Attachment - Effects of Early Bonding on Romantic Relationships

By: Krista H. Renella

During the first two years of a child’s life, parents create a special bond with a new baby and this has lead to attachment theory; early attachment issues can lead to problems with intimate relationships later in life. 


John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist to describe attachment as an emotional bond to another person (Land, Rochlen, & Vaughn, 2010). Bowlby argued that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a great impact on them throughout their lives. The purpose of attachment is to keep the infant close to the mother, which improves the child's chances of survival. Mothers who are available and open to their infant's needs establish a sense of security. The infant (between the ages of 6 and 9 months) learns that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. Infants create cognitive structures called scripts based on interactions with their caregivers. Dykas (2011) affirms that these scripts are thought to provide infants with a causal–temporal example of the ways in which attachment-related events will frequently occur (e.g., “when I am hurt, I go to my mother and get comfort”).

Psychologist, Mary Ainsworth and others, added to Bowlby's original work in the 1970’s. Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall hypothesized the three patterns of parent–infant attachment: Secure, Anxious/Ambivalent, and Avoidant (Kelley, Schroeder, Cooke, Gumienny, Platter, et al. 2010). In 1986, Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style called Disorganized-Insecure attachment based upon their own research. Currently, George, Kaplan & Main (1996), classify adult attachment into five categories of insecure attachment. Three categories: Secure-Autonomous, Preoccupied-Ambivalent (Anxious), Dismissing (Avoidant) are termed “organized”. The fourth category is Unresolved-Disorganized, originally called: Disorganized-Disoriented. The fifth category is: Cannot Classify (particular patterns do not come out in these individual’s assessments).   

Attachment theory states that early experiences between a child and the primary caregiver create the foundation for functioning in future relationships (Nguyen & Munch, 2011). In the early 1980s, the theory of attachment was expanded by Hazan and Shaver to include romantic relationships. Therefore, attachment theory has become a major organizational framework for interpersonal behaviors in all interpersonal relationships. 

According to Kelley et al. (2010), securely attached adults are able to depend on others, do not worry about others depending on them or getting too close or about abandonment, and find it easy to get close to others. Ambivalent/Anxiously attached individuals worry that their partners do not really love them, fear abandonment, and feel that their partners are never emotionally close enough to them. Dismissing/Avoidantly attached adults are also uncomfortable with closeness, and have difficulty trusting and depending on others. Unresolved-Disorganized attached adults are uncertain because of major loss, abuse, or trauma. Generally these individuals appear disorganized in their attempts to gain comfort and may be frightened to ask for help (Bennett & Saks, 2006).

Insecure individuals respond by questioning their partners’ regard for them when faced with fear to their self-worth. Distancing is used as a self-protective strategy: insecure individuals withdraw emotional investment from close relationships to avoid being hurt (Joel et al., 2011). Children with insecure attachment to their caregiver have learned that they will be unable to resolve fear and reduce anxiety, so they constantly activate the fight-or-flight mechanism and have an inability to regulate arousal. A child with an emotionally abusive caregiver learns that this person is simultaneously “the source of and the solution to its alarm” (Riggs et al., 2010). Usually, children with emotionally abusive caregivers fall into the Unresolved-Disorganized category due to their lack of clear attachment behavior. Their actions and responses to caregivers are often a mix of behaviors, including avoidance or resistance. 

The type of attachment a prospective parent has will predict the type of attachment of their child to that parent: with as high as 80 percent predictability (Sonkin, 2005).  Changes over time can influence a child’s attachment style, but there is a strong link between infant attachment patterns and adult attachment patterns.  The term "earned secure” is used with individuals who had hostile parenting (and would be expected to have an insecure attachment status), but have risen above those experiences and become securely attached (Sonkin, 2005).  However, for many individuals, the manner in which they learned to manage anxiety early on in life will continue unless their circumstances change or other experiences intervene.  For many people, over-activating or under-activating of insecure attachment and modulation with secure attachment will continue throughout the lifespan. Adults who have insecure attachment have larger problems than those with secure attachment, when managing troubles in life especially in romantic relationships (Sonkin, 2005). Moreover, studies have shown that attachment anxiety is associated with neuroticism and low self-esteem, while avoidant attachment is related negatively to extraversion.

Anxious (Ambivalent) Attachment

When children receive insensitive, infrequent, unreliable, or lack of care, they often develop preoccupied/ambivalent attachment. High attachment anxiety is associated with unpredictable, untrustworthy care in childhood (Joel, MacDonald, & Shimotomai, 2011). Ambivalent individuals desperately want acceptance and support from others, but due to their perceived lack of self-worth, they tend to doubt that others will be willing to provide the security that they need. In their relationships, anxious individuals are prone to more emotional highs and lows, conflicts of greater frequency and severity and lower levels of trust.

