Adult Attachment Theory
This article was authored by Nora McNulty and Stacy Shaw as part of the 2018 pre-graduate spotlight week.
If you’ve ever taken an introduction to psychology course, the week on developmental psychology most likely talked about attachment theory, and explored the classic study conducted by Mary Ainsworth in 1978. Called the Strange Situation test, the study involved an infant and caregiver (most often, the mother) playing together inside a laboratory that was set up like a playroom. After playing together for a while, the caregiver would get up to leave the infant by his or herself. A minute or so later, a stranger would enter the room. The stranger would then try to play with the child, and after a brief period of time, the stranger would leave and the caregiver return. Researchers sitting behind a one-way mirror would then categorize the infant’s behaviors and responses to these varying situations (e.g. crying, aloofness, excitement) and determine the infant’s attachment style.
Although many of us have heard of the term “attachment style” it is less clear what exactly an attachment style is and why is it useful beyond to categorize the behaviors of infants. To put it simply, attachment styles are models that attempt to describe and predict a person’s behavior and actions within interpersonal relationships. And although they are most commonly cited in the context of infants and their mothers, attachment styles can also provide insight into the relationships of adults. Coauthors Amir Levine M.D. and Rachel Heller M.A. expand on this notion through their book Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment—and How it Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. In publishing Attached, Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, and Heller, a social-organizational psychologist, offer insight into adult relationships, all through the lens of varying attachment styles.
The authors posit that the three main attachment styles of children—secure, anxious and avoidant—remain into adulthood and just manifest differently. This begs an interesting question: if understanding a child’s attachment style can help parents better understand their child’s social relationships, who’s to say understanding adult attachment styles can’t shed a similar light on important adult connections, such as intimate relationships?
According to Heller and Levine, roughly 50% of adults are securely attached, 20% are anxiously attached, 25% are avoidantly attached, and the remaining 3%-5% belong in the fourth, more rare subcategory of anxious-avoidantly attached (8). In childhood, securely attached children become upset when their caregiver leaves, but are able to be quickly soothed upon their return, whereas anxiously attached children would not be so easily soothed upon the return of the caregiver, and avoidantly attached (and anxious-avoidantly attached) children may not react to the absence or return of the caregiver at all. In adults, these varying attachment styles are still relevant; they just present themselves in different, more age-appropriate behaviors such as acting passive aggressively rather than crying as an infant would.
The Insecure Individual:
Heller and Levine describe individuals with insecure attachment style has having a “super-sensitive attachment system,” or a “sixth sense for danger” (79). This sensitivity has a profound effect on protest behavior, or “any action that tries to reestablish contact with an [attachment figure] and get their attention” (88). For example, a study was done in which women were asked to think about various relationship scenarios while undergoing an fMRI. Women with an insecure attachment style showed more heightened activity in areas of the brain related to emotion (when thinking of negative scenarios) compared to women of other attachment styles (89). Furthermore, women with insecure attachment styles showed less brain activity in regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation (societally appropriate expression and experience of emotion), when thinking of the same negative scenarios, than their differing-attachment-style peers. These results indicate that a person with an insecure attachment style’s protest behavior—how he or she would react to a perceived threat to closeness—involves higher emotional reaction and less emotional regulation than individuals of either secure or avoidant attachment styles.
While our cave-living ancestors may have benefitted from this heightened activation, in the modern era this can become problematic. Not only can a insecure, super-sensitive attachment style lead to anxiety and emotional distress over something as simple as a partner missing a phone call, but Heller and Levine argue it can actually lead to a skewed understanding of affection altogether. An individual with an insecure attachment style is faced with the risk of mistaking an activated attachment system with feelings of affection or love. A super-sensitive attachment system is more easily activated, and when activated, evokes strong emotions. For instance, a delayed text response from a partner can evoke strong feelings of anxiety, and this heightened emotional response—despite its negative valence—can be confused as a side effect of intense passion. Therefore, the wrong partner, one that does not understand the relationship needs of an insecurely attached individual, can be conditioned to feel right; an insecure individual can “start to equate the anxiety, the preoccupation, the obsession, and those ever-so-short bursts of joy with love” (92). In reality, they’re just equating an activated attachment system with adoration.
