The influence of early attachment on childhood and adult relationships, including the role of an internal working model.
The Internal Working Model
Bowlby (1982) suggested that a child’s primary attachment figure was the ‘blueprint’ for subsequent relationships in their life. Based on their childhood experiences with their primary attachment figure, the individual forms a schema of:
- What a relationship is
- How reliable and available the attachment figure is
- The sorts of emotional experience they might expect.
These internal working models influence the child’s expectations about future relationships. Adult relationships are therefore also likely to reflect early attachment styles (i.e. whether secure or insecure). An attachment style consists of two attitudes. First is an attitude about ourselves, termed self-esteem. Second is an attitude about other people – termed interpersonal trust. These two attitudes develop from and are based on our earliest interactions with caregivers. If our caregiver leads us to believe that we are highly valued and that they are dependable and reliable then we are likely to develop high self-esteem and to trust other people.
Attachment Style Adult behaviour
Secure Develop mature trusting and long lasting adult relationships
Insecure-Avoidant Difficulty with trusting others and developing trusting intimate
Insecure-Resistant Want to be close to partners but worry that their partners will not
return their affections
Disorganised-Insecure Chaotic; insensitive; explosive; abusive; untrusting even while
Attachment style and marital satisfaction
Feeney (1996) examined the relationship between attachment style and marital satisfaction. She believed there would be a relationship between attachment style and caregiving, and that this, in turn, would affect how satisfied someone was in their relationship. Feeney found that secure attachment was associated with supportive caregiving to the partner and that marital satisfaction was higher for securely attached individuals.
Feeney (1999) further examined the relationship between attachment style and emotional experience in adult relationships. She found that insecure attachment was associated with less frequent and intense negative emotions toward the spouse. These results suggest that attachment plays a role in influencing the emotional climate of a marriage, which, in turn, influences marital satisfaction.
Hazan and Shaver (1987) investigated the link between attachment style and later adult relationships. They used a questionnaire (the ‘love’ quiz’), which asked adults to comment on their early attachment experiences and the most important romantic relationship of their life so far. They found the following:
- People who were securely attached as infants tended to have happy and lasting relationships in adulthood. They also believed that love was enduring and based on mutual trust.
- Adults who had been insecurely attached as infants found adult relationships more difficult and were more likely to be divorced; they were also more pessimistic about the possibility of finding ‘true love’.
This study therefore provides evidence for Bowlby’s idea of the internal working model and his claim that early experiences influence later relationships.
Simpson et al. (2007) provide further support for the importance of early attachment experiences for shaping adult relationships. They studied 78 participants at four key points in their life. The researchers found that participants who were securely attached as infants:
- Were rated as having higher levels of social competence as children
- Were closer to their friends as 16 year olds
- Were more expressive and more emotionally attached to their romantic partners in early adulthood.
Morrison et al. (1997) supported the association between attachment style and adult relationships. They asked college students in the US to complete questionnaires describing their current or most recent intimate relationship and an attachment style inventory to assess their attachment style.
- Students with secure attachment styles described more interdependence in their relationships.
- Students with avoidant or ambivalent attachment styles described more hostility in their intimate relationships than did students with a secure style.
Fraley (1998) carried out a meta-analysis of studies in this area and found significant positive correlations for the relationship between early attachment style and quality of later adult relationships.
Issues & Debates
Methodological issues with Simpson et al.‘s study: Cannot determine cause and effect, but can be used to predict likely outcomes in specified circumstances; i.e. that children with a more secure attachment style appear to enjoy better-quality romantic relationships in adulthood.
Problems with retrospective data: For many studies in this area there is a reliance on retrospective data – that is, participants must recall experiences from their childhood, with the data then being correlated with variables, such as marital satisfaction in adulthood. Given that some participants in Hazan and Shaver’s study were in their 80s, their memory of childhood experience was unlikely to be completely accurate, which creates problems for the validity of the data obtained and any conclusions drawn.
Social desirability bias: Researchers in this field must frequently make use of self-report measures, and this has its problems, particularly in a sensitive area such as relationships. Participants may want to give a good impression of how well adjusted and secure they are in their relationships. This means there is the possibility that there was a social desirability effect on participants’ responses, and the reliability of the data may have been weakened.
Determinism in research: Many of the studies appear to indicate that early experiences (such as early attachment style) have a fixed influence on later adult relationships. For example, there is the implication that children who are insecurely attached in childhood will experience emotionally unsatisfying relationships as adults. However, this is not the case, as researchers such as Simpson and colleagues also found many examples of adults who were experiencing happy and satisfying adult relationships despite having been insecurely attached as children.
Cultural differences: Parenting style varies cross-culturally (Martin and Colbert, 1997); it therefore stands to reason that the influence of childhood experience on adult relationships will also vary cross-culturally. Research (Takahashi, 1990; Hanano, 1999) has also found cross-cultural differences in both infant attachment style and adult attachment style. As a result, it is likely that the internal working model of children in different cultures will differ, as will its influence on adult relationships in those cultures.
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