Anxious attachment is usually seen as shorter length of courtship before marriage, in married men. Anxiously attached individuals are hypothesized to commit to their romantic relationships more quickly than individuals with secure, avoidant/dismissing, and disorganized attachments. However, Hazan and Shaver (1987) found that ambivalent/anxiously attached individuals are more likely to believe that although it is easy to fall in love, it is hard to find ‘‘true love’’ that will last. Their findings suggest that although anxious individuals strive for deep attachment in romantic relationships, they are often either unwilling or unable to sustain those relationships.

 In Hazan and Shaver’s study, anxious attachment also correlated with shorter time within relationships (Kelley et al., 2010). When commitment levels have been measured in romantic partners, anxious attachment was significantly, negatively correlated with global commitment. Ambivalence is produced when an individual holds strong positive and negative views on an issue simultaneously. Anxiously attached individuals experience conflicting pressures on relationship commitment. Ambivalent attachment is seen as approach and avoidance tendencies toward closeness to a romantic partner (motivational ambivalence). Mikulincer, Shaver, Bar-On, & Ein-Dor (2010), argue that anxiously attached people often hold positive and negative views of their romantic partner (attitudinal ambivalence) at both conscious and implicit levels. 

Their negative models of self lead indirectly to relational ambivalence. These negative models increase the need for support and protection from a relationship partner and emphasize personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. When a person’s doubts about his or her value and lovability increases, an increased fear of rejection and relational ambivalence will occur.

Mikulincer, et al. (2010), maintain that more anxious study participants were more likely to feel sexually attracted to their former partner (e.g., when meeting to exchange custody of their children) and were more likely to become sexually reinvolved. Furthermore, abused women who scored higher on attachment anxiety were more likely to remain sexually and emotionally involved with their abusive former partner after separating (Joel, MacDonald, & Shimotomai, 2011).

Avoidant (Dismissing) Attachment

Steady, low levels of support in childhood are correlated to high levels of avoidance. Avoidantly attached individuals have attachment systems that are closed off and discomfort with closeness or reliance on other (Joel et al., 2011). Avoidant individuals appear to avoid closeness: their romantic relationships are filled with less mutual support, less trust, less closeness, and less self-disclosure. High avoidance is a sign of lower commitment, which matches with avoidant individuals’ discomfort with closeness and intimacy. 

According to (Mikulincer et al., 2010) people who score high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies— denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships. Attachment figures that disapprove of and punish closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability enable these strategies to develop in their children. Avoidant people tend to say they like being independent and alone/single (Mikulincer et al., 2010).  However, they show signs of hidden ambivalence about being distanced from relationship partners.  Although they may speak about their desires for interpersonal distance, avoidant individuals often react to separation with high levels of unspoken ambivalence, suggesting that they are not fully comfortable with being separated (Mikulincer et al., 2010). 


Inconsistent parenting is a contributing factor to disorganized attachment (Main and Solomon, 1986). Forms of frightening and threatening behavior have been seen in the children of disorganized parents, and/or in the parents of a disorganized infant. Parents who act as figures of both fear and reassurance to a child lead to a disorganized attachment style. Because the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, confusion (disorganization) occurs. Signs of disorganized behaviors in children are: clinging to and avoiding or fighting with parent, approaching parent with head turned away, rocking motions, expressions of fear or distress, expressions of confusion and apprehension (such as hand to mouth movement) upon entrance of parent, dazed/expressionless affect; destructive behaviors towards self and others (especially animals), and extreme control problems (Sonkin, 2005). Dissociated behavior is seen in adults as “freezing” of all movement, accompanied by half-closed, unblinking eyes.

Assessing Attachment

MFTs can assess for attachment in adult through interview methods and self-report scales.  The most common interview method is the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) developed by Mary Main and her colleagues. The Adult Attachment Interview contains 20-questions that asks the subject about his/her experiences with parents and other attachment figures, significant losses and trauma and if relevant, experiences with their own children (George, Kaplan and Main, 1996).  The interview takes approximately 60-90 minutes and is transcribed and scored by a trained person (two weeks of intensive training followed by 18 months of reliability testing). 

