10 Key Points of Attachment Theory










So you want to know the key points of attachment theory? R. Chris Fraley gave a great summary in “A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research” (2010), and it boils down to 10 Key Points.

  1. Attachment behaviors are adaptive

John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, wanted to understand why infants experience intense distress when separated from their parents. He argued there’s an obvious evolutionary advantage for infants to regulate proximity to their caregivers. It ensures their care and protection. Bowlby called this the attachment behavioral system.

  1. Are you nearby?

According to Bowlby, the attachment behavior system asks one fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive? When children believe the answer is “yes,” they feel loved, secure, and confident. These children explore and play and behave sociably. However, when children believe the answer is “no,” they feel anxiety, search visually or physically for the attachment figure, and cry out until they reestablish contact or get worn down in despair and depression

Attachment behavior system












3. Parent interactions predict security

While Bowlby recognized individual differences in attachment behavior, it was his colleague Mary Ainsworth who articulated the behavioral patterns by watching 1-year-old children systematically separated from and reunited with their parents.

Ainsworth and her students called it the strange situation and found 60% of the children matched up with Bowlby’s “normative” theory. They were upset until their parents returned. Then they sought out the parents and were easily comforted. These children were called secure and home-studies demonstrated their parents were responsive to their needs.

4. Parent interactions also predict insecurity

But that left 40% of the children in the strange situation who didn’t behave securely. About 20% started out ill-at-ease and upon separation from their parents became extremely distressed. When their parents returned, they were difficult to sooth and often exhibited conflicting behaviors, suggesting the need for comfort but also a desire to punish their parents. These children were called anxious-resistant.

The remaining 20% of the children didn’t seem too distressed when their parents left, and upon their parents return, they actively avoided contact. These children were called anxious-avoidant.

Home-studies demonstrated anxious-resistant and anxious-avoidant children had parents who were insensitive to their needs or inconsistent or rejecting.

  1. Romance creates attachment in adults

In the mid-1980’s researchers started to realize attachment processes weren’t limited to children. Among the first to look at romance, Hazen and Shaver (1987) found romantic love shares features of parent-child relationships:

  • both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  • both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
  • both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  • both share discoveries with one another
  • both play with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
  • both engage in “baby talk”

Hazan and Shaver argued that these parallels meant romantic love is part of the attachment behavioral system and the motivational systems that create caregiving and sexuality.

  1. Adult attachment is similar to infant attachment

Hazen and Shafer (1987) asked adults to self-identify with attachment styles and came up with another 60-20-20 percentage.

  • Sixty percent of adults feel confident their partners will support them when needed and are open to having others depend on them and being depended upon (secure).
  • Twenty percent of adults worry their partners don’t love them completely and are easily upset when their attachment needs are unmet (anxious-resistant).
  • Twenty percent of adults appear not to care too much about close relationships and prefer not to be too dependent on other people and vice-versa (avoidant).

While Hazen and Shafer’s research didn’t fully test whether adults shared the differences seen in children, increasing evidence suggests similarities. Even airport separations show attachment-related protest and caregiving (Fraley & Shaver, 1998).

And for those adults on the hunt for a long-term relationships, secure caregiving qualities rank the highest. They want partners to be attentive, warm, and sensitive to their needs (Zeifman & Hazan, 1997).


  1. Attachment occurs in dimensions (not categories)

Kelly Brennan and her colleagues (1998) helped us throw out the categories and look at adults with two fundamental dimensions: attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance.

Adults who score high on anxiety worry about the availability, responsiveness, and attentiveness of their partners, while adults scoring high on avoidance prefer not to rely on others or open up to them.

On the other hand, secure adults score low on both dimensions and are more confident about their partners’ responsiveness, more comfortable being intimate, and enjoy depending upon their partners and being depended upon.




Recent analyses of the strange situation show similar dimensions for infants: one with variability in anxiety and resistance, and one that captures the child’s willingness to rely on parental support (Fraley & Spieker, 2003a, 2003b).

  1. The secure think and act differently

Secure adults have relationships characterized by longevity, trust, and inter-dependence (Feeney, Noller, & Callan, 1994). They are well-adjusted and resilient and by in large work and play well with others. Their partners are the secure base from which they explore the world (Fraley & Davis, 1997), and they are more likely to seek and provide support to their distressed partners (Simpson et al., 1992).

On the other hand, during conflict, insecure adults interpret their partners’ behaviors in ways that exacerbate their insecurities (Simpson et al., 1996). And in an interesting analysis by Fraley and Shaver (1997), they found dismissing-avoidant adults (as opposed to fearfully-avoidant adults) could use defensive strategies adaptively and effectively suppress distressed thoughts and feelings.

  1. Attachment patterns vary with different relationships

There is a small to moderate correlation between the security adults feel with their mothers and the security they experience with a romantic partner, but attachment patterns don’t seem to be stable. Meaning, the relationship between parent-child and romantic relationships are only moderately related at best. However, adults in secure romantic relationships tend to remember their childhood relationship to parents as being secure (Feeney & Noller, 1990).

  1. The best is yet to come for attachment

Attachment theory can be used to create stunningly different developmental models, such as the model that says childhood attachment shapes adult attachment, as well as the model that says new attachment experience rewrite old attachment experiences (Fraley, 2002).

We still need better ways to determine if a relationship is serving an attachment function, and we need to learn the precise factors that change a person’s attachment style. Finally, to add warmth and security to people’s lives, we’re still pursuing the best methods for promoting attachment security and relational well-being.

Take the online attachment survey.