Which of the following sentences best describes the way that you approach relationships?
- “I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them.”
- “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely.”
- “1 find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me.”
According to social psychologists who study attachment theory, the answer people choose has important consequences for how we approach relationships. Attachment theory is a theory designed to understand how we form close relationships throughout our lives and the factors that lead different people to approach relationships differently. Today, I’ll review some of the basics of attachment theory, explain how our attachment style affects the outcome of our relationships, and suggest ways that we can use this knowledge to promote better relationships.
What is attachment theory? According to attachment theory, humans have a fundamental need to form close relationships with others. The psychologist John Bowlby developed attachment theory after studying parent-infant interactions: the basic idea is that the relationship between infant and caretaker is imperative for our survival as a species, and we evolved a mechanism for developing attachment relationships in order to promote the survival of vulnerable infants. In this theory, attachment relationships are marked by three primary characteristics: the child tries to stay close to their attachment figure (i.e. a parent), turns to their attachment figure when they are feeling threatened, and feels safe and comfortable exploring the environment around them when they know their attachment figure is nearby. While growing up, the child develops what is known as an internal working model: essentially, the child’s views about themselves and their relationships with others. For example, if a child’s parents are attentive and supportive, a child will incorporate this into their internal working model and decide that people are safe and trustworthy. However, if a child’s parents are unsupportive or fail to meet the child’s needs, the child will instead decide that people are untrustworthy.
Attachment theory originally focused primarily on understanding these parent-child relationships. However, the psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver wondered how these attachment styles might persist into adulthood. According to their theory, as people grow up, attachments “transfer” from one’s parents to one’s peers. While children typically report that parents serve as attachment figures, adolescents and adults are more likely to report that friends or significant others are attachment figures. According to this theory, people maintain the internal working models developed during childhood in their relationships as adults: for example, someone who grew up with caring and supportive parents is more likely to be comfortable trusting others as an adult.
What types of attachment styles do people have? Researchers have often divided people into roughly three types of attachment style: secure, avoidant, and anxious. Secure individuals tend to find it easy to form close relationships, and don’t tend to worry about them (this corresponds to Statement #1 when I began this article). Avoidant individuals are less comfortable being close to others and opening up to people (Statement #2). Anxious individuals want to form close connections with others, but may fear that their affection won’t be returned (Statement #3). People can differ in terms of how strongly they identify with a type, and can be both anxious and avoidant in relationships. (If you’re interested in learning more about your attachment style, you can take a short quiz to discover it.) In studies with U.S. participants, just over 50% of people are secure, about 25% are avoidant, and about 20% are anxious (though these percentages differ in other cultures).
What does this mean for our relationships? In one study, research participants were asked to rate their most important romantic relationship on a number of different characteristics. Secure participants rated their relationships as happier and more trusting. Their relationships also lasted longer (ten years versus about five for other participants). Both avoidant and anxious participants, but particularly anxious participants, generally experienced more jealousy and emotional extremes in relationships. In a second study, college students were asked to indicate their attachment style and rate how lonely they have felt. Anxious participants were the loneliest, while secure participants were the least lonely.
Are attachment relationships the same everywhere? Most of these studies on attachment style have used American middle class participants, so we shouldn’t assume that what we’ve learned so far about attachment style will be true in other cultures. In fact, research in other cultures suggests that parent-child relationships are different around the world. For example, in some cultures there is a closer relationship between mother and child than in the U.S., while in other cultures, several individuals in the group share parenting responsibilities. These research findings show that attachment relationships are globally diverse. Although attachment theory is an important way of understanding people and relationships, it’s equally important to be aware that relationships look different across cultures, and that there is no single type of relationship that works best in every culture.
Where do we go from here? If you think that your attachment style might be more anxious or avoidant than secure, is this something that can be changed? Early attachment theorists thought that, once established, attachment style would persist over time, but newer research has found that this isn’t necessarily the case. When research participants are studied across time, approximately 30% can switch from one attachment style to another. There’s some research to suggest that being in a good relationship might help people to become more secure: for example, many newlyweds show an increase in attachment security. It’s also important to note that the researchers who found that 30% of people change their attachment style were just measuring the amount of change that occurs across time, and weren’t doing anything to intervene to try to make people more secure. If people actively try to change an attachment style that’s not working for them (for example, through psychotherapy), they would likely end up having much better than the 30% success rate.
Another interesting line of research suggests that reminding people of attachment figures who are supportive and responsive to them can have a variety of beneficial effects. In these studies, people are shown (just for a few milliseconds) the name of someone they are attached to, or are asked to write about a time when they turned to someone caring and supportive for help. It’s been found that even a short intervention such as this can improve mood, improve self-views, and increase empathy and compassion. Since most of these studies have been carried out in a lab setting we don’t know exactly how they’ll translate into real-world outcomes. However, if you are under stress or working on self-improvement, taking some time to reflect on someone who has been caring and supportive towards you just might help!
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.