Attachment theory and close relationships; personality development and dynamics; methods

Research Overview

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There are many similarities between infant-parent and adult romantic relationships. For example, in both kinds of relationship, people (a) feel safe and secure when the other person is present; (b) turn to the other person during times of sickness, uncertainty, and fear; (c) use the other person as a "secure base" from which to explore the world; and (d) speak to one another in a unique language, often called "motherese" or "baby talk."

According to adult attachment theory, infant-parent and adult romantic relationships function in similar ways because they are both shaped by what John Bowlby (1969) called the "attachment system"--a motivational system designed to keep young, vulnerable infants in close proximity to potential caregivers.

The objective of my research is to explore the role that the attachment system plays in close relationships and interpersonal functioning. Specifically, my research has addressed some of the following questions:

  • How does attachment manifest itself in adult relationships? Do other kinds of relationships (e.g., twin relationships) also function as attachments?

  • What causes some people to be secure in the way in which they relate to others? What leads others to feel insecure? How can we assess individual differences in attachment security (also known as "attachment style")?

  • How stable are attachment patterns over time? What processes facilitate continuity and change?

  • What is the effect of losing a loved one on the way the attachment system functions? What are the psychological consequences for different ways of regulating the kind of emotions that are experienced when one is faced with the possibility of separation from an attachment figure?

  • Why does the attachment system--a motivational system that evolved in the ecology of infancy--play a role in romantic relationships? How did it evolve? What functions does it serve?

In addressing these questions, my research has drawn upon a wide range of methodologies (e.g., naturalistic observation, longitudinal methods, social-cognitive tasks, psychophysiological recordings, behavior genetic, phylogenetic analyses). For a detailed overview of adult attachment theory, please read the on-line primer that I have written (link).

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The Measurement of Attachment Styles

Some people are relatively secure in the way they relate to significant others in their lives. They are comfortable opening up to others and using them as a secure base. Other people, in contrast, are insecure in their close relationships. They may worry about whether others truly care for them and they often feel misunderstood.

Social and personality psychologists refer to these individual differences as attachment styles or attachment patterns. One of the challenges in attachment research is assessing these individual differences--finding ways to measure how secure or insecure people are in their relationships.

My colleagues and I have addressed this issue in a number of ways. First, we have developed and refined a number of self-report instruments (e.g., the ECR-R, by Fraley, Waller, and Brennan, 2000, and the ECR-RS, by Fraley, Heffernan, Vicary, & Brumbaugh, 2011) that are designed to assess people's attachment styles. Second, we have used taxometric techniques to examine whether individual differences in attachment are continuous or categorical (e.g., Fraley & Waller, 1998; Fraley, Hudson, Heffernan, & Segal, 2015). This work suggests that attachment patterns are distributed continuously, both in infancy (e.g., Fraley & Spieker, 2003) and adulthood (e.g., Fraley et al., 2015). Third, we have examined the ways in which self-report measures of attachment converge and diverge from interview-based measures of attachment, such as the Adult Attachment Interview (e.g., Haydon, Roisman, Marks, & Fraley, 2011; Roisman, Holland, Foruna, Fraley, Clausell, & Clarke, 2007).

Antecedents of Adult Attachment Styles

One of the big questions in attachment research concerns the origins of attachment styles: Why are some people more secure than others? In our research we have identified several preliminary answers to this question.

First, attachment styles vary as a function of people's on-going relationships. On occasions in which people feel supported and cared for, they are more likely to report feeling secure in their relationships (e.g., La Guardia et al., 2000). Similarly, on occasions in which people don't feel supported and understood, they report greater levels of insecurity. Moreover, as relationships persist, people appear to become less anxious in those relationships. We have found, for example, that people in long-term relationships are more secure than those in short-term relationships (e.g., Chopik, Edelstein, & Fraley, 2013).

Second, attachment styles appear to be reflections of people's interpersonal histories. In general, people who report being secure tend to report retrospectively that they had more positive caregiving experiences when growing up (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) and better relationships with peers (e.g., Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000). Longitudinal research indicates that these factors predict individual differences in attachment in early adulthood. My colleagues and I, for example, found that people who were relatively secure at age 18 were more likely than those who were insecure to have experienced increasingly higher quality caregiving environments and better friendship relationships over the course of their development (Fraley, Roisman, Booth-LaForce, Owen, & Holland, 2013).

