Attachment theory in
Ian Mathews
Senior Lecturer in Social work
Attachment theory
Do you remember…
The basic premise; all children are born with an innate need to feel
loved & wanted by their parents.
If a child does not experience this it has a sense of emotional hurt
that results in the child engaging in a range of behaviours designed
to get the parent to love the child. Bowlby (1969)
Million dollar question - does attachment influence relationships in
adult life?
What do you think?
What did Bowlby think?
Seminar 1
Childhood ~ Adulthood
• Leaving home
• Wanting more time to
yourself, more time doing
‘your own thing’,
increasing independence
from your parents
• Spending less time with
your parents & increasing
amounts of time with your
• Developing other
‘significant relationships’
In other words, leaving
home is
‘more than setting up a
separate residence. It
involves a highly
significant psychological
emancipation process in
which the young person
distances themselves
emotionally from their
parents to at least some
Bee (1994:334)
How is this represented in stage
Erikson’s (1959) stage theory of ‘early adulthood’
The struggle between Intimacy versus isolation.
The challenge here is to experience intimacy yet
retain a secure sense of your identity
Success leads to the establishment of close
relationships with others
Failure leads to isolation of the development of
superficial adult relationships
The changing nature of attachment
in adolescence & early adulthood
Proximity seeking; in adolescents commonly want to spend
more time with their friends whilst thinking of their
parents as being a safe base ( a specific attachment
Secure base; over time this security transfers onto a
partner or spouse
Sense of self, sense of belonging; increasingly supplied by
work colleagues & friendship groups rather than parents
The return of the Million dollar question - does
attachment influence relationships in adult life?
The influence of attachment on
adult relationships
• Hazan and Shaver (1987) interviewed over 600
adults of varying ages & asked them to choose
which of three descriptions best described their
‘significant relationship’
• They argued that the description chosen by the
person reflected the adults experience of
attachment in childhood
( is there a problem here…
Hazan and Shaver research
• ‘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 with.’ (avoidant; chosen
by ?%)
• ‘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 someone getting too close to me’.
(secure; chosen by ?%)
• ‘I find that others are reluctant to get 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.’ (anxious/avoidant; chosen by ?%)
And the consequences of these
types of relationship
• Research suggests that people end up in relationships
with partners who confirm their existing beliefs about
attachment relationships (Brennan & Shaver 1995)
• Overall secure adults tend to be more satisfied in their
relationships than insecure adults.
• Secure adults are more likely to seek support from their
partners when distressed.
• They also provide more consistent support for their
• Insecure adults cited inability to trust as a cause of
breakdown in their relationships
The experience of childhood attachment
& how this transfers to parenting/adulthood
What does research tell us;
• A mother’s attachment pattern measured
during pregnancy predicted their own
child’s attachment pattern at 12 months in
?% of cases ( Fonagy, 1994)
• It would appear that both the experience of
attachment in childhood & the experience
of attachment/key relationships affect the
way parents parent
Does poor attachment in childhood lead to
psychological problems in adulthood?
‘As adults, the preoccupying anger with
childhood attachment figures who let you
down continues as does the search for
unconditional love & for the perfect
Schofield & Beek (2006:114-5)
The social/trauma model
of mental health
Anger can be internalised leading to;
Self harm; the need to relieve stress & anger
Suicide; the need to end the pain
Eating disorders; the need to be in control
Substance misuse ( alcohol/drugs); the need to dull the pain
Anger can be externalised leading to;
Domestic violence
Child abuse
General violence
Inability to control anger
Sally Plumb
So what…
Children with a poor experience of
attachment are likely to
• struggle with adult relationships
• replicate that poor experience with their
own children
• experience psychological problems in
But it is important to recognise that people
can & do change & not to be deterministic
Bee, H(1994) Lifespan development, New York, Harper Collins
Bowlby, J (1969) Attachment & Loss; volume one; Attachment, London,
Hogarth Press
Brennan, K.A & Shaver, P. (1995). Dimensions of adult attachment,
affect regulation, and romantic relationship functioning. Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 267-284.
Erikson, E (1959) Identity & the life cycle, New York, International
Universities Press
Fonagy, P et al (1994) The theory & practice of resilience, Journal of
Child Psychology & Psychiatry 35:231-57
Hazan, C & Shaver, P. (1987) Romantic love conceptualised as an
attachment process’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol
59 270-80
Schofield, G & Beek, M (2006) The Adoption handbook, London, BAAF

Attachment theory in adulthood