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Attachment Theory


Explanations > Theories > Attachment Theory

Description | Research | So What? | See also | References 



Infants have a number of component instinctual responses that bind the infant to the mother and vice versa, including sucking, clinging, and following, as well as the signaling behaviors of smiling and crying. These develop during the first year and continue through life into healthy adult relationships.

When attached people (attachment figures) are separated three phases of separation response appear:

  • Protest (related to separation anxiety)
  • Despair (related to grief and mourning)
  • Denial or Detachment (related to defence mechanisms, especially repression)

Secure attachment is significantly related to maternal sensitivity. If the mother does not feel attached then the infant will not show secure attachment behavior.

Note that two-way attachment is not the same as one-way dependency. An affectional bond may be one-way (eg. child to parent figure) or two-way (eg. a married couple) and leads to the person seeking to be physically close to the particular person to which they are attached. If they are separated, the person feels sadness and distress.

As children develop, so does their motivational style going from fixed action patterns to to complex plan hierarchies with various sub-goals and ongoing goal correction.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowlby studied both attachment and loss, as the breaking of an attachment leads to a reversal in an equivalent sense of loss, which can have a deeply depressive effect.


Ainsworth’s research with many mothers and children showed three infant attachment patterns:

  • Securely attached infants cried little and seemed content to explore in the presence of mother;
  • Insecurely attached infants cried frequently, even when held by their mothers, and explored little
  • Not-yet attached infants manifested no differential behavior to the mother.

Babies whose mothers had been highly responsive to crying during the early months now tended to cry less, relying for communication on facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations. Those whose mothers had provided much tender holding during the first quarter sought contact less often during the fourth quarter.

So What?

Using attachment theory in psychotherapy is the reappraisal of inadequate, outdated working models of self in relation to attachment figures. This is a particularly difficult task if important others, especially parents, have forbidden their review.

A person with inadequate and rigid working models of attachment relations is likely to impose these models on interactions with the therapist -- which is that something that the therapist must beware, of course.

Using it

Understand the other person's attachment style and hence create attachment with them using subtle use of primitive connection mechanisms.


When others attempt to attach with you, watch for the methods they use and make a conscious, rather than unconscious, decision whether or not to respond.

See also

Attachment Style, Bonding principle

Coping Mechanisms, The Kübler-Ross grief cycle

Object Relations Theory


(Ainsworth, 1963), Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980)

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