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29.6: Attachment In Adulthood

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    Although Bowlby was primarily focused on understanding the nature of the infant–caregiver relationship, he believed that attachment characterized human experience across the life course. It was not until the mid-1980s, however, that researchers began to take seriously the possibility that attachment processes may be relevant to adulthood. Hazan and Shaver (1987) were two of the first researchers to explore Bowlby’s ideas in the context of romantic relationships. According to Hazan and Shaver, the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners is partly a function of the same motivational system—the attachment behavioral system—that gives rise to the emotional bond between infants and their caregivers. Hazan and Shaver noted that in both kinds of relationship, people (a) feel safe and secure when the other person is present; (b) turn to the other person during times of sickness, distress, or fear; (c) use the other person as a “secure base” from which to explore the world; and (d) speak to one another in a unique language, often called “motherese” or “baby talk.” (See Focus Topic 2.)

    On the basis of these parallels, Hazan and Shaver (1987) argued that adult romantic relationships, similar to infant– caregiver relationships, are attachments. According to Hazan and Shaver, individuals gradually transfer attachment-related functions from parents to peers as they develop. Thus, although young children tend to use their parents as their primary attachment figures, as they reach adolescence and young adulthood, they come to rely more upon close friends and/or romantic partners for basic attachment-related functions. Thus, although a young child may turn to his or her mother for comfort, support, and guidance when distressed, scared, or ill, young adults may be more likely to turn to their romantic partners for these purposes under similar situations.

    Hazan and Shaver (1987) asked a diverse sample of adults to read the three paragraphs below and indicate which paragraph best characterized the way they think, feel, and behave in close relationships:

    1. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
    2. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about some- one getting too close to me.
    3. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.

    Conceptually, these descriptions were designed to represent what Hazan and Shaver considered to be adult analogues of the kinds of attachment patterns Ainsworth described in the strange situation (avoidant, secure, and anxious, respectively). Hazan and Shaver (1987) found that the distribution of the three patterns was similar to that observed in infancy. In other words, about 60% of adults classified themselves as secure (paragraph B), about 20% described themselves as avoidant (paragraph A), and about 20% described themselves as anxious-resistant (paragraph C). Moreover, they found that people who described themselves as secure, for example, were more likely to report having had warm and trusting relation- ships with their parents when they were growing up. In addition, they were more likely to have positive views of romantic relationships. Based on these findings, Hazan and Shaver (1987) concluded that the same kinds of individual differences that exist in infant attachment also exist in adulthood.


    Attachment and Social Media

    Social media websites and mobile communication services play an increasing role in people’s lives. Many people use Facebook, for example, to keep in touch with family and friends, to update their loved ones regarding things going on in their lives, and to meet people who share similar interests. Moreover, modern cellular technology allows people to get in touch with their loved ones much easier than was possible a mere 20 years ago.

    From an attachment perspective, these innovations in communications technology are important because they allow people to stay connected virtually to their attachment figures—regardless of the physical distance that might exist between them. Recent research has begun to examine how attachment processes play out in the use of social media. Oldmeadow et al. (2013), for example, studied a diverse sample of individuals and assessed their attachment security and their use of Facebook. Oldmeadow and his colleagues found that the use of Facebook may serve attachment functions. For example, people were more likely to report using Facebook to connect with others when they were experiencing negative emotions. In addition, the researchers found that people who were more anxious in their attachment orientation were more likely to use Face- book frequently, but people who were more avoidant used Facebook less and were less open on the site. ■

    Research on Attachment in Adulthood

    Attachment theory has inspired a large amount of literature in social, personality, and clinical psychology. In the sections below, I provide a brief overview of some of the major research questions and what researchers have learned about attachment in adulthood.

    Who Ends Up with Whom?

    When people are asked what kinds of psychological or behavioral qualities they are seeking in a romantic partner, a large majority of people indicate that they are seeking someone who is kind, caring, trustworthy, and understanding—the kinds of attributes that characterize a “secure” caregiver (Chappell & Davis, 1998). But we know that people do not always end up with others who meet their ideals. Are secure people more likely to end up with secure partners—and, vice versa, are insecure people more likely to end up with insecure partners? The majority of the research that has been con- ducted to date suggests that the answer is “yes.” Frazier et al. (1996), for example, studied the attachment patterns of more than 83 heterosexual couples and found that, if the man was relatively secure, the woman was also likely to be secure.

