top of page

A Dive into Attachment Theory

Lauren Guss | September 3, 2022


John Bowlby, a British psychologist, is famously known for his theory of attachment, which described different temperaments that babies portrayed when separated from their parents. Using an ethological approach, Bowlby concluded that those who went to extreme lengths to stay around their attachment figures, or those providing food, shelter, and protection, had a higher chance of survival. This created, as Bowlby called it, the attachment behavioral system over natural selection to keep behaviors on track to maintain proximity to an attachment figure.

According to R. Chris Fraley, a Professor at the University of Illinois’s Department of Psychology, through using this system, Bowlby’s theory was that babies are necessarily asking themselves if their caregiver is paying attention, close to them, and accessible. If the answer is “yes,” that baby will feel at ease, loved, and more outgoing and confident in their environment. However, if the answer is “no,” the child grows anxious and begins to act from mildly looking for their parents to following or calling to the attachment figure. If their need for closeness again is never met and the child becomes run down, they may experience depression and hopelessness.

It wasn’t until Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby’s colleague developed the “strange situation” laboratory paradigm that the differences between attachment patterns were empirically revealed. Through separating and then reuniting parents from their 12-month-old children within a lab, Ainsworth observed that 60% of the infants reacted in the way that Bowlby theorized. Another 20% acted extremely distressed and had a more difficult time being comforted by their parents, resulting in the children presenting punishing behaviors towards their attachment figures, which Ainsworth dubbed anxious-resistant. The final 20% were not as distressed by the separation, and upon reuniting, avoided initiating contact and found more excitement in the toys on the lab floor. Ainsworth called this type avoidant. 

Through her work, she concluded that the type of attachment style the children portrayed was “correlated with infant-parent interactions in the home during the first year of life,” Professor Fraley summarized, “Children who appear secure in the strange situation, for example, tend to have parents who are responsive to their needs.” Additionally, he adds how insecure attachments, such as anxious-resistant or avoidant, were present in children who had parents who were more inconsiderate, inconsistent, or regretful of their child’s needs. 

Attachment theory also spans into adult life as reflections of how people were treated in the early stages of their lives. Hazan and Shaver’s work on producing questionnaires to measure the difference between adult attachment and infant-parent relationships suggested different attachment styles. Currently, Bartholomew and Horowitz’s four adult attachment styles, adopted from the quadrants of a low to high anxiety and low to high avoidance graph, or the models of self and others, are known as secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful.


Secure adults hold a positive image both of the self and others, allowing them to be more vulnerable with their thoughts and feelings and can rely on others for help. They can assess their connections with others and events through a positive lens despite negative attachment-related events occurring, allowing a longer relationship to bloom from understanding the ups and downs of romantic feelings. These adults tend to have had more loving and warm-hearted parents as a child.

Anxious adults, or those possessing a preoccupied adult attachment, hold a negative self-image but a positive image of others, resulting in the need for approval or validation from their partners to soothe their unworthy feelings. This may result in a hastiness in feelings of love. They may become anxious in the face of independence or an interpretation of insincerity or unresponsiveness from others, so they require a higher level of intimacy and positive feedback from their partner. Throughout childhood and continuing into their adult life, preoccupied adults are actively dependent on their parents and struggle to please them, and they tend to have cold-hearted and inconsistent parent interactions.

Avoidant or dismissive-avoidant attachment adults maintain a positive self-image but a negative image of others. They value their independence, self-reliance, and invulnerability while not trusting others, persuading them to push down distress and the value of relationships. Unlike anxious adults, they fear intimacy and romantic instability, causing them to be unsure of their feelings of love. They tend to turn inwards in the face of distress, resulting in self-harming thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. This style stems from emotionally unavailable parents. 

Fearful, fearful-avoidant, or disorganized attachment all have a negative self-image and a negative image of others, creating distress in the face of both intimacy and independence. They still experience anxiety when separated from their partner’s love and trust, but continue to pull away in times of stress. Because of their fear of intimacy, they tend to leave relationships as casual or just in the dating stage to avoid extreme intimacy. Instead, they may look to having more sexual partners to fill their intimacy needs without losing their independence. They may have had parents that ignored their boundaries or have grown up in a chaotic home. Therefore, when faced with a nontoxic, secure relationship, suspicion arises as to the motives of their partner, acting out to find the reason, damaging the relationship to protect themselves.

bottom of page