Attachment theory speaks about the bond we originally have with our caregivers. This individual relationship then often gets transferred onto other relationships in our lives. For example, when someone tells you: “You’re controlling, just like my father, or you’re always angry like my mother…Often we will find partners with whom we can replicate attachment patterns similar to the ones we know from our childhoods. In some cases, this can become problematic.

Here is a short overview of the history of attachment research:

John Bowlby (1969), defined attachment as an “innate and lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.

Harry Harlow (1959)

The behavioral theory of attachment would suggest that an infant would form an attachment with a carer that provides food.  In contrast, Harlow’s famous monkey experiment (where baby monkeys were either provided with food by an inanimate wire monkey, or could find comfort with an inanimate clothed money, and consistently preferred the clothed monkey, even that one did not provide food) suggests the explanation that attachment develops as a result of the mother providing “tactile comfort,” suggesting that infants have an innate (biological) need to touch and cling to something for emotional comfort.

Mary Ainsworth (1913 – 1999), began to systematically study infant-parent separations that a formal understanding of these individual differences was articulated. Ainsworth and her students developed a technique called the strange situation–a laboratory paradigm for studying infant-parent attachment. In the strange situation, 12-month-old infants and their parents are brought to the laboratory and, systematically, separated from and reunited with one another. In the strange situation, most children (i.e., about 60%) behave in the way implied by Bowlby’s “normative” theory.

  1. They become upset when the parent leaves the room, but, when he or she returns, they actively seek the parent and are easily comforted by him or her. Children who exhibit this pattern of behavior are often called secure.
  2. Other children (about 20% or less) are ill-at-ease initially, and, upon separation, become extremely distressed. Importantly, when reunited with their parents, these children have a difficult time being soothed, and often exhibit conflicting behaviors that suggest they want to be comforted, but that they also want to “punish” the parent for leaving. These children are often called anxious-resistant.
  3. The third pattern of attachment that Ainsworth and her colleagues documented is called avoidant. Avoidant children (about 20%) don’t appear too distressed by the separation, and, upon reunion, actively avoid seeking contact with their parent, sometimes turning their attention to play objects on the laboratory floor.

    Attachment Styles

    Aside from Bowlby, other theorists contributed to the study of attachment. Ainsworth, Main, and Solomon (1986) are the main researchers who theorized the different styles of attachment that can be observed in the relationship of one person to another. These attachment styles include secure, ambivalent-secure, avoidant-insecure, and disorganized insecure attachments.

    1. Secure Attachment

    When children are securely attached to their caregivers (parents), they feel happy whenever their caregivers are around, but are upset when they get separated from them. While the child is in distress when his parent is away, still, he feels secured with the feeling that his caregiver will return sometime soon.

    2. Ambivalent Attachment

    A child who is ambivalently attached becomes very upset and sorrowful whenever he gets separated from his parent. The child does not feel that he can rely on his caregiver whenever he is in need of something.

    3. Avoidant Attachment

    Simply put, a child who has an avoidant attachment tends to keep away from his parents. Studies revealed that this may be a cause of parents who are fond of neglecting or abusing their children.

    4. Disorganized Attachment

    This is when there is no clear (or mixed) attachment between the child and his caregiver. When the parent acts as an apprehensive caregiver and a reassuring one at different times, the child may get confused and cause this kind of attachment.

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    Adult Romantic Partners:

    Hazan and Shaver (1987) noted that the relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners share the following features: