Explaining Adult Relationships Through Attachment Theory

The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Did you know that the relationship you had with parents and caregivers as a young child can significantly impact your interpersonal relationships as an adult? One prominent theory from developmental psychology, attachment theory, proposes that the way you bond with romantic partners, friends, coworkers, and authority figures as an adult is significantly influenced by the way you bonded with those who raised you. This article will describe attachment theory and how it evolved from describing only childhood attachments to attachments throughout the lifespan.

History of attachment theory

The original attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who regularly worked with young children in the mid-20th century. He noted specific behaviors, such as frantic searching, crying, and clinging, when children were separated from their caregivers. Bowlby called these “attachment behaviors” and theorized that the human brain develops an attachment behavioral system at a very young age to ensure that a child is motivated to seek out the safety and security of their protectors.

The strange situation

In 1969, another researcher, Mary Ainsworth, developed an experiment known as the “strange situation.” The strange situation experiment recorded a child’s reaction when their parent left the room and their reaction when they returned. Ainsworth noted that only about 60% of children became distressed when their parents departed and were easily soothed upon their return, the behavior that would be expected under Bowlby’s attachment model. Ainsworth noted that about 20% of children became distressed when their parents left and were difficult to soothe when they returned, and another 20% showed little distress when their parents departed.

Ainsworth referred to the 60% of children who were easily soothed as “securely attached.” Children who could not be easily soothed were classified as “anxious-resistant,” and children who did not become distressed were classified as “avoidant.” Although she didn’t know it at the time, Ainsworth had stumbled on the roots of adult attachment.

Attachment in adulthood


In the late 1980s, researchers Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver conducted experiments to determine how childhood attachment affected adult romantic relationships. They demonstrated that romantic bonds function of the same attachment behavioral system first identified by John Bowlby. While child-caregiver attachments are obviously different from romantic attachments, they share similar features, such as feeling safe when the other is nearby, engaging in intimate contact, and a mutual preoccupation.

Hazan and Shaver continued their research and found that much like childhood attachment, adult attachment can be categorized into different attachment styles. They were able to find evidence of adult relationships that mirrored Ainsworth’s secure, anxious-resistant, and avoidant styles of infant-caregiver attachment. They were also able to identify a direct correlation between the type of attachment a person had with their caregiver as a child and the attachment they experience in their adult relationships.

The four attachment styles

Other researchers expanded Hazan and Shaver’s work until they reached contemporary models, which are continually researched. Currently, attachment theory has a dual-function model, with one representing childhood attachments and the other representing adult attachments. Adult attachment theory is most commonly aligned with romantic relationships, which represent the bulk of the research. Today, adult attachment is described through one of four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Secure attachment

“Secure” attachment refers to the absence of any of the other attachment styles, which are all considered “insecure” attachments. Adults with a secure attachment style can depend on their partners and let their partners rely on them. Secure relationships are based on honesty, intimacy, and trust. A person who is securely attached can function well both in a relationship and independently.

Anxious attachment


Those who are anxiously attached tend to see themselves as inferior to their partner and experience significant anxiety at the thought of being without them. They also typically deeply fear abandonment. To remedy that fear, many people become needy and clingy in their relationships. Anxious attachments are common in those raised with inconsistent caregivers. At times, their parents were attuned to their needs and supportive. At others, their parents were distant and unavailable.

Avoidant attachment

Those with avoidant attachment tend to be raised by caregivers who are attuned to their physical needs, like food and shelter, but dismissive of their emotional needs. This attachment style is characterized by discomfort with commitment and a strong desire for independence. Those with avoidant attachment tend to avoid relying on their partner and don’t like it when their partner relies on them.

Disorganized attachment


Disorganized attachment is often considered the most dangerous and insidious attachment style. It typically occurs when someone is raised in a neglectful or abusive home. Disorganized attachment contains features of both anxious and avoidant attachment. Those with disorganized attachment see their partner as a source of desire and fear. They want a loving relationship but experience significant difficulty trusting and relying on others.

As you may have guessed, disorganized attachment is typically associated with the poorest outcomes in romantic relationships, followed by anxious and avoidant attachment. Secure attachment tends to have the best outcomes. Attachment theory is often used to explain common problems with commitment, intimacy, and dependence in a romantic relationship. For more information about common intimacy problems, check out this article from BetterHelp, a therapy and mental health resource:

Most people consider it possible to change attachment styles in adulthood through dedicated effort. An increasingly popular “fifth” attachment style, earned-secure attachment, is being used to describe those who moved from an insecure to a secure attachment style. Those seeking to change their attachment style may want to consider working with a mental health professional, which may make the process significantly easier.

About Hanna Knowles