According to the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2015), the use of “attachment” in modern English was adopted from French, which refers to the action of fastening, a tie, a bond, or something attached to an object. Since the 18th century, attachment was used to denote bonds in an immaterial sense. For example, being attached by empathy, affection, or fidelity. Between 1950s and 1970s, “attachment” became a key concept in human developmental psychology. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed the theory of attachment, where attachment was defined as an infant’s enduring effective bond characterized by a tendency to seek and maintain proximity to a specific figure, usually the mother or other primary caregiver, particularly when under stress (Ainsworth, 1967; Bowlby, 1969/1982; 1980).

Attachment Theory

The theory of attachment was originated from Bowlby’s research about the adverse effect of “maternal deprivation” on child development (Cassidy, 2008). Bowlby asserted that the lack of a mother figure during early childhood, or disruptions in mother-child relationship would contribute to maladjustment in the child’s later life (Bowlby, 1944). Fundamental to attachment theory is the biological function of attachment behaviors (Bowlby, 1958). From an evolutionary perspective, an infant’s tendency to seek proximity to a caregiver has a genetic base. Natural selection favored infants who actively sought protection from a stronger, wiser figure under circumstances of danger and stress, because such behaviors increased the chances of species’ survival.
Attachment behaviors are regulated by the “attachment behavioral system” through a sequence of physical and emotional reactions (Bowlby, 1962/1982). When certain stimuli are present (e.g., dangers in the environment, feelings of pain or discomfort), the infant’s attachment system will be activated. If the attachment figure is not near or not attentive, the infant will experience anxiety and perform attachment behaviors to seek proximity to the figure. For example, the infant may visually search for the caregiver, cry, or crawl towards him/her. When protection is successfully sought, attachment system will be deactivated, and the infants resume other non-attachment activities, including explore and play. In short, attachment theory provides explanations for the development of the infant-caregiver bond and an infant’s proximity-seeking behaviors oriented toward a specific figure.
Attachment Patterns

Operation of an infant’s attachment system is affected by the caregiver’s responses to the infant’s attachment behaviors. In the long run, repeated infant-caregiver interactions gradually form in the child’s mind enduring mental representations, or “working models” of self, caregiver, and the relationship (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Working models serve as “scripts” that guide a child’s behaviors, emotion, cognition and anticipation of the other’s behaviors in future interactions. In other words, based on a history of parent-child attachment experiences, individuals tend to develop different patterns of reactions and expectations in close relationships (Fraley & Shaver, 2000).

Ainsworth and colleagues (1967; 1978) provided an empirical taxonomy of different infant-parent attachment patterns. Based on extensive observations at homes and lab settings, three patterns were identified: secure, avoidant, and anxious. The fourth pattern, disorganized/disoriented was added later (Main & Solomon, 1990). Securely attached infants often have primary caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to the child’s need for proximity, whereas infants of other attachment patterns (broadly known as “insecure” attachment patterns) tend to have caregivers who act insensitively, neglectfully or inconsistently (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).

Attachment beyond Infancy

Even though attachment theory was originally developed to explain the bonds formed between infants and primary caregivers, since early 1908s, scholars began to explore the relevance of attachment in different life stages (Feeney, 2008). Several important research questions were raised and examined about attachment beyond infancy. First, to what extent does an individual’s attachment pattern remain stable across time (Baldwin & Fehr, 1995). Second, how to conceptualize and measure attachment in relationship types other than mother-child relationship (Bartholomew & Howrowitz, 1991), such as peer relationships (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987) and romantic relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Third, whether and how attachment patterns derived from early years’ attachment experience with caregivers have impacts on individuals’ perceptions, expectations and actual behaviors in adult relationships (Collins & Read, 1990).
Among this growing body of research, most work has focused on adult romantic attachment (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; 1994). Features of attachment were commonly observed in adult committed dating relationships. For example, individuals may seek proximity and comfort from their partners when stressed (Weiss, 1991). Further, individual differences regarding adult attachment patterns are conceptualized and measured along two dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and attachment related avoidance (Bartholomew, 1990; Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998), which aligns with the conceptualization of infant attachment patterns (Ainsworth et al., 1978).

Attachment in Communication Research

The concept of attachment has an important role in interpersonal communication research. In particular, principles of attachment have proved to be helpful for better understanding various aspects of communication behaviors and relationship well-being of adult romantic relationships (Feeney, 2008). Couples’ attachment styles were found to be associated with the quality of daily interaction, nonverbal expression (Feeney, Noller, & Callan, 1994), styles of self-disclosure (Mikulincer & Nachshon, 1991), relational maintenance strategies (Dainton, 2007), and supportive communication (Rholes, Simpson, Campbell, & Grich, 2001). The ways couples communicate during conflict also tend to be related to partners’ attachment styles. For instance, securely attached individuals were more likely to use constructive conflict resolution strategies (Pistole, 1989), whereas individuals’ avoidant or anxious attachment styles were linked to negative conflict tactics (Creasey & Hesson-McInness, 2001).
As for parent-child relationships, intergenerational transmission of attachment patterns may be realized through communication. A parent’s attachment pattern has been linked to his/her communication with a child, which in turn, was related to the child’s attachment pattern (Roberto, Carlyle, Goodall, & Castle, 2009). A child’s attachment style also may influence his/her interactions with parents in adolescence and adulthood, such as during conflicts or disagreements (Kobak, Cole, Ferenz-Gillies, Fleming, & Gamble, 1993).

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