Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Stuck to your partner like glue ... or running for the hills.

Basic attachment theory posits that humans are driven to form close connections with other people, but how we do that and how we feel about it is influenced by our early relationship experiences. Through interactions with our caregivers, we develop expectations of other people. So, for example, a baby with an attentive, responsive caregiver will develop the expectation that the caregiver is a source of safety and a provider of comfort. As a result, that baby will readily seek out that specific caregiver when anxious, and will be pretty darn upset if he's separated from that caregiver. However, if the baby has learned that the caregiver is cold and unresponsive, he will have an entirely different set of expectations and behaviors.

Adult attachment theory applies that idea of "attachment" to adult romantic relationships. On Monday, some of you were commenting about relationships in general, but this concept is generally reserved for romantic bonds. There's been a lot of attempts to map child attachment styles to those identified in adults, but findings from studies suggest that the connection, while definitely there, is moderate at best. Your childhood attachment style will not necessarily be your attachment style as an adult in a romantic relationship. However, there's a bit of evidence that suggests we choose partners who confirm our existing beliefs about relationships and intimacy.

The basic attachment styles for adults:

Secure. This was #2 in Monday's post. Adults with a secure attachment style (or low anxiety, low avoidance on that quiz) find it easy to trust and be in relationships, and they tend to view relationships positively. They often have a history of warm, trusting connections, and are comfortable with intimacy--but not afraid of independence. About 60% of people describe themselves this way.

Preoccupied (also called "resistant"). This was #3 in Monday's post. Adults with preoccupied attachment style (low avoidance, high anxiety on the quiz) might seem kinda clingy. They seek approval and intimacy, but may end up being overly dependent. They rate themselves less positively than those who have secure attachment styles. About 20% of people describe themselves this way.

Avoidant. This was #1 in Monday's post, and about 20% of people describe themselves this way. But there are two types.
  • Fearful (high anxiety, high avoidance). These folks want to have close relationships but feel uncomfortable with being close to others. They might not trust partners, but they don't feel that great about themselves, either.
  • Dismissive (this would be low anxiety, high avoidance). These folks are highly independent and don't value (relatively speaking) intimacy. They may view others less positively than they view themselves, and they may distance themselves from a partner if there's conflict or rejection. Both Dismissive and Fearful folks tend to hide or suppress their feelings ... but Dimissive peeps are more successful at it.
There's solid research that shows that secure parents tend to have securely attached kiddos, and parents with one of the insecure attachment styles have kids who are more likely to show one of the insecure styles (resistant, avoidant, or disorganized).

So ... you know, I could go on and on. The field of attachment is HUGE, and the research spans the last five decades. I think I'll stop here for today, but if you're a writer thinking about romantic relationships (or parent-child relationships), you might want to investigate the concept of attachment in more depth, as it's a great way to build a character whose thoughts and actions form a cohesive pattern, especially if that character has some complex past relationships, either with parents or previous romantic partners.

And it's Wednesday! The first of the month! Which means Laura is tackling this month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question: "What kind of book do you read for inspiration?" Head on over to her blog to see her answer!

Also--let me know if you have questions about attachment (for book-research/character development purposes) and I'll try to answer them in future posts!


  1. I haven't ever thought of writing a fictional relationship following a pattern like this. It's making for interesting possibilities in my head right now.

  2. Very interesting information. Thank you!

  3. Now this explains why when I took my oldest to daycare for the first time (he was 9 months old), he cried for 5 hours straight. Fortunately he eventually got over it, and my next two kids didn't have the same trouble adjusting. They only cried for an hour (and probably so did I). ;)

    Great post as always, Sarah.

  4. Oh no! Are you telling me my kiddo might end up like me??? NO! I have seriously tried my hardest to make sure she's not.


  5. Fascinating stuff, as usual. Especially useful when it comes to attributing things like this to characters.

  6. Wow - this was really interesting.

  7. Hmmm... I'm not sure that I quite fit any of those. But I'm the first to admit that I'm a bit odd.

  8. what i've always found interesting were the children from the romanian orphanages and how their growth was stunted- physically as well as psychologically- due to the lack of touch.
    also- attachment disorder (i believe) where a baby who is not really touched much will grow to be super needy attaching to everyone that shows them any kindness or super indifferent not sympathizing with people at all... i probably described that wrong, but i learned about it a long time ago. i find it very interesting...
    interesting post, per usual!
    this is actually something i already try to think about for my characters already! whoohoo! i think that's a first for your blog topics! :)

  9. What Vic said - can you write a post about orphans? I'm spinning a story and I'd like to know more. Of course, I understand it goes back to the caregiver situation. Does age make a difference with abandonment issues? If they were born orphans vs left behind at a later stage.

  10. Interesting, as always, Sarah. Someone mentioned the whole daycare thing, and I always wonder about that. Leaving my kids at daycare was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and not one of them took to it well. Was that their fault, or mine? I didn't shed tears with them, but I'd cry on my way to work after dropping them off. I always wondered if they sensed that in me and if that was why they were miserable for a time after I left. I guess they turned out okay as my older two are successfully launched and living productive, happy lives; my youngest is on the brink, just getting ready to graduate high school and head for college. I think the daycare situation traumatized me more in the long run than it ever did them!

  11. I totally inhaled this post. Fascinating! I'm going to use some of this information for my characters. :)

  12. I'm very attached to this post.

    Interestingly, I was sent off to boarding school at age 9, but believe I am one of those uber-attachment parents. None of my kids went to daycare, but it sure didn't make the preschool drop off easy. (By the third one though, I was a master of "drop and run.")

    Enough about me. I really learn a lot from your posts, Sarah. Keep 'em coming!

  13. Yeah, this area has always been fascinating to me. Great post!

  14. Very, very interesting! Thank you so much for these posts! :)

  15. Parts of this post remind me of the "I'm OK; You're OK" teachings of the 70s. (or was it 60s?) Anyway, very interesting stuff. Thank you.

  16. Thanks for this review! Perfect timing too because now I totally have a solidly defined framework for one of my characters (avoidant dismissive, I think). :)

  17. Very interesting stuff. I'm currently trying to deepen a parent-child relationship in my WIP. This will be very helpful.