Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Attachment styles in adult relationships:
Initially, attachment research answered how children connected to their primary caregiver. This research was extended to adult romantic relationships. Since, four styles of attachment have been identified in adults:
2. Anxious-Preoccupied 3. Dismissive-Avoidant
Adult secure attachment comes from an individual's early connection with their caregiver(s), genes and any romantic experiences they have had.
Within romantic relationships, a securely attached adult will appear in the following ways: excellent conflict resolution, mentally flexible, effective communicators, avoidance of manipulation, comfortable with closeness without fearfulness of being enmeshed, quickly forgiving, viewing sex and emotional intimacy as one, believing they can positively impact their relationship, and caring for their partner how they want to be cared for. In summation, they are great partners who treat their partners very well, as they are not afraid to give positively and ask for their needs to be met.
Securely attached adults believe that there are “many potential partners that would be responsive to their needs”, and if they come across an individual who is not meeting their needs, they will typically lose interest very quickly.
In a study comparing secure-secure and secure-various attachment style relationships, there was no fluctuation in positive relational functioning. However, in any combination of two partners with attachment styles outside of secure, the relationships showed high levels of negative relationship functioning. This research indicates that it only takes one securely attached partner within a romantic relationship to maintain healthy, emotional relationship functioning.
Adults seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners, becoming overly dependent. They tend to be less trusting, have less positive views about themselves and their partners, and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsiveness in their relationships. The anxiety that adults feel prevents the establishment of satisfactory defense exclusion. Thus, it is possible that individuals that have been anxiously attached to their attachment figure or figures have not been able to develop sufficient defenses against separation anxiety. Because of their lack of preparation these individuals will then overreact to the anticipation of separation or the actual separation from their attachment figure. The anxiety comes from an individual's intense and/or unstable relationship that leave the anxious or preoccupied individual relatively defenseless. Adults with this attachment style tend to look way too far into things, whether that's a text message or a face-to-face conversation. Their thoughts and actions can lead to a painful cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and even self-sabotage. They often seek a dismissive-avoidant partner.
Adults desire a high level of independence, often appearing to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. They tend to suppress their feelings, dealing with conflict by distancing themselves from partners of whom they often have a poor opinion. Adults lack the interest of forming close relationships and maintaining emotional closeness with the people around them.
They have a great amount of distrust in others but at the same time possess a positive model of self, they would prefer to invest in their own ego skills. Because of their distrust they cannot be convinced that other people have the ability to deliver emotional support. They try to create high levels of self-esteem by investing disproportionately in their abilities or accomplishments. These adults maintain their positive views of self, based on their personal achievements and competence rather than searching for and feeling acceptance from others.
These adults will explicitly reject or minimize the importance of emotional attachment and passively avoid relationships when they feel as though they are becoming too close. They strive for self-reliance and independence. When it comes to the opinions of others about themselves, they are very indifferent and are relatively hesitant to positive feedback from their peers. Dismissive avoidance can also be explained as the result of defensive deactivation of the attachment system to avoid potential rejection, or genuine disregard for interpersonal closeness.
Adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, both desiring and feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend to mistrust their partners and view themselves as unworthy. Like dismissive-avoidant adults, fearful-avoidant adults tend to seek less intimacy, suppressing their feelings.
Sexually, securely attached individuals are less likely to be involved in one-night stands or sexual activity outside of the primary relationship, and more likely to report mutual initiation and enjoyment of sex.
Dismissive-avoidant individuals tend to report activities reflecting low psychological intimacy (one-night sex, extra-dyadic sex, sex without love), as well as less enjoyment of physical contact. Research has demonstrated that for both sexes, insecure-ambivalent attachment was related to enjoyment of holding and caressing, but not of more clearly sexual behaviors.
Relationally, insecure individuals tend to be partnered with insecure individuals, and secure individuals with secure individuals. Insecure relationships tend to be enduring but less emotionally satisfying compared to the relationship(s) of two securely attached individuals.
Adult Attachment and Relationships
Attachment styles are activated from the first date onwards and impact relationship dynamics and how a relationship ends. Secure attachment has been shown to allow for better conflict resolution in a relationship and for one's ability to exit an unsatisfying relationship compared to other attachment types. Secure individuals authentic high self-esteem and positive view of others allows for this as they are confident that they will find another relationship. Secure attachment has also shown to allow for the successful processing of relational losses (e.g. death, rejection, infidelity, abandonment etc.) Attachment has also been shown to impact caregiving behavior in relationships, too (Shaver & Cassidy, 2018).
Two main aspects of adult attachment have been studied. The organization and stability of the mental working models that underlie the attachment styles is explored by social psychologists interested in romantic attachment. Developmental psychologists interested in the individual's state of mind with respect to attachment generally explore how attachment functions in relationship dynamics and impacts relationship outcomes. The organization of mental working models is more stable while the individual's state of mind with respect to attachment fluctuates more. Some authors have suggested that adults do not hold a single set of working models. Instead, on one level they have a set of rules and assumptions about attachment relationships in general. On another level they hold information about specific relationships or relationship events. Information at different levels need not be consistent. Individuals can therefore hold different internal working models for different relationships.
There are a number of different measures of adult attachment, the most common being self-report questionnaires and coded interviews based on the Adult Attachment Interview. The various measures were developed primarily as research tools, for different purposes and addressing different domains, for example romantic relationships, platonic relationships, parental relationships or peer relationships. Some classify an adult's state of mind with respect to attachment and attachment patterns by reference to childhood experiences, while others assess relationship behaviors and security regarding parents and peers.