Attachment theory describes relationships between humans. While it can refer to personal connections made and held throughout the lifetime, the theory is often employed to study the development of the first relationships in a human life (the earliest attachment theories only concerned the relationships formed during infancy and childhood). Mary Ainsworth may be the researcher who is most commonly associated with attachment theory, though she is not the sole contributor to the approach.
One of the most interesting aspects of attachment theory is the concept of separation anxiety. The term has become popular in the public forum, but a true understanding of the idea cannot be gained without considering its origin. Coined by John Bowlby, separation anxiety describes the unease experienced by an infant or young child when an attachment figure is absent.
The response is suggested to be a healthy, adaptive behavior to be exhibited by human babies. It is possible that separation anxiety fuels behaviors that increases the likelihood of survival. For example, the desire to remain close to a parent is likely to result in the child being in a position where they may be better guarded against predators. Separation behaviors may also trigger parental responses in the attachment figures, assuring the continuation of care for the attached.
However, while separation anxiety may be a healthy response, it can also be maladaptive in extreme forms, or when caregiver responses result in the creation of unhealthy attachments. Excessive anxiety driven behaviors in the absence of the attachment figure, abnormal responses to the return of the person, and/or a lack of separation anxiety can all indicate the risk of impending unhealthy attachment formations, and possibly even the development of personality disorders (Silove et al., 2011).
According to attachment theory, the relationships that are formed during the first months of a human life will set the basis for connections made throughout adulthood. This is perhaps the most important principle of the theory. The approach currently describes four different types of attachments that can develop during the first few months of life, each with corresponding behaviors, and setting the blueprint for future relationships.
The sole form of attachment that is considered to be healthy is known as being secure (Simmons et al., 2009). In this relationship formation, the child shows a normal amount of separation anxiety driven behaviors in response to the loss of the caregiver, but reacts warmly to their return. The child may also be comforted by a stranger, but will show a clear preference for the attached figure. This type of attachment is expected to produce healthy attachments in adult relationships, with an appropriate mix of separation anxiety and comfort upon return.
Avoidance is a poor attachment style, and may indicate the inability to form a connection of this type. Children in this state will not show much, if any, response to the absence of a caregiver. Additionally, they don’t react to the return of the appropriate attachment target, and tend to respond to strangers in a similar manner. This does not bode well for future relationships as it foreshadows difficulties with establishing a meaningful connection to other human beings. Similarly, the anxious-ambivalent/resistant attachment form leads to future relationship issues that may be interpreted as “over-attachment”.
An ambivalent child will show extreme responses to separation, and cannot be calmed by the return of the attachment figure (commonly due to inconsistent responses by the caregiver). Lastly, the disorganized type of attachment style is defined by strange, repetitive responses to the return of the figure, like rocking or freezing. This development can have a variety of negative influences on future relationships.
As is the case with many of the theories that are found in established psychological fields, attachment theory was formed in light of the typical Western perspective. However, the impact does not appear to be as severe as that seen in other concepts, largely due to the influence of the female perspective through the work of Ainsworth. Additionally, research was commonly conducted in multiple cultural settings (possibly due to the influence of anthropology-type theories).
The fact remains that the theory was developed using terms and ideas that were already influenced by the dominant Western-affluent-male perspective that was rampant at the time. For example, the ideal secure attachment scenario was developed based on the typical Western family dynamic, and this framework was applied to studies across cultures that may not (and in some cases certainly do not) share a similar structure. Another major concern is the coupling of caregiver and child that is used to gauge the development of attachments.
In many cultures, and increasingly so in the Western world, the development of childhood relationships is not a simple one-to-one process. Instead, it involves many different combinations of relatives, hired caregivers, and other figures that may be the target of attachments. These connections are not often formed individually, as the concurrent involvement of many people results in a complexity that cannot be accounted for by the traditional mother-child dyad used as a point of reference for attachment theory.
Although this theory has sociocultural weaknesses, evidence has shown that many aspects of the model are applicable across multiple cultural settings. In particular, secure, avoidant, and ambivalent patterns appear to be observable in different cultures (van IJzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2010). This consistency may be due to the original influences of female and anthropological perspectives during design.
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