-Written by Katie Little ’18
Before 1987, attachment theory, as developed by Bowlby and Ainsworth, primarily focused on how infants develop bonds with their primary caregivers. It divided attachment styles into three major categories—secure, avoidant, and anxious/ambivalent. Bowlby suggested that securely attached infants go through a series of emotional reactions when separated from their mothers. First, the infant will protest, crying and searching for the primary caregiver. Second, he or she will despair and become passive and sad. And third, the infant will demonstrate disregard for the mother and engage in detachment. If an infant has anxious/ambivalent attachment, then they will exhibit a disproportionate amount of protest; if an infant has avoidant attachment, then they will exhibit a disproportionate amount of detachment.
Hazan and Shaver (1987) sought to apply this attachment model to another type of close bond: romantic relationships.
To determine if adults demonstrate the same type of attachment bonds in romantic relationships as infants do with their primary caregivers, Hazan and Shaver developed several hypotheses, including that the proportions of the three attachment types would be the same in adulthood as in infancy and that the different attachment styles would lead to different experiences with and beliefs about relationships. To test these hypotheses, Hazan and Shaver used two studies; the first used the first 620 responders to a newspaper “love quiz.” The second study used 108 undergraduate students.
To determine attachment style, the researchers had participants select which of 3 paragraphs best described their feelings about getting close to others. Across both studies, approximately 56% of the subjects identified with the paragraph describing secure attachment, 24% choose the paragraph describing avoidant attachment, and 20% picked the paragraph describing anxious/ambivalent attachment. When assessed individually, both studies showed nearly identical distributions of the adult attachment bond types as previous data from Campos et al. (1983) with the distribution of infant-mother bond types.
Additionally, as predicted, securely attached individuals generally reported more positive experiences with romantic relationships, while anxious/ambivalent individuals tended to describe love becoming obsession, and avoidant individuals tended to describe fear of intimacy and jealousy. The results were somewhat weaker in the second study, perhaps due to participants’ younger age group and subsequent lack of experience with romantic relationships.
The three different attachment groups were also shown to have different understandings of the nature of romantic relationships and feelings. Securely attached individuals generally believed that while romantic feelings could have ups and downs, the intensity felt at the beginning of a relationship could be reached again at times because romantic love would never truly fade. Anxious/ambivalent subjects reported that it was easy for them to fall for others, but it was much harder to find “real love.” Avoidant individuals claimed that the love seen in movies and books was fiction and generally would fade over time; they suggested that they had difficulty finding people to fall in love with.
Overall, these two studies support the use of attachment theory in studying romantic relationships. Further research has been done to assess the parenting histories and romantic outcomes of individuals with different attachment models.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P (1987). Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (3), 511-524.
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