Adult relationships are not just influenced by biological or inherited factors. Upbringing, socialisation and childhood also play an important part in later adult relationships. Attachment is the emotional tie between two people that is shown in their behaviours. Attachment theory, put forward by Bowlby, argues that childhood relationships are prototypes for ones adult relationships. There is some evidence for this claim, but it is not wholly supported.
According to attachment theory, at an early, a child develops an internal working model (IWM) from their first relationship with their primary care giver. This consists of a view of themselves as loveable or otherwise, a model of other people as trustworthy or not to be relied on, and a model of the relationship between the two. Young children also develop characteristic attachment styles in their early relationships which influence later relationships by providing the child with beliefs about themselves, other people and relationships in general.
The theme of this is known as the continuity hypothesis. Hazan and Shaver (1987) researched the link between infant or childhood attachment types and adult relationships. They found that securely attached children, who had secure and close relationships with their parents, developed secure, stable and loving relationships with their adult partners. Insecure-avoidant children, who had cold and rejecting mothers, developed insecure adult relationships with high levels of jealousy and fear of rejection.
This shows that childhood attachment styles correlate strongly with adult relationship styles; however the research is based on a self-report questionnaire with retrospective questions that try to explore childhood attachments through the participant’s own (biased) childhood memories, this therefore reduces the validity of their results. Another concern with this study is that it assumes that all the participants understood the terms ‘insecure-avoidant’, ‘securely attached’ etc exactly the same, this consequently does not account for individual and cultural differences.
It would have been helpful to perhaps operationalise these terms so that the results would be justly reflective of the truth. Asking participants about their past could also leave them distraught and evoke negative feelings; this in turn raises the question of ethics. Attachment theories suggest that the child’s attachment classification may influence their popularity with peers so that the child who has a secure attachment style should be more confident in interactions with friends. Considerable evidence has supported this view.
Waters, Wippman and Sroufe (1979), Jacobson and Willie (1986) and Lieberman (1977) have all found that children classified as ‘secure’ go on to be more socially skilled in their friendships than both types of insecure children. This also gives light to Bowlby’s working internal model. Hartup et al. (1993) argues that children with a secure attachment type are more popular at nursery and engage more in social interactions with other children. In contrast, insecurely attached children tend to be more reliant on teachers for interaction and emotional support (Sroufe and Fleeson, 1986).
These studies support the claim that secure attachments with parents enable children to be good at later friendships. Relationships with peers are characterized as horizontal relationships as they take place between two people and are branded by equality. Peer relationships provide young people the opportunity to develop social competence. Attachment theories suggest that the Childs attachment classification may influence their popularity with peers. Considerable evidence has supported this view. Lyons-Ruth et al. arried out a longitudinal study which suggested that infant attachment type at 18 months was the best predictor of problematic relationships with peers in 5 year olds. This study was a longitudinal study meaning rich qualitative detailed data can be yielded, however in studies like these participant attrition can be a problem. As people may drop out during the research, generalisations become difficult to do as the sample may end up being less representative. Conversely, an alternative explanation of the link between attachment type and childhood popularity/peer relationships is offered by social learning theory.
This approach also predicts a continuity between the child’s relationship with their parents and their ability to make friends, as it suggests that children will learn relationship skills from their parents via modelling – observation and imitation. Parke (1988) argues that families indirectly influence their child’s later relationships as they guide and modify the child’s social behaviour to help them develop social skills. Russell and Finnie (1990) found that ‘popular’ children had mothers who suggested interaction strategies.
In contrast, ‘neglected’ children had mothers who encouraged children to play with toys and materials. This study therefore suggests that rather than attachment type, popular children may simply be those whose caregiver’s model and teach important social skills. Another thread of research has considered the possibility of continuities between childhood and adult relationships. Hazan and Shaver (1987) set out to test the question ‘Is love in adulthood directly related to the attachment type as a child? They used a Love Quiz to test two samples. The first consisted of 215 man and 415 women (aged between 14 and 82) randomly selected, the second group consisted of 108 students with a mean age of 18. They found a strong relationship between childhood attachment type and adult attachment type. Secure types had relationships that lasted, on average, twice as long as those classed as insecure. This study is useful as it generates large amounts of data from which generalisations can be made.
This study is also gender and age representative as both men and women took part, as well as the young and the old. However it is subject to demand characteristics and participants may give socially desirable answers when describing relationships. Attachment theory helps to explain continuities between early attachment and later friendships and relationships. This explanation can be seen as deterministic as it assumes that early relationship experiences are a direct reflection of the general aura of our later relationships.
Other factors such as life events can influence later relationships, making the link probabilistic rather than deterministic, making this an example of ‘soft determinism’. To further evaluate this theory, it dismisses the idea that as humans we are able to and are more than likely to change over time as we mature which could have an effect on our later relationships. This takes a very one dimensional outlook on human behaviour, projecting human conduct to be logical, strategic market for ideologies. Zimmerman et al. (2000) found hat child attachment type does not predict adult attachment type. Life events such as the divorce of parents or parental illness/death had much more influence on later security. This suggests that although childhood attachment is a possible factor, there are other factors that can influence adult life. Sternberg and Beall (1991) point to a range of methodological problems inherent in attachment research. These include problems of demand characteristics. This means that participants can respond to cues that lead to the tendency for them to behave in the way they think is required of them.
One method which has been devised to get round this is the adult attachment interview devised by Main, Caplan and Cassidy (1985). This is an interview that was designed to test attachment types and their effect on adult relationships. However, the psychologists told the participants that the interview was about utilising social support, which cancelled out demand characteristics as the participants don’t know what is really being asked of them. It could be argued that the continuity hypothesis is a rather reductionist approach to the study of adult security.
This means that, in an attempt to isolate and study particular causal factors such as attachment type, some wider picture may have been lost. It seems likely that adult security is affected by a whole range of factors such as life events, thus it might be useful to develop a more eclectic approach. This criticism may, however, be unjust. All psychological research needs to focus upon particular factors for study and the continuity hypothesis has provided us with a valid insight into the role of attachment type on adult security.