What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is a concept that originated in child development psychology but which has since been expanded to describe adult relationships as well. The idea behind attachment theory is that the way an infant bonds, or fails to bond, with a caregiver, will influence how the child approaches interpersonal relationships. The focus of attachment theory is the reaction to the perception of separation or a threat.

Types of Attachment

Attachment theory posits four basic types of attachment. These are secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized-disoriented attachment. Infants and children who are securely attached generally have caregivers who meet their needs. They are relatively calm when their caregivers leave and happy when they return. The other three pairs refer to how the child relates to the presence and return of the caregiver. Anxious-ambivalent attachment occurs when the caregiving is unpredictable. Anxious-avoidant attachment occurs when the infant’s needs are generally not met, and disorganized-disoriented may be the result of a mother who experienced trauma shortly before birth and thus did not adequately meet the infant’s needs.


The concept of attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby. As described in the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, the roots of this theory include his own childhood and his examination of the negative effects on London children in World War II of being separated from their families to protect them from the bombings in the city. Mary Ainsworth continued to develop his theories. Some of her work focused on highlighting what appeared to be the innate nature of infants’ responses. She developed what is known as the Strange Situation Protocol to examine the attachment between children and their caregivers. Ainsworth worked with the first three categories, and the disorganized-disoriented one was introduced by psychologists Mary Main and Erik Hesse.

Adult Relationships

Attachment theory became more fully integrated into lifelong developmental psychology in the 1980s when Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver applied it to adult relationships. They found that attachments between couples formed in a similar way to those between infant and caretaker. The ideal situation was one in which the relationship represented a secure base for both people. In adult attachment theory, the four styles are often referred to as secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. In the anxious-preoccupied attachment style, people have a negative view of themselves and a positive view of others while in dismissive-avoidant, this is reversed. With fearful-avoidant attachment, the sense of self and others is unstable.


One criticism of attachment theory is that in some non-Western cultures, children do not attach as tightly to one caregiver. However, those children still do have caregiver figures to whom they can be attached to various degrees. There has also been some criticism that the scope of studies is limited. They focus only on stressful situations and on one attachment figure, but a child may be attached to a sibling or other figures as well.

Attachment theory is an important element of developmental psychology. Despite its potential limitations, attachment theory still appears to provide effective frameworks for the understanding of close interpersonal relationships at many stages of life.