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A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research

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Research on adult attachment is guided by the assumption that the same motivational system that gives rise to the close emotional bond between parents and their children is responsible for the bond that develops between adults in emotionally intimate relationships.

The objective of this essay is to provide a brief overview of the history of adult attachment research, the key theoretical ideas, and a sampling of some of the research findings.

This essay has been written for people who are interested in learning more about research on adult attachment. The theory of attachment was originally developed by John Bowlby -a British psychoanalyst who was attempting to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Bowlby observed that separated infants would go to extraordinary lengths e. At the time of Bowlby's initial writings, psychoanalytic writers held that these expressions were manifestations of immature defense mechanisms that were operating to repress emotional pain, but Bowlby noted that such expressions are common to a wide variety of mammalian species, and speculated that these behaviors may serve an evolutionary function.

Drawing on ethological theory, Bowlby postulated that these attachment behaviorssuch as crying and searching, were adaptive responses to separation from a primary attachment figure --someone who provides support, protection, and care. Because human infants, like other mammalian infants, cannot feed or protect themselves, they are dependent upon the care and protection of "older and wiser" adults.

Bowlby argued that, over the course of evolutionary history, infants who were able to maintain proximity to an attachment figure via attachment behaviors would be more likely to survive to a reproductive age. According to Bowlby, a motivational system, what he called the attachment behavioral systemwas gradually "designed" by natural selection to regulate proximity to an attachment figure.

The attachment behavior system is an important concept in attachment theory because A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research provides the conceptual linkage between ethological models of human development and modern theories on emotion regulation and personality.

Adult Attachment Theory and Research

According to Bowlby, the attachment system essentially "asks" the following fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive? If the child perceives the answer to this question to be "yes," he or she feels loved, secure, and confident, and, behaviorally, is likely to explore his or her environment, play with others, and be sociable.

If, however, the child perceives the answer to this question to be "no," the child experiences anxiety and, behaviorally, is likely to exhibit attachment behaviors ranging from simple visual searching on the low extreme to active following and vocal signaling on the other see Figure 1. These behaviors continue until either the child is able to reestablish a desirable level of physical or psychological proximity to the attachment figure, or until the child "wears down," as may happen in the context of a prolonged separation or loss.

In such cases, Bowlby believed that young children experienced profound despair and depression. Although Bowlby believed that the basic dynamics described above captured the normative dynamics of the attachment behavioral system, he recognized that there are individual differences in the way children appraise the accessibility of the attachment figure and how they regulate their attachment behavior in response to threats.

However, it wasn't until his colleague, Mary Ainsworth —began to systematically study infant-parent separations that a formal understanding of these individual differences was articulated. Ainsworth and her students developed a technique called the strange situation --a laboratory paradigm for studying infant-parent attachment.

In the strange situation, month-old infants and their parents are brought to the laboratory and, systematically, separated from and reunited with one another.

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