Attachment: The Importance of First Relationships

Published on February 15, 2013

If you are interested in relationships, you will be interested in learning about attachment theory. This theory highlights the importance of the relationship between infants and their caregivers. Our relationships in adult life are affected by the quality of this first emotional bond. Indeed, much of what couple counselling concerns itself with is uncovering the effect of these early bonds.

From a psychological and emotional standpoint, the infant’s motivations for attachment are comparable to those of an adult. John Bowlby introduced attachment theory to modern psychology. He started developing the theory to help him to understand the relationship between infants and their mothers. Families are often structured differently these days, with stay-at-home fathers assuming the caregiver role. Bowlby’s study focused on why infants experience such distress, when they are temporarily separated from their mothers.

Evolution and Attachment

By studying how infants behave while the mother was not present, Bowlby observed certain patterns. Typically, most of the infants would begin to search for their mother. Others, after looking around for a moment, began to cry almost immediately. Bowlby reasoned that these infant responses were adaptive, as they serve to reunite child and mother.


Human infants, like other mammals, are extremely vulnerable. They need to rely on a caregiver for protection and nourishment. From an evolutionary perspective, infants who actively seek out their mother (and begin to cry when they can’t find her) are far more likely to survive, than those who don’t. Attachment behaviours were therefore gradually selected for during the course of human evolution.

Confidence and Security

Very young infants (12 months old and under) are much more likely to play with others and act sociably if their primary caregiver is present. The child needs to see that this support figure is: present, attentive, and accessible. Under these conditions, young infants feel secure and act confidently. Typically when separated, anxiety and seeking behaviour will continue to build until the child can re-unite with the parent.

Distinct Features of Relationships

In 1987 the researchers Hazan and Shaver investigated how different styles of attachment learned in childhood impact on adult relationships. They found that there are distinct features which both types of relationship have in common. Features common to both relationship types are:

•    When the other person is present there is a feeling of safety.
•    There is intimacy and physical closeness.
•    If you can’t reach them and you are apart, you feel insecure.
•    You share new experiences together.
•    You are preoccupied with one another and often communicate using facial expressions.
•    You use special names for each other which don’t apply outside the context of the relationship.

Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth was interested in studying the different attachment styles people use for relating throughout life.  She devised a way of investigating these and carried out research, with a group of infants of 12 months old and their mothers. The study involved separating the infants from the mother, like in Bowlby’s study. Ainsworth was able to distinguish three distinct attachment styles from her observations.

These were:

Secure attachment- The infant becomes distressed at the separation, but is soon comforted when reunited.

Anxious-resistant attachment- These infants were more distressed by being separated from the mother. They took longer to be comforted when the mother returned to them.
Avoidant attachment- Infants in this group did not appear to be too concerned by the separation. When the parent was reintroduced, the infant would avoid the parent, turning their attention to toys or distractions.

When these styles of relating are compared to adults, the model could look more like this:

Secure adults
•    Dependable and comfortable depending on others.
•    Confident that their partner will be there for them when needed.

Anxious-resistant adults
•    Suffers with insecurity.
•    Worries that partner may not love them enough, or in the right way.
•    Can be prone to anger and/or anxiety.

Avoidant adults
•    Can appear aloof or uncaring at times.
•    May feel better not depending too much on other people.

Psychology Today

If you are interested in adult relationship patterns and the common issues couple's face throughout the life span, or if you are seeking help with your attachment style in adult life, you can read more at http://www.couplecounselling.com.au/relationship-counsellor-articles



Category(s):Adult psychological development, Attachment Issues, Child Development, Control Issues, Couple Counseling, Ending a relationship issues, Family of Origin Issues / Codependency, Marital Counseling, Relationships & Marriage

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