The way in which we interact with each other, the relationships we build, and the way we view those relationships are key factors in determining our quality of life as social beings. The connections that exist between people and their primary caregivers early in childhood subsequently lay the groundwork for how they view attachment to relationship partners throughout life. Adult attachment is widely researched as an explanation for why people react to life situations in certain ways, and these explanations are portrayed as being relatively unchanging over time. Therefore, people with secure attachment styles are said to adjust well in all types of situations whereas people with insecure attachment styles adjust poorly. It is somewhat unsettling to believe that people who did not have positive foundations of attachment with primary caregivers early in development are doomed to live a life devoid of complete social satisfaction.
According to Bowlby (1982), people are born with the attachment behavioral system. The attachment behavioral system is an innate psychobiological structure that motivates people to seek immediacy to attachment figures—other people who will look after them—in times of need. The way this system operates depends on a number of social experiences, including those with early caregivers, resulting in measurable, individual attachment security. Positive, secure interactions with those attachment figures promote optimal functioning of the attachment behavioral system and create attachment security (based on expectations that important others will be available in times of need) and positive working models of attachment. A sense that those important others will not be available in times of need results in insecure attachment and negative working models (Mikulineer & Shaver, 2005).
Working models of attachment are highly accessible cognitive-affective structures that, once activated, should shape how individuals manipulate their social experiences (Collins & Allard, 2001). Since secure adults have positive self-images and optimistic expectations of others, they are likely to manipulate social affairs in favorable ways. In contrast, insecure working models may represent a cognitive vulnerability that predisposes individuals to perceive their relationship experiences more unfavorably (Collins, Ford, Guichard, & Allard, 2006).
Conceptualization of Attachment styles
Attachment styles in relationships were originally based on a 3-factor attachment theory from developmental literature: secure, avoidant, and anxious/ambivalent. Secure individuals are comfortable with intimacy and interdependency. Avoidant individuals are not comfortable with closeness and dependency. Anxious/ambivalent individuals seem to be the most unfortunate with clingy characteristics, possessiveness, and uncertainty in relationships (Brehm, Miller, Perlman & Campbell, 2002). Bartholomew (1990) proposed a new conceptualization of attachment that was more specific to adult attachment and relationships that reflect differences in internal working models. The model consists of four categories: secure, preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing. These four prototypical attachment styles derive from two underlying dimensions: attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. The anxiety dimension refers to one’s sense of relational self-worth and acceptance (vs. rejection) by others. The avoidance dimension refers to one’s degree of comfort with intimacy and interdependence with others.
Secure individuals are low in anxiety and avoidance, and so, have a positive view of self and other. They see themselves as worthy of affection and perceive attachment figures as trustworthy and responsive. Secure people are comfortable with closeness and intimacy and are able to trust and rely on others when in need. They are often characterized as optimistic and sociable.
Preoccupied individuals are high in anxiety but low in avoidance; they have a positive view of the other, but a negative view of self. Preoccupied people are comfortable with closeness but worried about being rejected and unloved. They depend greatly on acceptance by others for a sense of personal well-being but they lack confidence in others’ regard for them and responsiveness in times of need. Preoccupied people are often characterized as uneasy, vigilant, needy, and jealous.
Fearful individuals are high in both anxiety and avoidance, which means they have a negative view of self and other. Although they desire social contact, their distrust of others and expectations of rejection result in discomfort with intimacy and avoidance of close relationships. Fearful people are often characterized as suspicious and shy.
Finally, dismissing individuals are low in anxiety but high in avoidance; they have a positive view of self and a negative view of the other. They feel confident and tend to view themselves as invulnerable to negative feelings; however, they perceive attachment figures as unreliable and uncaring. Dismissing individuals attempt to maintain a positive self-image in the face of potential rejection by denying attachment needs, distancing themselves from others, and restricting expressions of emotionality. They are often characterized as self-reliant, independent, and indifferent. All four of the attachment styles and their working models are demonstrated in Table 1.
Working Models of Attachment Styles (Bartholomew, 1990)
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People who have insecure attachment styles suffer in almost every aspect of life. For example, insecure attachment is associated with increased depression (Carnelley, Pietromonaco, & Jaffe, 1994), higher neuroticism (Shaver & Brennan, 1992), and low self-esteem (Collins & Read, 1990). Furthermore, insecure individuals tend to interpret events in pessimistic ways, and consequently may be apt to experience emotional distress and choose maladaptive behavioral strategies that contribute to poor relationship outcomes (Collins & Read, 1994). On the contrary, people who have the benefits of secure social attachments have higher self esteem, lower levels of depression, greater optimism and feelings of self efficacy, and are more likely to perceive and respond to other people’s suffering (Mikulineer & Shaver, 2005). With such benefits resulting from secure attachment, it stands to reason that insecure individuals should strive to be more secure and, if given the right tools, can achieve a more secure way of viewing themselves and others. In the Mills Longitudinal study (Klohnen & John, 1998), it was shown that preoccupied individuals over time have the possibility of becoming less preoccupied and more secure, however, avoidant individuals were shown to stay pretty much the same over time.
More empirical research is needed to explore the possibilities of adults learning more adaptive attachment styles. It stands to reason that individuals can learn to live healthier lives and have healthier relationships with other people by changing their minds about themselves and others in all kinds of social situations.