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Consequences of Attachment Strategies for Adults

Consequences of Attachment Strategies

Attachment behavior should not be lightly dismissed—it is essential for survival. Attachment behavior is one of several survival functions common to most animals—care-giving, care-seeking, procreation, feeding, environmental awareness, and attachment. Attachment behavior promotes the safety and security of the individual and is directed toward someone, usually the primary caregiver. It is important to note that bonding behavior (caregiving) is the reciprocal behavior of the attachment figure toward the individual attempting to attach.

The theory of attachment is complex and much has already been written about it since John Bowlby first introduced the concept half a century ago. The concepts of biological control, environment of adaptedness, and working model (Bolwby, 1982) and the description of adults as autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied, and unresolved-disorganized (Main, 1996) is essential to the understanding. For those who wish a more thorough explanation of attachment theory, several books and articles are listed in References.

As a psychological issue, the impact of attachment has generally focused on children. However, developing insecure attachment strategies can have serious repercussions for adults. Three areas of concern are mental health, relationship, and criminal behavior.

A study of 394 clients 92% who indicated experiencing an insecure attachment strategy had other negative indicators for healthy survival.

Psychobiology of attachment

Biological control

Bolwby (1982) describes the attachment behavior regulation system like and equates it to the multitude of physiological control systems that regulate our bodies such as body temperature and blood pressure. Behavioral systems are not inherited as instinct but as "potential to develop" in a particular environment according to "the set-goal of the system." The nature and form of the behavior depends on "the particular environment in which development takes place".

"In order for a control system to perform its function effectively it must be equipped with sensors to keep it informed of relevant events, and these events it must continuously monitor and appraise." As a control system, attachment behavior monitors events for their "potential danger or stress (internal or external)" and the "accessibility of the attachment figure." The set-goal of the system is "constancy" with in limits (Bolwby, 1982). Operating outside the limits creates stress on the person to the point of dysfunction and perhaps, eventually death.

The environment within which the child operates attachment behavior, in an effort to have a sense of safety, security, and get needs met, is a family or an alternative caregiving system of some sort. Attachment theory is declaring that it is the inability of a child to adapt to his environment according to the set-goal of his system that leads to psychopathology.

Environment of adaptedness

All things are within an environment. The environment in which a behavioral system can be expected to operate efficiently Bowlby calls the "environment of adaptedness." In any other environment, a behavioral system may work but cannot be expected to do so. In other words, a behavioral system not operating in its environment of adaptedness may behave unusual or not at all. The unusual or non-functional behavior could be unfavorable to survival (Bowlby, 1982, pp. 44-50).

For a child, the environment can be nurturing and respectful or it can be abusive and neglectful. For healthy attachment to occur, the attachment figure must not only be accessible or present but she or he must also be available, responsive, and safe. Prospective studies of attachment show "mothers of secure one year olds are responsive to their babies, mothers of insecure-avoidants are unresponsive, mothers of insecure-ambivalents are inconsistently responsive" (Main & Weston, 1982) and later mothers of disorganized-disorienteds are abusive (Main & Solomon, 1986).

Fortunately for most children in this country their environment of adaptedness allows them to grow feeling a sense of satisfaction and trust that their needs will be met by their caregivers. However for millions of other children, the need for eye contact, smile, touch, motion, and food is unfulfilled and furthermore they are often harmed by the attachment figure. The attachment-bonding process is never securely formed or it is broken (Cline, 1995) in these cases.

Working model

Much of our learning is accomplished within the first year of life especially concerning satisfaction and trust in our relationships with other people (Ainsworth, 1978; Bolwby, Main, 1996). Our model of women, mothers, men, fathers, the relationship between men and women, the relationship among family members, our value and place in a family relationship, and our ability to form relationships with others and society is greatly influenced in the first years. These strategies remain active throughout adult life.

"Relationship patterns established in the first year of life continue to have a powerful influence on children" (Holmes, 1993, p. 111). Sensitive, loving care in which the child experiences supportive and co-operative caregivers develops in the child a sense of worth; a belief in the helpfulness of others; a feeling of competence and self-reliance; and the ability to be co-operate, sympathetic, and empathetic with others. A securely attached child stores an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable caregiver (mother or father). Also, the child's model of self that is worthy of love and attention, confident, and able to explore the environment. As the child grows, these assumptions will continue into a favorable model on which to build future relationships and adverse circumstances can be handled in resilient ways (Bowlby, 1982).

"Conversely, when a child's attachment behavior is responded to tardily and unwillingly and is regarded as nuisance" or is actively rejected, the child develops little sense of worth or confidence, see others as less than helpful, is unwilling and anxiously obedient, demonstrates angry behavior, and is unconcerned about others. The child is likely to become insecurely attached and store an opposite model of self. He may see the world as a dangerous place in which other people are to be treated with great caution, see himself as ineffective, and unworthy of love (Holmes, 1993, p. 79). The child will bring these assumption into an unfavorable model on which to build future relationships. These assumptions are relatively stable and enduring and unlikely to be modified by future experience (Bowlby, 1982, p. 378; 1988) (Holmes, 1993, pp. 78-9) (Main, 1996, pp. 237-41). These latter types of early childhood and later experience usually leads "to personality structures of lowered resilience and defective control" (Bolwby, 1982).

The process of attachment of children to their caregivers has life-long impact on their personalities as adults—how they think, feel, and behave. Clinical experience with abusive and violent men leads us to believe insecure attachment strategies lead to distorted cognitions of self and others which creates and supports a chaotic lifestyle.