Third, attachment styles might reflect the interplay of genes and environments. But the precise ways in which this works has yet to be charted well. We know from previous research that there is little evidence that attachment patterns in childhood are heritable (e.g., Fraley & Roisman, 2008). But behavior genetic studies on adults suggest that there is a heritable signal underlying adult attachment patterns (e.g., Donnellan et al., 2008). One of our long-term goals is to learn why this discrepancy exists, how genetic factors might shape interpersonal experiences, and, in turn, how genetic factors might be moderated by interpersonal experiences.

One of the take home messages from our work is that there is no silver bullet that allows us to understand who will become secure and who will become insecure in their attachment patterns. Nonetheless, identifying the factors that matter for the development of attachment styles is one of the priorities in our on-going research.

Stability and Change in Attachment Patterns

Attachment patterns are generally believed to be relatively stable across time; people who are secure today are expected to be secure a year from now. One reason attachment styles are stable is that people tend to see the world in ways that reinforce the assumptions they already hold. Insecure people, for example, are more likely to assume that the actions of another person are motivated by malevolent intentions--even when those actions are ambiguous (e.g., Collins, 1996; Vicary & Fraley, 2007). In short, selection processes (i.e., person --> environment effects) help to promote the stability of attachment.

Nonetheless, we know that attachment styles can change (see Figure 1). People who experience breakups, for example, are more likely to become insecure relative to those who don't (e.g., Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994). Indeed, a core assumption in attachment theory is people's attachment styles are shaped by their interpersonal environments (i.e., environment --> person effects). These socialization processes are one potential source of change.

Figure 1. This graph illustrates the ways in which attachment styles change over time. These data come from a single individual who was assessed multiple times over the course of a year and a half. Specifically, her attachment styles with four different people in her life (i.e., mother [red], father [blue], partner [green], and friend [purple]) were assessed at each occasion, in addition to her general attachment orientation (orange/yellow square). As can be seen, attachment styles tend to evolve over time (typically in response to relational events), but hover around relatively stable values--what we often refer to as prototype values in our research.

Thus, one of the challenges for the field has been to find ways to reconcile the idea that attachment is both stable and malleable--that there are both socialization and selection effects in play. One of our solutions to this puzzle has been to assume that both processes are relevant, but are unevenly distributed across the life course. Namely, we assume that socialization processes dominate in early life (or early in close relationships). Then, as people develop, selection processes come to assume a greater role.

One consequence of this perspective is that stability should be lower in childhood than it is in adulthood. In fact, we have found that the stability of attachment is lower in adolescence than adulthood (e.g., Fraley & Brumbaugh, 2004; Jones, Fraley, Ehrlich, Stern, Lejuez, Shaver, & Cassidy, 2017). Moreover, in well-established relationships (e.g., the relationships adults have with their parents), stability is higher than it is in less well-established relationships (e.g., the relationships adults have with romantic partners)(Fraley et al., 2011).

This perspective also suggests that people will be more responsive to certain experiences earlier in life than later (i.e., when socialization > selection). Consistent with this prediction, we have found that certain experiences, such as parental divorce, are more strongly associated with parental insecurity in adulthood when those experiences took place in early childhood rather than later on (Fraley & Heffernan, 2013).

Finally, this perspective also implies that, when selection effects dominate (e.g., in adulthood), people will tend to exhibit what we call "stable instability"--that is, their attachment scores will fluctuate around a common, stable value (Fraley, 2002; Fraley & Brumbaugh, 2004). One of the consequences of this is that test-retest correlations (one way of measuring the stability of individual differences) will tend to level-off at a non-zero value as the test-retest interval increases, such that the stability of attachment is the same over 6 weeks as it is over 6 months. This prediction has been tested in intensive (e.g., Fraley et al., 2013) and traditional longitudinal studies (e.g., Jones et al., 2017).

Consequences of Attachment for Well-Being, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Functioning

One reason many psychologists study attachment is that empirical research has shown that individual differences in attachment are related (concurrently and prospectively) to a broad array of outcomes that are important for understanding human functioning, mental health, and well-being.

Our lab has found, for example, that attachment styles prospectively predict relationship satisfaction in romantic relationships (Holland, Fraley, & Roisman, 2012). In addition, people who are relatively secure in their romantic relationships are more likely to view their partner as being responsive to their needs which, in turn, has downstream consequences for satisfaction, investment, and commitment in their relationships (Segal & Fraley, 2016). In short, secure attachment has the potential to help strengthen the commitment between partners and the satisfaction people experience in their relationships.

My colleagues and I have also examined the way attachment styles are related to the way people cope with stressful events, such as loss. We have found, for example, that people who are relatively secure are less likely to experience protracted symptoms of depression and PTSD following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 (Fraley, Fazzari, Bonanno, & Dekel, 2006) and the death of a loved one (Fraley & Bonanno, 2004).