Adult Relationships

Research on attachment has tested object relations ideas by examining whether the attachment style developed in childhood is related to the kind of later adult relationships. Psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver (1987) have shown that there are patterns of adult relationships that look similar to the secure, avoidant, and ambivalent childhood attachment patterns. In the adult secure relationship style, the person has few problems developing satisfying friendships and relationships. Secure people trust others and develop bonds with them. The adult avoidant relationship style is characterized by dif ficulty in learning to trust others. Avoidant adults remain suspicious of the motives of others, and they are afraid of making commitments. They are afraid of depending on others because they anticipate being disappointed, being abandoned, or being separated. Finally , the adult ambivalent relationship style is characterized by vulnerability and uncertainty about relationships. Ambivalent adults become overly dependent and demanding on their partners and friends. They display high levels of neediness in their relationships. They are high maintenance, in the sense that they need constant reassurance and attention.


Determining which adult attachment style a person has can be accomplished by having them report which style is most like them. Consider the following statements, and choose which is most descriptive of you:

1. I am typically comfortable with others and find it easy to become close friends with people. I can easily come to rely on others and enjoy it when they rely on me. I don't worry about being left out or abandoned and find it easy to let others get close to me.

2. I am sometimes tense when I get too close to others. I don't like to trust other people too much, plus I don't like it when people have to depend on me for something. It makes me anxious when people get close or want me to make an emotional commitment to them. People often want me to be more personal and intimate than I feel like being.

3. In relationships, I often worry that the other person does not really want to stay with me or that he or she doesn't really love me. I often wish that my friends would share more and be more of a confidante than they seem willing to be. Maybe I scare people away with my readiness to become close and make them the center of my world.

The first description is associated with a secure relationship style, the second with an avoidant relationship style, and the third with an ambivalent relationship style. It is possible that you have different styles with different people, or that none of these descriptions applies perfectly to your relationships.

Psychologist Philip Shaver and his colleagues have shown that there is a positive correlation between the parent-infant attachment style and the later relationship style developed in adulthood. In one study , for example, adults with an avoidant relationship style more frequently reported that their parents had unhappy marriages compared to adults with a secure relationship style (Brennan & Shaver, 1993). The adults with a secure relationship style, on the other hand, tended to report coming from a trusting and supportive family, with parents who were happily married. Those with an avoidant relationship style tended to report that their family members were aloof and distant, and that they did not feel very much warmth or trust either from or toward their parents.

A dominant theme of attachment theory is that a person's romantic attachments in adulthood will be a reflection of his or her attachment patterns in the past especially with their earliest relationships. Representations of the earliest relationships can serve as prototypes for later relationships, with the early experiences retaining their influential role in attachment behavior throughout the life span. The psychologist Chris Fraley has recently published meta-analyses of studies examining the long-term influence of attachment style (Fraley, 2002a, 2002b). After reviewing a great deal of

Object relations theorists believe that the characteristics and quality of adult relationships are determined, in part, by relationships experienced in early childhood.

research, and evaluating dif ferent models of change and stability , Fraley concludes that the data are consistent with a moderate degree of stability in attachment security from infancy to adulthood. His best estimate of the correlation between early attachment security and attachment security at any later point in time is approximately .39, which can be described as significantly la ger than zero, but moderate in magnitude.

Adult relationship styles may be most important for understanding romantic relationships. What do people look for in a romantic relationship? What do people expect from their romantic partners? How do people cope with abandonment by and separation from their romantic partners either real or imagined? Research suggests that individuals with dif ferent attachment styles will answer these questions very differently from each other (e.g., Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to shun romance, believing that real love is rare and never lasts. They fear intimacy and rarely develop deep emotional commitments. They tend not to be very supportive of their partners, at least not emotionally .

Adults with an ambivalent attachment style tend to have frequent, but shortlived, romantic relationships. They fall in and out of love easily but rarely say that they are happy with their relationships. They develop a sort of desperation in their adult relationships and show fear of losing their partners. Their focus is often on keeping the other happy and, so, are quick to compromise, to change themselves for the sake of avoiding conflict with the othe . As you might guess, ambivalent adults report that being separated from their partners is very stressful.

