What is Attachment Theory? Part One

“Tell me what it was like growing up.” “Let’s go back to your childhood.”  “What was your relationship like with your parents?” 

These questions come from psychologists and therapists around the world to the point where they can become annoyingly cliché. 

Those sitting across from a well-meaning counsellor may roll their eyes and think, My childhood has nothing to do with my problems now. Why do we have to start there? 

The truth is childhoods matter. They mattered then, and they matter now. 

Most people don’t realize the extent to which their childhood affects how they function, in relationships, and how they view and relate to the world around them. 

There is an increasing body of evidence to back up the modern-day term, “attachment theory.” 

What is Attachment Theory? 

The knowledge we have today comes from a concept developed by a psychoanalyst named John Bowlby in the 1950s called attachment theory.

He termed “attachment” as “the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (1969). Specifically, Bowlby researched the effects on infants when separated from their parents (Bowlby, 1958).

What he found was that the infant’s reactions of crying or screaming when separated from their parents was based on a perceived threat of losing the survival advantages of being cared for by a primary caregiver. 

Bowley termed the reactions “attachment behavioural system,” which guides one’s patterns and habits in relationships. 

Bowlby found that infants, when placed in an uncomfortable situation and separated from their parents, would react one of three ways when reunited with their parents. 

1. Secure attachment: These infants were upset when separated with their parents, but were easily comforted during the separation, and happy when their parents returned. 

2. Anxious-resistant attachment: These infants represented a smaller portion of the sample size, and they showed a higher level of distress than those in the first group when their parents left. When their parents returned, they sought comfort but were also still upset with their parents. 

3. Avoidant attachment: Infants in this category showed minimal or no distress when their parents left, and either ignored or avoided their parents when they returned. 

These were Bowley’s first three levels of attachment. In later years, researchers added a fourth attachment style: the disorganized-disoriented attachment, which means that the infants had no predictable pattern of attachment behaviours (Bowlby, 1958). 

Why do Childhood Attachment Patterns Matter? 

From Bowley and other research studies, one’s early attachment patterns are directly dependent on the care they received in their early years. 

If a child felt loved and supported, he or she would develop a secure attachment. Children who were neglected or experienced inconsistent love and care would develop an anxious-resistant attachment. 

Even more interesting, researchers have found that as a child grows into an adult, his or her attachment pattern generally remains, and these behaviours and tendencies transfer into his or her relationships (particularly romantic ones) with others. 

What Research and Studies Support Attachment Theory? 

The Harlow Studies (1958)

One of the most important research studies on attachment theory used interesting participants: rhesus monkeys. Here’s what happened. Harry Harlow, an American psychologist in the 1950s, studied how parents and children bonded and interacted. 

In one experiment, Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers a few hours after birth. Each monkey was then “given” to two inanimate surrogate “mothers” – both were made out of a wire mesh, but one was covered with a soft cloth. Both “mothers” provided milk to feed the babies. 

The baby monkeys had the choice which “mother” to associate with, and almost all the time, they took milk from the cloth “mother.” This finding proved that infant attachment involves more factors than food. 

Harlow then decided to modify this experiment. The baby monkeys were either given the bare wire mesh mother or the cloth mother, but not both. What he found was that both groups thrived physically since their nutritional needs were being met. However, the groups showed different behaviour. 

WhenHarlow presented the monkeys with strange, loud objects, those with the cloth mother returned to her during this uncomfortable situation, while the ones with the wire mesh mother threw themselves on the floors, rocked back and forth, and screamed. 

The bottom line here is that a clear connection to emotional attachment in infancy, gained through snuggling, affected the monkeys’ responses to stress (Harlow, 1958). 

Mary Ainsworth 

Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian developmental psychologist in the 1950s and 60s, drew on the work of Bowlby and Harlow and developed the Strange Situation Classification (SSC).

She also performed an experiment to observe the different attachment levels between mothers and infants. 

The experiment was set up in a small room with one-way glass so the infants, between 12 and 18 months, could be observed. One hundred middle-class American families participated.

The “Strange Situation” was conducted by watching the infant’s behaviour in eight different “episodes,” each lasting three minutes. 

These scenarios showed the infant with his or her mother, with just a stranger, and then being reunited with mother. Through the findings, Ainsworth identified three main attachment styles: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure ambivalent/resistant, which she concluded were the result of the early interactions with the infant and his or her mother (Ainsworth, 1970). 

Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver 

Early on, a limitation of the attachment theory was that it had only been studied in monkeys and children. In the 1980s, researchers Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver decided to study attachment theories in adult couples. 

They looked at a number of couples and examined attachments between them, and also how they reacted to stress. What they found was that children typically carry their attachment theory into adulthood. 

When an adult had a weak attachment, he or she felt inadequate in the relationship. When attachments were too strong, the couple struggled with codependency.

Through their work, they came up with four attachment styles in adults: 

1. Secure: Love and trust come easily for this person.

2. Anxious: This person longs to be intimate with others, but is terrified of being rejected.

3. Avoidant: This person avoids the dangers of intimacy through emotional withdrawal. 

Not surprisingly, Hazan and Shaver concluded that relationships work best when both parties exhibit a secure attachment and that secure attachments begin in childhood.

More to Come.

As you can see, there’s so much to cover in attachment theory. It is important to understand the research and how the theories have evolved over the years.

The bottom line is that attachments are formed during childhood, and they can and will affect someone through a lifetime.

However, there is some good news that we will explore in our Attachment Theory Part 2: just because you grew up with an insecure attachment, doesn’t mean you have to carry these patterns through into your relationships for life. 


Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behaviour of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41, 49-67.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. (OKS Print.) New York: Basic Books

Harlow, H. F. & Zimmermann, R. R. (1958). The development of affective responsiveness in infant monkeys. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 102,501 -509.

Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. “Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relationship.” Psychological Inquiry. 5 1-22, 1994.


Get in Touch

We treat all of our clients with the utmost care, dignity and respect. Call now for a totally confidential, no obligation conversation with one of our professionals.

Whether you’re calling for yourself or someone you know, you needn’t suffer alone.

If you or someone you know could benefit from our services please do not hesitate to contact us.