How Attachment in Childhood affects Adult Relationships

Did you know that some of your earliest experiences with your parents can have an immense impact on your relationships as an adult – even intimate ones?

British psychiatrist John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth both theorised that this is what is called the ‘attachment theory’, where the early stages of your relationships (most likely with a parental figure) can contribute to how well you form bonds with other people in your adult years.

Bowlby described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. This definition concerns the personal development of an individual in forming emotional and physical ‘attachments’ during their mature years.

During his studies, Bowlby learned that it is crucial for a child to feel safe and secured through forming strong attachments with their parental figures in order for the individual to feel more confident in trying out and learning new things. Think of it in a way that these children have a ‘back-up’, or a support system – someone to help or stand by them anytime they face an issue.

On the other hand, with the absence of such childhood attachments, individuals may not feel like they have the right kind of support system and would thus be less likely to possess any proper developmental energy, leading them to feel more fearful in seeking new experiences and building new relationships with people.

In addition to Bowlby’s ideas, Mary Ainsworth later developed what is called the “attachment behavior”, where she believed that children with strong attachments affect the behaviors of children in different situations. In a study, she observed these behaviors by separating the children from their caretakers. The children with strong attachments seemed to have remained calm, secured by the trust that they will soon be returned to their caretakers. However, the children with weak attachments showed the complete opposite signs and were found crying before being returned to their caretakers. Prior to being returned

In the 1980s, Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver went on to study the context of attachment theory on adult relationships through the ‘Love Quiz’. Hazan and Shaver were able to examine the way a few couples reacted to different stressors and stimuli, and found that those with weak childhood attachments felt a lack of intimacy, while couples with healthy childhood attachments were able to “balance intimacy with independence”.

Although the study in attachment theory garnered large attentions, criticisms were also made in that the theory solely blames the caretakers for the way the child developed relationships with other people in their later years. Thus, people argue that the involvement of children in different social groups should also be taken into account when evaluating the adult relationships of the individual – not just the role of their caretakers.

Sources: Attachment Theory – Psychologist World Attachment Theory | Simply Psychology Review and Criticisms of Attachment Theory (