Adults with a secure attachment style can be separated from their partners without stress, just as secure attachment children can remain calm when their mothers leave the room. Secure adults are generally more warm and supportive in their romantic relationships, and their partners report more satisfaction with the relationship than do the partners of avoidant or ambivalent adults (Hazan & Shaver , 1994). Secure adults are also more likely to give emotional support to their partners when it is needed. Secure adults seek support when they need it more than do ambivalent or avoidant adults. In general, secure adults do a good job of navigating through the treacherous waters of adult romantic relationships.

An interesting study by psychologist Jef f Simpson illustrates the working of attachment styles in adult relationships (Simpson, Rholes, Orinea, & Grich, 2002). In this study they had heterosexual dating couples serve as subjects. The couple was told that the male would undergo a stressful and unpleasant experience as part of the experiment. They were separated and the male was taken to a room where an experimenter recorded his pulse while saying the following:

"In the next few minutes you ar e going to be exposed to a situation and set of experimental pr ocedures that ar ouse considerable anxiety and distr ess in most people. Due to the natur e of these pr ocedures, I cannot tell you any more at this moment. Of course, I'll answer any questions or concerns you have after the experiment is over ."

The purpose of this statement was to make the male subject anxious. Moreover , he was taken to a darkened, windowless room that contained some polygraphs. The experimenter remarked that the equipment was "not quite ready yet" and that the subject would have to wait a few minutes before the "stress phase" could start. Meanwhile, the female was told that her partner was going to be involved in a "stress and performance session" which would start in five or ten minutes. The couple was brought together to wait, and during this time they were unobtrusively videotaped for five minutes. After five minutes the experimenter entered the room and told the sub jects the experiment was over , explained the purpose of the experiment, and told the subjects that they could erase the videotape if they so desired (none did).

The experimenters coded the videotape for a number of behaviors. Mostly they were interested in the degree to which the women of fered support to their partners, and the degree to which the men asked for support from their partners. Prior to the start of the experiment, the experimenters used an interview method to assess childhood recollections of experiences with parents and other attachment figures. Fro these interviews the experimenters rated the degree to which each subject was avoidantly or securely attached to his or her primary caregivers in early childhood.

Results showed that women who had avoidant attachment experiences with their parents were significantly less likely to o fer support and encouragement to their male partners, even if the male asked for that. The securely attached women did provide support if the partner asked for it, but provided less if he did not ask for it. This is a contingent pattern of support, what some researchers consider ideal in relationships (George & Solomon, 1996). Regarding help seeking from the men, none of the attachment style variables predicted this behavior in this study . However, this was not a very intense or long-lasting stressor . Studies of real, intense, and chronic stress (persons under missile attacks, persons under going combat training) have found that attachment styles do relate to help seeking (Mikulincer , Florian, & Weller, 1993; Mikulincer & Florian, 1995). Specificall , secure men and women seek support from others when distressed, whereas avoidantly attached persons try to distance themselves from others, want to spend time alone when under stress, and distract themselves from the stressors. When stress is severe or chronic, it appears that a person' s attachment style might relate to their pattern of support seeking.

Individual differences in attachment style may have implications beyond those for relationships. Any area of life that involves closeness, getting along with others, confiding in others, and exploring relationships might be negotiated di ferently by persons with different attachment styles (Elliot & Reis, 2003). One study of adults examined attachment styles in relation to satisfaction with work, with family , with one's social role, and with stressful life events (V asquez, Durik, & Hyde, 2002). These researchers found that those persons with the secure attachment style showed the best adjustment across these domains. Persons with avoidant/fearful attachment styles reported difficulties in many of the domains of family life and in several domains o work life. Other research has shown that, among men, the avoidant/fearful attachment style was related to a collection of traits that is related to abusiveness toward women (Dutton, Saunders, Starzomski, & Bartholomew , 1994).

If a person develops a particular childhood attachment style, is he or she destined to live out the adult version of that style? This important question has been the topic of much theoretical debate and empirical research (Cassidy & Shaver , 1999; Simpson & Rholes, 1998). Attachment theorists believe that even the poorest childhood experiences with relationships can be overcome. Ainsworth and Bowlby (1991) argued that children were not necessarily damaged forever because of unfortunate parenting experiences in infancy . They felt that subsequent positive experiences could compensate for earlier negative relationships. Despite a bad start in life, a person exposed to a loving, nurturant relationship as an adult can revise his or her working model of object relations. If the relationship is positive and supportive enough, Ainsworth and Bowlby ar gued, the person could internalize a new mental version of relationships, one that was more secure and trusting, with positive expectations about how people would relate to the person.

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