Attachment Theory - Styles and Characteristics

John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Characteristics of attachment
The Four Key Characteristics of Attachment. Image: Kendra Cherry

What is Attachment?

Attachment is a special emotional relationship that involves an exchange of comfort, care, and pleasure. The roots of research on attachment began with Freud's theories about love, but another researcher is usually credited as the father of attachment theory.

John Bowlby devoted extensive research to the concept of attachment, describing it as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." Bowlby shared the psychoanalytic view that early experiences in childhood are important with influencing development and behavior later in life. Our early attachment styles are established in childhood through the infant/caregiver relationship.

In addition to this, Bowlby believed that attachment had an evolutionary component; it aids in survival. "The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature".

Characteristics of Attachment

Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

  1. Proximity Maintenance - The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
  2. Safe Haven - Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
  3. Secure Base - The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
  4. Separation Distress - Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Bowlby made three key propositions about attachment theory. First, he suggested that when children are raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be available to them, they are less likely to experience fear than those who are raised without such conviction. Secondly, he believed that this confidence is forged during a critical period of development, during the years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and that the expectations that are formed during that period tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of the person's life. Finally, he suggested that these expectations that are formed are directly tied to the experience. In other words, children develop expectations that their caregivers will be responsive to their needs because, in their experience, their caregivers have been responsive in the past.

Ainsworth's "Strange Situation" Assessment

Strange Situation Assessment
Ainsworth's Strange Situation Assessment. Image: Kendra Cherry

During the 1970's, psychologist Mary Ainsworth further expanded upon Bowlby's groundbreaking work in her now-famous "Strange Situation" study. The study involved observing children between the ages of 12 to 18 months responding to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mother.

Based on these observations, Ainsworth concluded that there were three major styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent insecure attachment, and avoidant insecure attachment. Researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style known as disorganized-insecure attachment. Numerous studies have supported Ainsworth's conclusions and additional research has revealed that these early attachment styles can help predict behaviors later in life.

Attachment Through Life

Adult attachment styles
Early attachment styles can play a role in adult romantic attachment styles.. Image: Joe Zlomek

Before you start blaming relationship problems on your parents, it is important to note that attachment styles formed in infancy are not necessarily identical to those demonstrated in adult romantic attachment. A great deal of time has elapsed between infancy and adulthood, so intervening experiences also play a large role in adult attachment styles. Those described as ambivalent or avoidant in infancy can become securely attached as adults, while those with a secure attachment in childhood can show insecure attachment styles in adulthood. Basic temperament is also thought to play a partial role in attachment.

In one study, Hazen and Shaver found that parental divorce seemed unrelated to attachment style. Instead, their research indicated that the best predictor of adult attachment style was the perceptions that people have about the quality of their relationships with their parents as well as their parent's relationship with each other.

But research in this area does indicate that patterns established in childhood have an important impact on later relationships. Researchers Hazen and Shaver also found varied beliefs about relationships amongst adults with differing attachment styles. Securely attached adults tend to believe that romantic love is enduring. Ambivalently attached adults report falling in love often, while those with avoidant attachment styles describe love as rare and temporary.

While we cannot say that infant attachment styles are identical to adult romantic attachment styles, research has shown that early attachment styles can help predict patterns of behavior in adulthood.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment
Secure Attachment. Image: Kendra Cherry

Characteristics of Secure Attachment

Children who are securely attached generally become visibly upset when their caregivers leave, and are happy when their parents return. When frightened, these children will seek comfort from the parent or caregiver. Contact initiated by a parent is readily accepted by securely attached children and they greet the return of a parent with positive behavior. While these children can be comforted to some extent by other people in the absence of a parent or caregiver, they clearly prefer parents to strangers.

Parents of securely attached children tend to play more with their children. Additionally, these parents react more quickly to their children's needs and are generally more responsive to their children than the parents of insecurely attached children. Studies have shown that securely attached children are more empathetic during later stages of childhood. These children are also described as less disruptive, less aggressive, and more mature than children with ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles.

While forming a secure attachment with caregivers is normal and expected, as Hazen and Shaver have noted, it doesn't always happen. Researchers have found a number of different factors that contribute to the development (or lack thereof) of secure attachment, particularly a mother's responsiveness to her infant's needs during the first year of a child's life. Mothers who respond inconsistently or who interfere with child's activities tend to produce infants who explore less, cry more, and are more anxious. Mothers who consistently reject or ignore their infant's needs tend to produce children who try to avoid contact.

As adults, those who are securely attached tend to have trusting, long-term relationships. Other key characteristics of securely attached individuals include having high self-esteem, enjoying intimate relationships, seeking out social support, and an ability to share feelings with other people.

In one study, researchers found that women with a secure attachment style had more positive feelings about their adult romantic relationships than other women with insecure attachment styles.

How many people classify themselves as securely attached? In a classic study by Hazen and Shaver, 56 percent of respondent identified themselves as secure, while 25 percent identified as avoidant and 19 percent as ambivalent/anxious.

Ambivalent Attachment

Ambivalent attachment
Ambivalent Attachment. Image: Kendra Cherry

Characteristics of Ambivalent Attachment

Children who are ambivalently attached tend to be extremely suspicious of strangers. These children display considerable distress when separated from a parent or caregiver, but do not seem reassured or comforted by the return of the parent. In some cases, the child might passively reject the parent by refusing comfort, or may openly display direct aggression toward the parent.

According to Cassidy and Berlin, ambivalent attachment is relatively uncommon, with only 7 to 15 percent of infants in the United States displaying this attachment style. In a review of ambivalent attachment literature, Cassidy and Berlin also found that observational research consistently links ambivalent insecure attachment to low maternal availability. As these children grow older, teachers often describe them as clingy and over-dependent.

As adults, those with an ambivalent attachment style often feel reluctant about becoming close to others and worry that their partner does not reciprocate their feelings. This leads to frequent breakups, often because the relationship feels cold and distant. These individuals feel especially distraught after the end of a relationship. Cassidy and Berlin described another pathological pattern where ambivalently attached adults cling to young children as a source of security.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment
Avoidant Attachment. Image: Kendra Cherry

Characteristics of Avoidant Attachment

Children with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid parents and caregivers. This avoidance often becomes especially pronounced after a period of absence. These children might not reject attention from a parent, but neither do they seek our comfort or contact. Children with an avoidant attachment show no preference between a parent and a complete stranger.

As adults, those with an avoidant attachment tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. These individuals do not invest much emotion in relationships and experience little distress when a relationship ends. They often avoid intimacy by using excuses (such as long work hours), or may fantasize about other people during sex. Research has also shown that adults with an avoidant attachment style are more accepting and likely to engage in casual sex. Other common characteristics include a failure to support partners during stressful times and an inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions with partners.

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachment
Disorganized Attachment. Image: Kendra Cherry

Characteristics of Disorganized Attachment

Children with a disorganized-insecure attachment style show a lack of clear attachment behavior. Their actions and responses to caregivers are often a mix of behaviors, including avoidance or resistance. These children are described as displaying dazed behavior, sometimes seeming either confused or apprehensive in the presence of a caregiver.

Main and Solomon proposed that inconsistent behavior on the part of parents might be a contributing factor in this style of attachment. In later research, Main and Hesse argued that parents who act as figures of both fear and reassurance to a child contribute to a disorganized attachment style. Because the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, confusion results.


Mayo Clinic. Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Simply Psychology. Attachment Theory.​ (2009)​

University of Illinois. A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research.​ (2010)

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