Dovidio, 2004). These mental representations are referred to as internal working models of attachment (Bowlby, 1973; Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). Collins and Feeney’s research defines the four prototypic attachment styles derived from the two underlying dimensions: secure, preoccupied, fearful avoidant, and dismissing avoidant.
A person who has a secure attachment is comfortable with intimacy, autonomy, and relationships. Their low anxiety and low avoidance leads to more self-confidence and constructive conflict resolution.
A person who is preoccupied corresponds to Ainsworth’s classification of anxious and ambivalent. There is an excessive investment and implication in relationships where they depend on others for their self-esteem. They tend to be dependent, jealous, clingy, and approach-oriented towards others, therefore are known for their high avoidance. Their high anxiety leads them to seek approval and reassurance from outside sources.
People are avoidant for two different reasons, one of them being fearful. This subgroup of people tends to be more avoidant because they want a relationship but they can be quite wary of them, hence the high anxiety. They fear being rejected. Therefore, those individuals become dependent on others but avoid intimacy (high avoidance). This could be due to enduring difficult childhoods, generally where their needs were not met. During their childhood, they may have feared their parents or even had a mixture of fear and love for their parents.
This is the second category of high avoidance where a person exhibits compulsive independence in relationships. Their low anxiety minimizes the importance of intimacy within relationships. They tend to be self-sufficient with greater value placed on independence. Even though they may come across as withdrawn or not engaged, they are quite stressed internally. They learned not to show their true feelings as a coping strategy with how they were taught to express their feelings as a child.
Partner Pairing and Couple Dynamics
Attachment styles are not consistently portrayed throughout an individual’s day-to-day life, but it must be triggered, usually when there is some kind of distress related to a connection with someone else. When the attachment style is activated, people can react in different ways depending on their style. Hazan and Shaver were the first to apply the attachment theory to adult relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). For an individual who is securely attached, they usually experience long, stable, and satisfying relationships. More security leads to more satisfaction in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Keelan and colleagues state that people who have a secure attachment are more open with their partners, leading to more self-disclosure (Keelan, Dion, & Dion, 1998). Conversely, insecurely attached individuals exemplify some differences. Insecure individuals provide less reassurance to loved ones than secure people (Keelan et al., 1998), which could contribute to their high anxiety over abandonment. This is particularly true for preoccupied individuals who are vigilant toward and preoccupied with their romantic partners, leading to low relationship satisfaction. Dismissing individuals are less interested in romantic relationships, especially long-term committed ones. Fearful avoidant attachment styles show emotional vulnerability and avoid closeness. Generally, avoidant spouses are close-mouthed and avoid communicating about feelings and desires to their partners (Feeney, Peterson, Gallois, & Terry, 2000).
Based on the findings of multiple studies, psychologists are able to interlink the attachment styles to partner pairing and couple dynamics. In general, relationship quality is predicted most strongly by men’s low avoidance and women’s low anxiety (Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994). Consequently, secure partners prefer each other and also tend to pair up with each other (Collins & Read, 1990; Senchak & Leonard, 1992). Likewise, dissimilar attachment styles are attracted to each other where avoidant attachment styles tend to pair up with individuals who have anxious attachment styles (Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994). In avoidant-anxious couples, when the woman is anxious, the relationships is rated more negatively by both partners in terms of satisfaction, viability, and conflict (Simpson, 1990). However when examining couples with dissimilar attachment styles, a male who is more dismissing avoidant and a female who is preoccupied complement each other in terms of how they see themselves and how they see others. In this case, the male is self-sufficient and independent. Having a female partner who is preoccupied confirms his attachment style due to her consistently looking for reassurance and a source of support. This means that the male did not have people in his life that were there for him when he was in need. Their view of others tends to be more dependent, and therefore, being with someone who is preoccupied confirms their view of others. This is not necessarily a healthy relationship, but it can be familiar (Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994). Humans like predictability and certainty. The opposing view is true, where the preoccupied female needs a dismissing avoidant male to confirm her view of others. She might have more self-doubt about who they are and having a partner who does not reassure her about how important she is to him and how loved she is confirms her view of others. Their view of others is more positive as they see others to be more independent and can therefore use those people to help them out. However, if the situation were reversed where the male is preoccupied and the female is highly avoidant, it has been shown that those couples have the highest breakup rates across time (Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994).
Moreover, the initial question regarding why unhappy couples remain in a relationship can be answered by Weiss’s study. He suggests that the commitment in a relationship can be attributed to the intense anxiety that typically accompanies separation (Weiss, 1975). Despite their dissatisfaction, Bowlby explains that the fear of separation from an attachment figure is related to the human’s natural instinct in response to potential danger (Bowlby, 1973), which can also relate to the investment theory (Rusbult, 1983). The lack of appropriate alternatives or the high levels of investment in the relationship, or both, are valid reasons for couples to stay committed to their relationship regardless of their dissatisfaction.