Adult Attachment Theory – Romantic Relationships, Love Affairs and Attachment

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Although Bowlby focused on infant-caregiver attachment, he believed attachment characterized human experience from “the cradle to the grave”. In the mid-1980s researchers began to take the possibility that attachment processes may play out in adulthood more seriously. Phil Shaver was one of the first researchers to study how attachment status affects the dynamics of couple’s relationships

Attachment and Hazen and Shaver

Hazan and Shaver used the following forced-choice options to classify people into the three attachment style categories:

Secure: I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

Avoidant: I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

Anxious/Ambivalent: I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.

Adult Attachment

Hazan and Shaver argue that because love is a form of attachment, one’s adult love-relationships are likely to be related to one’s previous attachment experiences, in other words, an adults’ beliefs about romantic relationships parallel the categories found for children. In 1987, they analysed data from 620 people who responded to a survey in the Rocky Mountain News (a newspaper in Denver, Colorado), a college sample of 108 students and a Love Test sample. The table below contains the percentages of people who selected each of the attachment style descriptions:

                   Newspaper College Love TestSample Sample Sample

Secure                   56%                                56%                      43%

Avoidant                25%                                23%                      35%

Anxious/Ambivalent 19%                            20%                        22%

What’s interesting is that in the Newspaper and College samples, there is a larger proportion of people who chose the secure attachment style than in the LoveTest Sample. A larger proportion of the Love Test sample chose the Avoidant attachment style as compared to the other samples. However, the Anxious/Ambivalent proportions are similar across all three samples.

On saying this, it must be noted that both the newspaper sample and the Love-Test are based on people who ‘chose’ to respond to the surveys, so in this particular study, one must be aware of the possibility of self selection bias. Also, the ‘college’ sample was described by Hazan & Shaver as a ‘captive’ university student group, so it’s likely too, that this was a convenience sample of university students rather than a ‘random’ sample of the population of university students.

 Attachment Styles and Adult Love Relationships

Hazan and Shaver were to eventually analyse information from over 1,200 respondents and in this they found that those with different ‘attachment styles’ had a different view of love. For instance, those who were securely attached accepted that relationships had their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moments and that the intensity of emotions that characterise the start of a relationship can return later.

Their ‘attachment’ to their ‘romantic partner’ was seen as relatively secure. In contrast, those with an Avoidant attachment style were more pessimistic about relationships and those with an anxious/ambivalent attachment also believed that ‘real’ love was rare. On the basis of their studies, Hazen and Shaver argued that adult romantic relationships, like infant-caregiver relationships are attachments and that romantic love is a property of attachment behavioural system as well as the motivational systems that give rise to caregiving and sexuality.

Sources

  • Bowlby, J. Attachment and loss. Vol. New York: Basic Books. 1992
  • Bowlby, J. Attachment and loss. Vol 2: Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books. 1973
  • Bee, Helen L. The Developing Child. 7th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers. 1995.
  • Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books. 1994.
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