The Attachment Theory of Love: Definition, Examples & Predictions

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  • 0:05 Attachment Theory
  • 2:06 Attachment Styles
  • 3:49 Predictions About…
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

We discuss the attachment theory of love in this lesson, and distinguish between the three types of attachment styles. We also examine a classic study and how it predicts adult relationships based on attachment style.

Attachment Theory

When you were a child, what kind of relationship did you have with your mother? Did she give you a lot of attention, or leave you to your own devices? Would you describe the relationship at that time to be healthy? Interestingly, the Attachment Theory of Love proposes that the type of romantic relationship one has as an adult is determined by the type of relationship one had with one's primary caregiver as a child. In other words, the connection or attachment we had with our primary caregiver, usually our mother, as children determines the way we behave in adult relationships. This theory originated from John Bowlby, who believed that a warm, close relationship with one's mother is just as crucial to a baby as food and oxygen. Without it, a person would not be able to develop normally - socially or emotionally.

Bowlby's theory was expanded by Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues after a classic study in which they observed the behavior of one-year-old children. The psychologists watched as children and their mothers settled into an unfamiliar playroom. At one point, the mothers left the room and then came back later. The children's behavior seemed to be based on the type of attachment they had with their mothers. Some were very distraught and clingy, while others seemed to be indifferent.

From their observations, Ainsworth and the other psychologists identified three attachment styles: secure, avoidant, and anxious/ambivalent. Each style can be defined by the level of avoidance and anxiety in the child. Let's go over the definitions and an example of all three attachment styles.

Attachment Styles

First, secure attachment style is characterized by low avoidance and low anxiety. Infants with a secure attachment style trust their caregivers. They do not avoid their mothers, and display low anxiety when she is present. During the experiment, these infants happily explored the unfamiliar room when the mother was nearby. They became a little upset when she left, but relaxed and continued playing once she returned.

The second attachment style is avoidant attachment style, which is characterized by high avoidance and low anxiety. Infants with an avoidant attachment style have no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. They avoid closeness with anyone and rarely feel anxiety from the presence or absence of any particular person. During the experiment, these infants did not appear to be upset by the separation, and they hardly even noticed when their mothers returned.

The third and final attachment style is anxious/ambivalent attachment style, which is characterized by low avoidance and high anxiety. Infants with an anxious/ambivalent attachment style are insecure and overemotional when it comes to their mothers. They are anxious when the mother is there and when she is absent. During the experiment, these infants clung to their mothers instead of exploring the new environment. When she left, they became extremely upset. When she returned, they either appeared to be indifferent, likely sulking, or even became hostile.

Predictions about Adult Relationships

The key assumption of attachment theory is that these different attachment styles and behaviors affect our ability to connect, especially romantically, with other adults once we mature. Attachment theorists would predict that children who have a secure relationship with their caregiver as infants grow up to have the healthiest, satisfying, and enduring adult relationships. When they are young, these individuals have caregivers who are responsive to their needs. They are able to develop a trusting relationship and are not worried about being abandoned. These same feelings should be transferred to adult relationships.

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