Relationships: The Impact of Attachment Styles

Relationships: The Impact of Attachment Styles

Relationships: The Impact of Attachment Styles

By: Julia Keys

Did you know that the way one develops an attachment to their mother as an infant has a profound effect on their adult relationships? Attachment styles were first studied in detail by the developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth in her experiment called “the strange situation”. In the strange situation, Ainsworth had a mother and a child play together for about three minutes and then the mother left the room. Next, a stranger would enter the room and play with the child for about three minutes and then they would leave. Finally, the child’s mother would re-enter the room and resume playing with their child. Ainsworth was most interested in observing the child’s behavior when their mother re-entered the room.

Upon careful examination, Ainsworth found three distinct patterns of behavior in infants when their mothers re-entered the room. If the child was upset, but then easily soothed by their mother upon re-entry, Ainsworth deemed them as having a secure attachment style. If the child was indifferent to their mother upon re-entry, Ainsworth would label them with an insecure avoidant attachment style. Finally, if the infant shows conflicting behavior upon the mother’s re-entry such as clinginess and then subsequent rejections of affection, Ainsworth would say they had an insecure ambivalent attachment style. Insecure ambivalent children are unpredictable in terms of their parental reactivity.

Ainsworth hypothesized that children’s reactions were a result of how their parents responded to their needs. Hypothetically, infants with secure attachment styles have their basic needs met consistently by their parents. This leads the secure infant to show a healthy dependence on their parents. Infants with an insecure avoidant attachment have their needs minimally met by their parents, which leads them to be independent and self-soothing. Infants with insecure ambivalent attachment styles have their needs met inconsistently from their caregivers, which results in confusion and conflicting behaviors.

So how does this “strange situation” relate to people later on in life? Researchers have found that attachment styles follow infants into adulthood and impact their behavior in relationships. While the behavior infants exhibited in the experiment relied on whether or not basic needs such as food, water, or comfort were met, attachments styles in adults tend to manifest themselves in more complicated ways.  Secure adults tend to have healthy and satisfying relationships where they can receive and offer support as needed.  Avoidant adults seek independence in relationships and oftentimes can appear a bit callous to their own emotions. Avoidant adults aren’t likely to offer support to their partners because they rarely depend on it themselves. Finally, ambivalent adults fear being either too close or too far from their partner, causing them to feel confused by their feelings and act in unpredictable ways in the relationship.

Although attachment styles are habits that people have probably been practicing subconsciously for all their lives, they are not permanent. Individual or couples therapy can help those struggling with their own emotions or communication skills.

If you or someone you know is struggling in a relationship, please contact our psychotherapy offices in New York or New Jersey to talk to one of our licensed professional psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, or psychotherapists at Arista Counseling & Psychotherapy. Contact our Paramus, NJ or Manhattan, NY offices respectively, at (201) 368-3700 or (212) 722-1920 to set up an appointment. For more information, please visit .


Source for Picture:,2,6


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