early childhood experiences affect attachment

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment Theory explains the significance of relationships and relational bonds between people. The theory posits that people have an innate desire to establish a connection with others, emphasizing the need for early attachment between infant and parent. Attachment researchers suggest the quality or style of your relationship with a primary caregiver (primary parent during infancy) strongly influences how one may connect and interact with others, including in romantic relationships.

John Bowlby’s Model of Infant Attachment:

One of the first researchers of attachment theory is psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907- 1990). He investigated separation distress in infants who exhibited various emotional and behavioral responses (e.g. crying, searching) to prevent the experience of separation from a primary caregiver or strengthen reunification with a primary caregiver or attachment figure. Bowlby emphasized the importance of the caregiver to be nearby, accessible, and attentive. The attachment to a primary caregiver increases the infant’s chances of survival and protection. Bowlby studied the general dynamics of attachment behavior and recognized that individual differences exist among infants as they navigate their needs.

  • Pre-attachment (0-6 weeks):
    Infants show no attachment to caregivers, but respond to care and comfort, and only learn that when they behave in certain ways (e.g. crying) they can get attention/relief from the caregiver
  • Attachment-in-the-making (6 weeks to 7 months):
    Infants start to show a preference for primary caregivers, but will accept care from anyone
  • Clear-Cut Attachment (7-24 months):
    Children develop a strong attachment and preference for primary caregivers
  • Formation of Reciprocal Relationships (24 months+):
    Children begin using language skills to develop and expand their relationships

(Mcleod, 2024)

attachment styles affect adult relationships

Childhood Attachment Styles affect Adult Relationships

Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) expanded on Bowlby’s work and introduced the “Strange Situation” — a method to observe infant-parent attachment behaviors. This led to the identification of “secure” attachment, where infants show distress upon separation but comfort upon reunion. Ainsworth identified four distinct attachment styles, each with unique characteristics and long-term implications:

  • Secure Attachment:
    Characterized by trust in the availability of the caregiver, leading to healthy adult relationships where individuals are able to express their needs and maintain emotional balance. Such individuals do not typically feel overly anxious when apart from their partners, contributing to healthy conflict resolution and emotional interdependence. Statistics suggest that around 58% of U.S. adults fall into this category.
  • Anxious Attachment:
    Marked by distress and uncertainty about caregiver availability, resulting in adults who may appear needy or overly reliant on partners for reassurance. They may view their partner as the center of their life, with poor boundaries, and experience anxiety during times apart. An anxious attachment can also lead to possessiveness, a need for constant reassurance, and difficulties forming close relationships. Research indicates that about 19% of U.S. adults are anxiously attached.
  • Avoidant Attachment:
    Individuals learn to self-soothe and maintain independence, often leading to discomfort with intimacy in adult relationships. These adults often minimize or ignore their partners’ emotional needs and may exhibit behaviors to re-establish independence. Approximately 23% of adults in the U.S. demonstrate an avoidant attachment style.
  • Disorganized Attachment:
    Results from inconsistent caregiver behavior, leading to confusion and difficulty in managing emotions and relationships in adulthood. Emotional extremes, conflict proneness, and self-criticism are common, with many having a history of abuse or trauma. Unfortunately, due to limited research, specific statistics on disorganized attachment in adults are unavailable.

(Robinson, Segal, & Jaffe, 2024; Fraley, 2018; Cherry, 2023)

What influences insecure attachment?

  • Lack of parent’s support or skills necessary for parenting roles.
  • Parental unavailability or inconsistency, with frequent caregiver changes.
  • Parental mental health issues, such as depression, affecting socialization and connection with the infant.
  • Parental substance abuse hindering their capacity as a caregiver.
  • Family issues like trauma, tragedy, forced separation, or major illness disrupting caregiver-infant attachment development.
  • Abuse or neglect (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological) impacting the care and attachment process.
  • Frequent relocations leading to disorientation and the need for the child to continually form and end attachments.

(Robinson, Segal, & Jaffe, 2024)

attachment styles can change over time

Attachment styles are not set in stone and can change with personal awareness and practice

  • Learn how to communicate your needs, boundaries, and internal experiences to strengthen the quality of your relationship. Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal communication that may reflect attachment style
  • Expand your capacity to understand and process emotions, alone and with your partner. This might involve being self-aware of extreme emotions as they arise, expression of empathy, and connecting with your partner’s emotional experiences
  • Grow your relationship with people who appear to have secure attachment style, making you feel confident and loved unconditionally
  • Allow yourself to process childhood trauma and relational issues in therapy to increase a sense of safety. Process issues of trauma, instability in relationships, and separation.

(Robinson, Segal, & Jaffe, 2024)

Attachment styles serve as a lens through which we can understand the complexities of human relationships and emotional bonds. By exploring the origins, manifestations, and implications of attachment styles, we gain valuable insights into our own relational patterns and behaviors. Ultimately, fostering secure attachments lays the foundation for fulfilling and resilient connections, enriching our lives with love, trust, and emotional intimacy.

At PCI, we understand the importance of family relationships in the maintenance of mental health and well-being. Our clinicians are specialized in providing family psychotherapy, which can be a part of a patients intensive outpatient treatment plan. If you, or your family members could benefit from family psychotherapy, contact us today. PCI also offers a complimentary Family Education Night regularly, where family of patients and prospective patients can ask our medical and clinical director questions about mental health and substance use disorders and treatment.


1. Cherry, K. (2023, February 22). What is attachment theory?: The Importance of Early Emotional Bonds. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337#citation-9

2. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, September 22). The 4 Attachment Styles and How They Impact You. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/attachment-theory-and-attachment-styles

3. Fraley, C. (2018). A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research. Psychology Department Labs. http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

4. Madigan, S., Fearon, R. M. P., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Duschinsky, R., Schuengel, C., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Ly, A., Cooke, J. E., Deneault, A.-A., Oosterman, M., & Verhage, M. L. (2023). The first 20,000 strange situation procedures: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 149(1-2), 99–132.

5. Mcleod, S. (2024, January 24). Stages Of Attachment Identified By John Bowlby And Schaffer & Emerson (1964). Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/stages-of-attachment-identified-by-john-bowlby-and-schaffer-emerson-1964.html

6. Robinson, L., Segal, J., & Jaffe, J. (2024, March 7). Attachment styles and how they affect adult relationships. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/attachment-and-adult-relationships.htm