    One important question is whether these findings exist because (a) secure people are more likely to be attracted to other secure people, (b) secure people are likely to create security in their partners over time, or (c) some combination of these possibilities. Existing empirical research strongly supports the first alternative. For example, when people have the opportunity to interact with individuals who vary in security in a speed-dating context, they express a greater interest in those who are higher in security than those who are more insecure (McClure et al., 2010). However, there is also some evidence that people’s attachment styles mutually shape one another in close relationships. For example, in a longitudinal study, Hudson et al. (2014) found that, if one person in a relationship experienced a change in security, his or her partner was likely to experience a change in the same direction.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): People who had relatively secure attachments as children go on to have more secure romantic attachments. [“couple-1822585” by Sasin Tipchai/Pixabay is in the public domain under CC0 1.0.]

    Relationship Functioning

    Research has consistently demonstrated that individuals who are relatively secure are more likely than insecure individu- als to have high functioning relationships—relationships that are more satisfying, more enduring, and less characterized by conflict. For example, Feeney and Noller (1992) found that insecure individuals were more likely than secure individu- als to experience a breakup of their relationship. In addition, secure individuals are more likely to report satisfying rela- tionships (e.g., Collins & Read, 1990) and are more likely to provide support to their partners when their partners are feel- ing distressed (Simpson et al., 1992).

    Do Early Experiences Shape Adult Attachment?

    The majority of research on this issue is retrospective—that is, it relies on adults’ reports of what they recall about their childhood experiences. This kind of work suggests that secure adults are more likely to describe their early childhood experiences with their parents as being supportive, loving, and kind (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). A number of longitudinal studies are emerging that demonstrate prospective associations between early attachment experiences and adult attachment styles and/or interpersonal functioning in adulthood. For example, Fraley et al. (2013) found in a sample of more than 700 indi- viduals studied from infancy to adulthood that maternal sen- sitivity across development prospectively predicted security at age 18. Simpson et al. (2007) found that attachment security, assessed in infancy in the strange situation, predicted peer competence in grades 1 to 3, which, in turn, predicted the quality of friendship relationships at age 16, which, in turn, predicted the expression of positive and negative emotions in their adult romantic relationships at ages 20 to 23.

    It is easy to come away from such findings with the mis- taken assumption that early experiences “determine” later outcomes. To be clear: Attachment theorists assume that the relationship between early experiences and subsequent out- comes is probabilistic, not deterministic. Having support- ive and responsive experiences with caregivers early in life is assumed to set the stage for positive social development.

    But that does not mean that attachment patterns are set in stone. In short, even if an individual has far from optimal experiences in early life, attachment theory suggests that it is possible for that individual to develop well-functioning adult relationships through a number of corrective experi- ences—including relationships with siblings, other family members, teachers, and close friends. Security is best viewed as a culmination of a person’s attachment history rather than a reflection of his or her early experiences alone. Those early experiences are considered important not because they deter- mine a person’s fate, but because they provide the foundation for subsequent experiences.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sharing food, celebrations, and traditions are some of the ways we establish secure attachments with our loved ones from an early age. [“Thanksgiving Dinner in Penticton” by iwona_kellie/Flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]


    Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Erlbaum.

    Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books. Chappell, K. D., & Davis, K. E. (1998). Attachment, partner choice, and

    perception of romantic partners: An experimental test of the attachment-security hypothesis. Personal Relationships, 5(3), 327–342.

    Collins, N., & Read, S. (1990). Adult attachment, working models and relationship quality in dating couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(4), 644–663. 0022-3514.58.4.644

    Feeney, J. A., & Noller, P. (1992). Attachment style and romantic love: Relationship dissolution. Australian Journal of Psychology, 44(2), 69–74.

    Fraley, R. C., Roisman, G. I., Booth-LaForce, C., Owen, M. T., & Holland, A. S. (2013). Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles: A longitudinal study from infancy to early adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(5), 817–838. doi. org/10.1037/a0031435

    Frazier, P. A., Byer, A. L., Fischer, A. R., Wright, D. M., & DeBord, K. A. (1996). Adult attachment style and partner choice: Correlational and experimental findings. Personal Relationships, 3(2), 117–136. https://

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    Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–685.

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    Hudson, N. W., Fraley, R. C., Brumbaugh, C. C., & Vicary, A. M. (2014). Coregulation in romantic partners’ attachment styles: A longitudinal investigation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 845–857.

    McClure, M. J., Lydon., J. E., Baccus, J. R., & Baldwin, M. W. (2010). A signal detection analysis of chronic attachment anxiety at speed- dating: Being unpopular is only the first part of the problem. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(8), 1024–1036. https://

    Oldmeadow, J. A., Quinn, S., & Kowert, R. (2013). Attachment style, social skills, and Facebook use amongst adults. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1142–1149.

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    This page titled 29.6: Attachment In Adulthood is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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