The Avoidant Individual:
Have you ever known someone who wouldn’t know a good partner if it (hypothetically) hit them in the face? Or someone who can only see the negative in others and shows distaste for intimacy? An avoidant attachment style, which seems to contradict the evolutionary need for closeness, tends to suppress the need for intimacy. This style is believed to be the result of the need for self-sufficiency in times of limited resources or disease, for instance. The avoidants are not devoid of the need for closeness, this need simply manifests in a different way than that of insecures or secures. They tend “to think negatively about their partners, seeing them as needy and overly dependent...but ignore their own needs and fears about relationships” (113-114). They have blind spots that protect and shield the vulnerability that accompanies their own hidden needs; this in turn would have made them more self sufficient in ancestral times.
One study tested the receptiveness of avoidants to attachment issues (113-114). The researchers were interested in how salient certain feelings were to these avoidant individuals. Participants were brought into the lab and sat at a computer where words flashed quickly on a monitor. The researchers asked the participants to identify the words as fast as possible. If participants have activated schemas in their mind that are highly salient to them, then related words would be more accessible, and participants would be more quick to identify them and show a better reaction time (for example, if you feel angry, you would show a faster reaction time for the word “anger” than “happiness”). In the first trial, results showed that avoidants are faster to identify words such as “need,” and “enmeshed” in regards to their partner’s behavior, but slower to identify words such as “fight,” “loss,” or “separation” in regards to themselves” (113). Put simply, avoidants were shown to possess negative views about partners such as “dependent” but were seemingly unaware of those same needs for themselves (113).
However, in a second part of the studies, these findings were contradicted. When preoccupied by another task such as a puzzle, the avoidant participants were suddenly just as quick to identify words related to their own attachment needs (such as “separation,” “loss,” or “death”) as people of other styles. Heller and Levine explain that when avoidants were “distracted by another task, their ability to repress lessened and their true attachment feelings and concerns were able to surface” (114). In fact, other studies have shown avoidants to exhibit protest behavior strikingly similar to that of insecurely attached individuals when faced with a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one.
But how do avoidants manage to suppress their attachment system most of the time? They use deactivating strategies, which include avoiding commitment through avenues such as ghosting someone, even if time spent with them was enjoyable. These strategies keep their attachment system deactivated and, in turn, maintain an important sense of autonomy.
The Secure Individual:
Securely attached individuals are attuned to their partner’s cues as well as their own; “their emotion system doesn’t get too riled up in the face of a threat (as with the anxious) but doesn’t shut down either (as with the avoidant)” (131). They even have the tendency to enhance mixed-style relationships, meaning they manage to heighten relationship satisfaction for not only themselves, but their partner as well.
One marked characteristic of individuals with a secure attachment style is that they’re predisposed to assume their partners will treat them with kindness and love. To illustrate this, the same test run on the avoidants involving word reporting was run on a secure group. The study found that securely attached individuals have more unconscious activation towards concepts such as love and closeness and less towards things such as loss or abandonment. Even when distracted, (a condition that revealed the avoidants’ underlying concerns regarding relationships), the securely attached participants continued to overlook these negative concerns. Their positivity is genuine; “they simply aren’t as sensitive to the negative cues of the world” (136).
All attachment styles stem from our evolutionary need to be involved in close relationships—ones that would have helped to ensure our safety and protection in a more primitive era. Being involved in strong relationships would have increased an individual’s likelihood of surviving attack, acquiring enough food, and surviving in general. Despite the long passage of time since this primitive lifestyle, on an evolutionary scale, we have not graduated from this need for close relationships. Rather, they remain a very powerful drive in our everyday lives: we’re programmed to believe our lives depend on them.
In this article, we cover the three main attachment styles of adults— insecure, avoidant, and secure individuals. It is important to note that there is no best or superior style; rather, understanding one’s own and the attachment style of others has the potential to help one more easily navigate adult relationships—from picking the right partners, to being attuned to the respective needs of those partners.
Find out your Attachment Style:
There is a comprehensive test within the book Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment—and How it Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love
You can follow this link to Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/tests/relationships/relationship-attachment-style-test
Nora is a second year undergraduate majoring in psychology and communications. In addition to her interest in disseminating research, she also serves as a research assistant in the UCLA Baby Lab and is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. Longterm, she hopes to work in clinical psychology and to one day publish her own findings.