Imagine you are in the early stages of a romantic relationship. The two of you have been spending much time together in person – almost every waking moment, in fact. When you are not together, you do whatever you can to stay connected – through email, texting, phone calling, Morse code… Then, one day, your partner tells you that they’re going to spend the evening without you.
“Will you at least text or call me?” you ask.
“Sure!” they say, as they get ready to head out for a night of fun without you. Two… three…four hours pass and your partner still has not called or texted you. In fact, you don’t see or hear from them the rest of the night. It’s not until the next morning when you finally connect with them. So, how will you react?
According to attachment theory, the way you respond when you finally see or speak with your partner will be very similar to how you responded to your mother (or primary caregiver) when you were distressed. John Bowlby, the psychologist who created Attachment Theory, saw the child’s early relationship and bond with the primary caregiver as being a strong indicator of the types of intimate relationships they would have in adulthood (Bowlby, 1988). Using evidence from studies in ethology (animal behaviour) Bowlby argued that infants will form an attachment with the primary caregiver, and that this bond would provide the infant with an internal working model (IWM) of how to relate to significant others throughout life.
Bowlby theorized that the child’s needs for safety and security is placed upon the primary caregiver. This caregiver now provides the child with a model for how these needs can be met. In adulthood, the needs that were once represented by the parent are now represented in an intimate partner. In other words, attachment theory holds that these early relationships with significant care-giving figures provides the child with a blueprint from which other relationships are developed. This “blueprint” (i.e., Internal Working Models) essentially guides them in how to relate to other individuals, particularly romantic partners, in later adult life.
Attachment and Aggression in Relationships
Proponents of attachment theory suggest that a couple’s internal working models influences their aggressive behaviours towards each other (Haslem & Erdman, 2003). According to Bowlby, interpersonal anger and frustration was the child’s attempt at bringing proximity between himself or herself and the caregiver, or the object that represented their needs for security and safety. That is, they used anger as a way of trying to bring the person closer. He believed that children who engaged in these behaviours throughout childhood would eventually express them into adulthood in their interpersonal relationships, manifesting itself as “intimacy anger” (Haslem & Erdman). Bowlby believed that these attachment patterns would also shape the individuals’ personality characteristics throughout life, thereby making attachment theory a lifelong developmental model.
In next week’s blog, I’ll talk about a very influential Canadian developmental psychologist (Mary Ainsworth) who came up with an experiment that, many believe, helped to solidify attachment theory as a significant theory for identifying the different ways children (and adults) relate with each other.
Until then, I hope your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…
Dr. Richard Amaral
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
Haslem, C. W., & Erdman, P. (2003). Linking systems and attachment theory: A conceptual framework for marital violence. In P. Erdman & T. Caffery (Eds.), Attachment and family systems: Conceptual, empirical, and therapeutic relatedness (pp. 193-211). New York: Brunner-Routledge.