Many Dismissing/Avoidant adults don't recall memories of childhood so they often have brief stories of their childhood. They usually either deny any harm done to them in childhood or claim that those harmful experiences made them stronger and more independent. Anxious/Ambivalent individuals repeatedly focus on the logical and negative parts of past stories; as a result, their transcripts are often long. Their stories can either extremely devalue or idealize their attachment figure/s. Disorganized individuals tend to lose track of reasoning and content of story in their interview when discussing loss or experiences with abuse. 

Self-reports are easier to administer but may be less likely than the AAI to determine the individuals’ current attachment style. The AAI is considered more reliable to assess attachment.

Attachment and Psychotherapy

Children learn about mutual trust, receiving and giving care, and giving and receiving closeness/distance and power from their caregiver. The ability to show empathy and intimacy develops from this first relational bond. Those who experience emotionally abusive attachment relationships in childhood are at a disadvantage because they develop a distorted understanding of what loving and caring relationships involve (Riggs et al., 2010). To successfully treat clients with histories of emotional abuse, it is important for MFTs to understand that emotional abuse damages the adaptive development of the attachment system.

Emotional abuse by attachment figures in infancy and early childhood contributes to insecure attachment. Riggs, Cusimano, & Benson (2010) state that research proves that insensitive parenting characterized by rejection, intrusiveness, or inconsistency lead to insecurity of attachment noticeable in insecure avoidant or insecure-ambivalent/resistant behavioral strategies. Emotional abusive, more extreme/hostile forms of parenting including: harsh rejection, excessive intrusiveness/control, frightening or threatening actions, or a mixture of these behaviors that both elicit and reject the infant’s attachment-related emotions and behaviors) leads to disorganized/disoriented infant attachment. It is important to note that children’s insecure attachment leads to a vulnerability to future dysfunction because it slows down emotional regulation and creates negative internal working models of self and others.

Through sensitive attunement of the caregiver a child feels safe and understood -when a caregiver reads the verbal and non-verbal cues of the child and reflects them back, the child sees him or herself through the eyes of the attachment figure. Helping clients attain secure attachment, the ability to reflect on one's internal emotional experience and make sense of it, and reflect what is heard/seen is a major goal in psychotherapy. The more secure the therapists, the greater they can instill security in their patients.  It is through this attunement and consistent and open communication process that individuals can develop secure attachment through the psychotherapy process. 


Bennett, S. , & Saks, L. (2006). A conceptual application of attachment theory and research to the social work student-field instructor relationship. Journal of Social Work Education,42(3) 669-682.

Dykas, M. , & Cassidy, J. (2011). Attachment and the processing of social information across the life span: Theory and evidence. Psychological Bulletin137(1), 19-46.

George, C., Kaplan, N. & Main, M. (1996). Adult Attachment Interview. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley (third edition).

Joel, S. , MacDonald, G. , & Shimotomai, A. (2011). Conflicting pressures on romantic relationship commitment for anxiously attached individuals. Journal of Personality,79(1), 51-74.

Kelley, M. , Schroeder, V. , Cooke, C. , Gumienny, L. , Platter, A. , et al. (2010). Mothers' versus fathers' alcohol abuse and attachment in adult daughters of alcoholics. Journal of Family Issues31(11), 1555-1570.

Land, L. , Rochlen, A. , & Vaughn, B. (2010). Correlates of adult attachment avoidance: Men's avoidance of intimacy in romantic relationships. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12(1), 64-76.

Main, M. and J. Solomon (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized / disoriented attachment pattern. T. B. Brazelton and M. W. Yogman, Affective development in infancy. Nowrood, NJ, Ablex Publishing.

Mikulincer, M. , Shaver, P. , Bar-On, N. , & Ein-Dor, T. (2010). The pushes and pulls of close relationships: Attachment insecurities and relational ambivalence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology98(3), 450-468.

Nguyen, H.P. & Munch, J. M. (2011). Romantic gift giving as chore or pleasure: The effects of attachment orientations on gift giving perceptions. Journal of Business Research, 64(2), 113-118. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2010.02.006

Riggs, S. , Cusimano, A. , & Benson, K. (2011). Childhood emotional abuse and attachment processes in the dyadic adjustment of dating couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology58(1), 126-138. 

Sonkin, Daniel (2005). Attachment theory and psychotherapy. The California Therapist, 17(1), 68-77.

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(For your own quick assessment of attachment go to: Attachment Style Interactive Survey

This application was developed by R. Chris Fraley and is to be used for educational purposes only. The application is based on the Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised measure of adult attachment styles).

Krista H. Renella, MS 

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, #98716 

(818) 280-7291 | |