The influence of early attachment on childhood and adult relationships
Bowlby’s continuity hypothesis sees children’s attachment types reflected in later relationships. This is based on the internal working model, which perceives an infant’s main attachment relationship as forming a blueprint for future relationships. Attachment style is seen as providing children with beliefs about themselves and others and about the nature of relationships. According to this model, attachment types predict adult relationships, so that those with secure attachments in childhood go on to have intimate, secure adult relationships, while those with insecure attachments do not. Hazan & Shaver (1987) additionally proposed that early attachment patterns affect romantic relationships, caregiving and sexuality in adulthood.
Research indicates that continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of childhood relationships exists. Evidence also suggests that children who form attachments to each other in early life do not form romantic, sexual relationships with each other in adulthood. The idea of continuity between adults’ attachment types and their children’s is supported, possibly indicating a social learning effect. The quality of later adult relationships is related to early attachment styles, though it is not inevitable that those with insecure attachments as children will be condemned to unsuccessful relationships as adults. Individuals with insecure attachments as children can develop secure adult relationships if they are in relationships with those with secure attachments.
Fig 3.8 Research suggests that individuals who form secure infant attachments go on to enjoy loving, long-lasting adult relationships
Hazan & Shaver (1987) assessed possible links between childhood attachment and adult romantic relationships. 620 heterosexual participants responded to a ’love quiz’ in a newspaper, selecting which of 3 descriptions — a secure, an insecure-resistant or an insecure-avoidant attachment type — reflected their feelings of adult romance. Participants also completed a checklist relating to childhood relationships with parents. The percentages of adults in the different attachment types matched those in Ainsworth’s Strange Situation. Those identified with childhood secure attachments had positive perceptions of adult relationships and longer-lasting relationships. Those with insecure-resistant attachments doubted the existence of romantic love and its essentialness to happiness. Those with insecure-avoidant attachments had more self-doubts and, as in those with insecure attachments, increased loneliness. It was concluded that childhood attachment types are positively correlated with childhood attachment experiences.
• McCarthy (1999) assessed women with childhood insecure attachments. He found that women with insecure-avoidant attachments had less successful adult romantic relations, while those with insecure-resistant attachments had problems forming non-romantic adult friendships. This supports Bowlby’s idea of an internal working model.
• Brennan & Shaver (1995) found that participants with insecure-avoidant attachments would have sex without strong feelings of love or being in a long-lasting relationship. Hazan & Shaver (1994) found that such individuals were more likely to have one-night stands and casual sex outside of established relationships and also preferred purely sexual contact to emotional contact. These studies support the concept of the internal working model.
• Kirkpatrick & Davis (1994) studied 300 dating couples for 3 years and found that participants with secure childhood attachments were more likely to have secure, satisfying relations. This supports Bowlby’s continuity hypothesis.
Wood et al. (2003) reported that insecurely attached individuals are not doomed to have poor relationships, as the quality of relationship results from the interaction of partners’ attachment styles. Insecurely attached people can have positive relationships if paired with securely attached partners.
Hazan & Shaver’s research provided a means of assessing the continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships, which has been used by many other researchers to conduct further research.
Much of the evidence in this area is correlational and therefore does not show causality. Important non-measured factors may also exert an influence.
An alternative viewpoint is the temperament hypothesis, which sees the quality of adult relationships as being determined biologically by innate personality. If true, then attempts to develop better relationships by changing attachment styles would not work.
The internal working model is not universally supported. Zimmerman et al. (2000) reported that early attachment style did not predict the quality of later relationships. Life events, such as divorce, had a greater effect.
The Strange Situation only measures attachment type with one person. Therefore, measurements using this technique in adults might only relate to a current relationship and not all adult relationships of an individual.
The main practical application of research into this area is in relationship counselling. Attention needs to be paid to attachment styles of partners, in order for the best strategies to be formed to successfully guide individuals through times of relationship stress.