When a child's control system sensors monitor relevant events with the caregiver as being sometimes within and sometimes outside of system's limits. Children who lack a sense of predictability in their lives, to some degree, commonly feel unprotected and hopeless and helpless in getting their needs by their family. They lack a sense of safety, security, satisfaction, and trust. Caregivers are not trusted. The attachment behavioral control system continues to adjust behavior in an effort to control the external world in order to maintain the system within its operating limits and homeostasis. The behavior developed allows the child to cope with his world, however the lessons learned develop relationship patterns that are often less than useful and dysfunctional in later life—relationship models are constrained and distorted.

Success in maintaining long-term attachment-bonding process between the child and caregiver brings satisfaction and contentment, and failure brings frustration, anxiety, and sometimes despair which are the prizes and penalties selected during evolution to guide us (Bolwby, 1988).

Attachment Strategies

A brief review of the attachment categories, both infant and adult, follows. Studies linked, about 77 percent of the time, adult attachment categories with previous childhood categories—secure to secure-autonomous; avoidant to dismissing; preoccupied to resistant-ambivalent; and disorganized-disoriented to unresolved-disorganized (Main, 1996, pp. 237-243).

Secure infants (B)

Seek contact, solace, and encouragement with the caregiver (Main & Solomon, 1986). Children who develop a secure working model develop a strategy of "relative freedom. . .and a coherent integration of information about attachment figure, as well as adaptive affect regulation" (Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996). Caregiver tends to be consistently responsive.

Autonomous adults (F)

"value attachment relationship and regard attachment-related experiences as influential. They tend to be objective, coherent, collaborative, and consistent, although flexible enough to incorporate new ideas" (Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996).

* * * * *
Avoidant infants (A)

"are indifferent to or ignore the caregiver and show little signs of distress" (Main & Solomon, 1986). "They tend to develop a strategy of minimizing the output of attachment behaviors" although they become angered and anxious when rejected (Main, 1990). When the parent is alarming, the child is in a "paradox by activating simultaneously impulses to approach the parent as a haven of safety and to flee from the parent." The "infant inevitably suffers a collapse of behavioral strategy" (Main, 1996). Caregivers tend to be consistently inaccessible, interfering, or rejecting.

Dismissing adults (Ds)

Minimize attachment strategy and importance or influence of attachment on themselves (Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996). Describes attachment figures, past and present, in positive terms but actively contradicts these characterizations during narratives. Tends to insist on lack of childhood memory which is a response linked infant avoidance (Main, 1996).

* * * * *
Ambivalent infants (C)

request contact with the caregiver, although resist it when offered and fail to be comforted (Main & Solomon, 1986). Appear to develop somewhat inflexible organizational, attentional, and behavior strategies for dealing with moderately stressful situations. "They develop maximizing attachment behaviors, because they are fearful of the caregiver's potential inaccessibility" (Main, 1990). Caregivers tend to be inconsistently available.

Preoccupied adults (E)

maximize attachment strategy and appear preoccupied and entangled by attachment relationships. They tend to be confused, angry, and non-collaborative about attachment figures and lack the objectivity to move beyond their preoccupation (Main, 1996).

* * * * *
Disorganized-disoriented infants (D)

lack a coherent attachment strategy toward caregiver. Disorganized infants develop a controlling, role reversing response patterns by being either punitive or care giving with the parents. Disorganized children are most at risk for mental disorders. School children with disruptive, aggressive, and dissociative behaviors have been associated with disorganized attachment status earlier in their lives. A large "majority of maltreated children have been found to be disorganized." (Main, 1996, p. 239).

Unresolved-disorganized adults (U-d)

manifest irrational thoughts about the trauma or loss, unfounded fear, unfounded guilt, continuing disbelief, and disorganization and disorientation when describing earlier traumatic events occurred. "An unresolved attachment results from unintegrated responses to trauma or loss surrounding attachment figures in childhood" (Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996).

The quality of attachment plays a large part in determining an individual's degree of vulnerability to developmental deviations. Insecure models are defensively biased and are "vulnerable to fragmentation or incoherence, producing multiple inconsistent models. . . . Defensively biased multiple models form the initial stages of defensive structures that can ultimately lead to distortions in personality and psychopathology" (Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996).

Developing Internal Working Model—Continuum of Beliefs

Secure Strategy
Insecure Strategies
  • Ability to trust
  • Predictablity
  • Feelings of worth and loveable
  • Sense of competence
  • Hopeful to get needs met
  • Sense of satisfaction
  • Co-operative
  • Find others helpful
  • Feeling of well-being
  • Empathetic with others
  • Explores environment openly
  • Favorable model to build relationships
  • Inability to trust self and others
  • Lacks predicability
  • Feeling worthless and unloveable
  • Sense of incompetence
  • Hopeless to get needs met
  • Sense of dissatisfaction
  • Anxiously obedient
  • Sees others as not helpful
  • Lack feelings of well-being
  • Uncaring about others
  • Explores environment suspiciously
  • Constrained model to build relationships
Out of the continuum of beliefs, develops a mental experiential-dependent matrix
Secure Strategy Promotes a Cohesive Structure
for Adaptive Schema Development

Insecure Strategies Create a Fragile Structure
for Maladaptive Schema Development

  • Adaptive self-regulating processes
  • Connection and acceptance of others
  • Sense of competence
  • Effective boundaries and limits
  • Self-directedness
  • Spontaneous
  • Limited self-regulating processes
  • Rejection
  • Impaired autonomy and performance
  • Deficient internal limits
  • Other directedness
  • Inhibited and over vigilance

Personality—Ability to Cope



  • Adaptive to environmental change
  • Assertive
  • Empathic expression of thoughts and feelings
  • Collaborative and co-operative of behaving and relating
  • Multifaceted socially functional
  • Resistant to environmental change
  • Passive-aggressive
  • Problematic expression of thoughts and feelings
  • Troublesome manner of behaving and relating
  • Multifaceted socially dysfunctional