What are the four stages of attachment theory

Within the psychology community – several attachment style theorists have, over the years, conducted a range of studies and hypotheses around attachment development and attachment theory.

Theory of attachment

The most influential is British born psychoanalyst, John Bowlby who developed his evolutionary attachment theory during the 1950s and 1960s.

Bowlby proposed that children’s attachment styles and behaviors form part of a forward-thinking behavioral system, one that ensures that they are adequately cared for by their primary caregivers.

Attachment behaviors

In addition to Bowlby’s work on attachment development, psychologist Mary Ainsworth later began experimenting with attachment relationships and how children respond to being separated from their parents.

Further studies have since got explored, and researchers have expanded attachment theory to adult relationships and attachment styles.

Attachment style development

Attachment behavior develops through daily interactions between child and caregiver.

As a caregiver attends to a child’s needs, a secure attachment gets formed, creating the foundations for a healthy, secure bond between caregiver and baby.

Primary attachment figure

According to researchers, within the first year of a child’s life, the bond between children and mothers gets well established, all of which makes it possible to test the quality of the bond and get a sense of trust between primary attachment figure and child.

Through their work on attachment styles with child-caregiver pairings, researchers have developed several patterns of primary attachment.

Stages of attachment

Studies were conducted by briefly separating children from their primary caregivers and observing their behaviors during the separation and after the children got reunited with their parents.

Attachment patterns

From this observational study, researchers identified four basic attachment styles:

Phases of attachment development

  • Secure attachment – children belonging to the secure attachment style exhibited distress upon being separated from their caregivers but welcomed the caregiver’s return warmly with eye contact and cuddle-seeking.
  • Anxious-resistant attachment these children appeared to be frightened when separated from their primary attachment figure and continued to exhibit the same behaviors when their attachment figures returned.
  • Avoidant attachmentchildren belonging to this attachment style were relatively calm when separated from attachment figures and didn’t embrace their caregivers’ return.
  • Disorganized attachmenta child belonging to this group may exhibit variations in their behavior towards a caregiver, such as hitting them or turning away upon being reunited with an attachment figure.

Attachment pattern

The study concluded that most children exhibited securely attached behaviors towards caregivers, while other children seemed insecure and displayed one of the different attachment relationship patterns.

What is attachment theory?

In developmental psychology, attachment theory proposes that all human beings are born with a need to form a close emotional bond with an attachment figure.

This bond develops during the first six month’s of a child’s life if the mother figure (or caregiver) is acceptably responsive.

Adult attachments

Further research got conducted around adult attachments and how the phases of attachment get formed in adult life.

Researchers have found a strong correlation between early attachment styles and attachment patterns found in adulthood.

Attachment development

The impact of early attachments with babies may get transcended into adult life.

Most of the literature on attachment relationships showed that most adults feel ”secure” and content in their relationships ( denoting the ”secure attachment” style).

On the other hand, many people experienced anxious attachment styles towards their close loved ones’ and exhibited avoidance behaviors.

All this denotes the separation anxiety attachment styles displayed in childhood.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety

Research studies have shown a strong link between insecure attachments, avoidant attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder, which features a deep longing for proximity coupled with a low tolerance for rejection (as opposed to those who are securely attached).

Attachment system

Similar to what John Bowlby developed with his attachment theory, experts developed further research on attachment theory, and attachment behavior got developed to describe adults’ attachment stages.

Adult attachment pattern

The phases of attachment observed in adults are slightly different to those found in babies and toddlers during child development.

Bonds get developed differently in adulthood, and adult attention spans and responsiveness differs to that of infants – some of the attachment patterns identified in adults were:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-preoccupied: featuring low avoidance, high anxiety
  • Dismissive-avoidant: featuring intense anxiety and high avoidance
  • Fearful – avoidant: featuring high anxiety, high avoidance

Some of the data hypothesize that attachment styles must get thought of as dimensional.

All this involves a spectrum where various attachment styles get rated as high, low or somewhere in between to make an accurate diagnosis of attachment-related avoidance and attachment-related anxiety.

Is it possible to spot when someone is insecurely attached?

Several personality traits got found in people with insecure attachment styles, including avoidant attachment behaviors.


Some of the traits that people high in attachment avoidance exhibit include:

  • Experiencing worry over being abandoned or uncared for by close loved ones’
  • Being concerned that a romantic partner doesn’t love you
  • Thinking that you might end up alone
  • Worrying or feeling uncomfortable when other people get too close


People with secure attachment styles tend to enjoy happier, more fulfilling relationships with partners and experience much better relationship outcomes such as sexual gratification and connection stability compared to those high in attachment anxiety.

Harry Harlow experiment

American psychologist Harry Harlow conducted several experiments on infant monkeys to explain his theory on attachment.

Infant monkeys

Unlike most attachment theories which state that attachment gets formed through mother-child feeding bonds, Harlow proposed that attachments between caregiver and infant get formed through ”tactile comfort”.

All this suggests that infants have a primitive, innate need to touch and hold onto something for emotional comfort.

Harry Harlow conducted several studies on Rhesus monkeys during the 1950s and 1960s.

Monkey love

In one experiment, Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers and put them into cages with two surrogate mothers; one mother got covered in soft toweling. The other got made of wire.


In the first observation, the toweled mother offered no food, while the wire mother did. All this got delivered in the form of a baby bottle containing milk.

In both groups, the infant monkeys spent more time with the soft toweled mother, even if she had no milk. The infants would only seek the wire mothers attention when she had milk.

Once the infant monkeys got fed, they would return to the toweled mother throughout the day.

Sense of trust

When a strange object got placed into the cage, the infant monkeys would go to the toweled mother for comfort – suggesting that the soft toweled mother could decrease the monkeys’ fear.

The infant monkeys also happily explored their environment when the toweled mother was present.

All this supports the evolutionary theory of attachment that primary caregivers offering security and comfort to their infants is crucial (when compared to the bonding process of feeding).

Attachment theory summary

Irrespective of the psychoanalyst idea behind attachment figures, human beings, above all else, require an emotional connection to establish a bond to an attachment figure – one that signals trust, care and responsiveness.

All this signifies that human beings develop close attachments to those they feel the safest with – bonding occurs between infants and caregivers through the physical requirements of warmth and safety, all of which offer an incredible platform to explore the world.

Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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