Back in 1958, the psychologist Harry Harlow wrote: “So far as love or affection is concerned, psychologists have failed in their mission. The little we know about love does not transcend simple observations, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists.” Since then, there has been an increasing interest in love and close relationships and social psychologists now have access to a wider range of methodologies to help them investigate complex relationships more fully. With this has come a strong realisation of the importance of attachment theory on affectional bonds within close relationships in adulthood.
Biological Function of Attachment
According to contemporary evolutionary thinking, the biological function of attachment is to give survival advantage to the individuals genetically biased to seek and keep proximity between infant and caregiver. Under certain ecological conditions, Natural Selection favours individuals who invest heavily on childcare and upbringing. These parents protect (also protecting their own genes) their offspring.
Protection contributes in important ways to the formation and strengthening of attachment bonds, serving the purpose of obtaining and maintaining an optimal proximity between young and parents. In his paper “The Nature of the Child’s Tie to his Mother” (1958, International Journal of Psychoanalysis) Bowlby argued that the infant’s bond with his mother is mediated by just such species-characteristic behaviour patterns and not by the mother’s role in feeding or otherwise satisfying the child’s biological needs. Thus, attachment behaviour is thought to be a kind of social behaviour synonymous to that of mating or parental behaviour and is thought too, to have a function specific to itself.
Styles of Attachment
Empirical researchers such as Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters and Wall have identified three main styles of attachment: secure, anxious/ambivalent and Avoidant. According to the theory
- securely attached infants will successfully use the caregiver as a secure base when distressed;
- anxious/ambivalently attached infants will seek proximity to the caregiver but at the same time, show overt expressions of protest and anger toward him or her when distressed
- avoidantly attached infants will resist contact with the caregiver and exhibit signs of detachment when distressed.
Mary Ainsworth’s classification system has formed the basis of many studies in this area both in children, adolescents and adults.
Carlson and Sroufe in 1995 found that children rated as ‘securely attached’ to mothers are later more sociable and positive in behaviour toward others and more emotionally mature. Those with insecure attachments (especially Avoidant attachment) not only have less positive and supportive friendships but are more likely to become sexually active early and practice riskier sex.
In a number of studies in 1993, children were first rated on the security of attachment to their mothers at around the age of one. Later, at pre-school, school age or early adolescence, the same children were observed at school or in summer camps where they had to deal with new relationships or strange adults. It was found that securely attached infants were later more capable, more friendly and more open to new relationships with peers.
In adulthood, the individual’s own attachment-related expectations and beliefs tend to be closely linked to their relationship functioning. Secure adults who feel comfortable with closeness and intimacy, tend also to report greater satisfaction, trust and emotional intimacy in their relationships than do those who are avoidantly attached. Avoidant adults are generally uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy and Anxious-ambivalent adults tend to worry that their partner will leave, also reporting less satisfaction from the relationship and stronger feelings of jealousy.
- 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.