Attachment

shikha's picture
        As a child, I remember being comfortable in unfamiliar environments only when my mother was in sight. As soon as she would go to a different room, I would stop what I was doing and follow her. It is now widely known that a parent’s attention, comfort, and touch is very important for normal development. However, this was only possible by pioneering work in the area.

The first experiments in this field were done by Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin. Through initial observations, Harlow noticed that baby monkeys who were separated from their mothers were attached to a piece of cloth, which they carried around everywhere. He extrapolated this to a theory that the cloth was a substitute for the mother. In order to test this, he conducted some experiments using baby monkeys. In one of the experiments, he separated the monkeys from their mothers right after birth and put them in a cage with two “surrogate” mothers made of bare wire or a soft cloth. The nourishment was provided through a bottle of milk. In different conditions, either the wire mother or the cloth mother provided nourishment. Harlow observed that the monkeys preferred the cloth mother regardless of where the food was coming from. This showed that a child is not attached to his/her mother simply because she provides him/her with nourishment, but that there is more to the attachment – there is emotion involved.

Subsequent experiments were done by John Bowlby on the effect of separation from parents in orphaned children. He noticed that children exhibit certain behaviors when they are separated from their parents, such as crying and anxiously searching for their parent. However, if the parent is nearby and attentive, the child feels secure and engages in play. Bowlby was also influenced by Konrad Lorenz’s work, who studied imprinting in animals. He found that a duckling will become attached to and start following the first moving object it sees and does not have an internal model of what its caregiver looks like [2]. As this cannot be reversed, it is very critical for the duckling to be in the proximity of its mother during the first few hours of its birth.

Upon learning about Harlow’s experiments with monkeys, Bowlby suggested that this behavior is evolutionary and governs how we form attachments with people [1]. He collaborated with Harlow and by combining his theories and Harlow’s experiments, came up with the attachment theory. His work was supplemented by Mary Ainsworth who studied individual differences between infants.

While attachment theory answered many questions I had about infant behavior towards their mothers (or fathers), it also raised many more questions. I find that the theory stresses on the relationship of an infant with one parent; what about children who experience emotional bonds with both parents? What effect does different amounts of attachment of a child to his/her mother and father have?  

Attachment theory was then extended to adult romantic relationships by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, who thought that the same attachment system is responsible for the emotional bonds in romantic relationships. They highlighted several features that these two types of bonds have in common, including “both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive”, “both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact “, “both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible”, among others [1]. This connection implies that there are the same kinds of individual differences in adult relationships as in infant relationships. In experiments done by Hazan and Shaver, in which adults were asked about their attachment style, it was found that they chose categories that matched the way they were as a child. This suggests that the experiences one has as a child affect how one forms relationships as an adult.

There is more evidence that adults become attached when in a relationship in studies conducted on how people deal with a prolonged separation, or from the death of a spouse. It was found that the behavior was similar to that found in children: anxiety and then depression. Recovery came through emotional detachment, as it did in children. An interesting finding was that contact with parents (original caregivers) helped more in dealing with the pain than contact with friends [3].

I found this extension of attachment theory to adult romantic relationships to be very interesting. I wonder whether the nature of attachment changes in a relationship. This question was somewhat answered by Jonathan Haidt, who suggests that there are two types of love: companionate love and passionate love. Passionate love is the intense emotional state of “elation and pain, anxiety and relief, altruism and jealousy coexist[ing] in a confusion of feelings” [3]. Companionate love, on the other hand, grows slowly between two people whose lives are greatly intertwined and is more viable than passionate love. This is because the intensity of companionate love continuously grows over time, while passionate love has an intense high in the beginning and then a steep fall, followed by fluctuations in intensity. Couples can often misread this decrease in intensity and this can cause them to split. While Haidt asserts that “passionate love does not turn into companionate love,” I think that over time, passionate love can calm down and turn into companionate love, provided that the couple understand the two types of love.

I had not thought that the same mechanism was responsible for the attachment a child has with his/her parent and the attachment adults experience with their partners. While these theories were made with heterosexual relationships in mind, I would not imagine it to be too different (beyond individual differences) in homosexual relationships. Another question I have is whether children who are brought up by homosexual partners experience a different sort of attachment to their parents. 

 

 

References

[1] Fraley, R. Chris. "A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research." Illinois

Psychology. 12 June 2004. University of Illinois. 10 Apr. 2009

<http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm>.

[2] Snyder, Bethinee. "Konrad Lorenz." Psychology History. May 1999. Muskingum College. 10

Apr. 2009 <http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/lorenz.htm>.

[3] Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

attachment theory and romantic relationships

I share your sense that there is something to learn about adult life from infant attachment theory.  An interesting extension of this is Peter Kramer's argument, in his Listening to Prozac, that modern antidepressant medications may be acting on a brain system related to affiliation and abandonment.  I wonder if the passionate/companionate distinction is relevant to infants or develops later?

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