Are Your Intimate Relationships A Car Crash? Maybe This Is Why

John Bowlby was a renowned psychologist born in 1907 to a wealthy upper class British family. Despite the family wealth, all was not sweet…

John Bowlby was a renowned psychologist born in 1907 to a wealthy upper class British family. Despite the family wealth, all was not sweet for young John or his siblings.

As was customary at that time in upper class British society, the Bowlby children were raised by family help. Young Bowlby had very little contact with his mother and father in what is now recognised as the most important years in the emotional and cognitive development of children.

Bowlby became very attached to his nanny but she left her employment (or was fired, it’s not clear which) when he was four just years old, leaving Bowlby quite distressed. She was a mother figure and there was a strong attachment between the two.

Although distressing, it was perhaps the stimulus for success and worldwide acclaim his later work.

Reports vary, however at age 7 or thereabouts he was shipped out to boarding school. Later he is reported to have said he hated boarding school and wouldn’t send a dog there.

The Basis For His Theory

Through Bowlby’s personal experience and his unwillingness to accept some of the fundamental principles of developmental and cognitive psychology he encountered through his studies, he later formed his own theory of attachment and early childhood development.

Other influential work such as that by Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby’s student and subsequent colleague, demonstrated further important insight into infant development through attachment.

We will look at other studies and see how secure attachment to a primary caregiver in early development can shape development of relationships in later life.

We will also look at the effects of environment on the development of the child and how seeing early development as purely mechanical robs us of true understanding of how humans develop throughout life.

The Influence of Harlow’s Monkeys

Bowlby was particularly influenced by the fields of Biology and Ethology. One controversial study in particular conducted by Harlow (1959) on infant Rhesus Monkeys made a significant impact on Bowlby’s research.

Researchers in the Harlow study took infant monkeys from their mothers, caged them and allowed them access to two surrogate mothers.

The first surrogate mother was made of wire mesh and only provided nourishment. The second surrogate mother was made of the same wire mesh but had a soft towel covering.

This second surrogate mother provided no nutrition however the results of the study showed that the infant monkeys chose the soft cloth mother over the wire mother more often.

Nowadays a study like this might not be deemed ethically appropriate, or perhaps the details may not be aired so freely as the were in 50’s America. Here’s the video from YouTube. I found it a little unsettling to be honest.

Harlow’s 1950’s Monkey Experiment. (Don’t watch this is you have a love for animals).

Traditional thinking on attachment believed that the purpose of attachment was solely to provide the fulfilment of needs such as nourishment and shelter. These new findings and subsequent work by Bowlby began to reverse these early attachment theory beliefs.

Bowlby claimed that attachment was an evolutionary development, an intrinsic need on the part of an infant that went beyond the physical needs for nourishment and shelter.

Different Attachment Styles

Attachment can be defined as the emotional bond between the infant and the primary caregiver, and has three main features;

1. Proximity Seeking

Proximity seeking is where the infant will remain close to the mother or primary caregiver.

2. Secure Base

The infant used the secure base of the primary carer from which they can explore their surroundings

3. Separation Anxiety

Familiar to most parents, separation anxiety is where the infant will experience stress as a result of being separated from the primary caregiver.

Bowlby’s research although groundbreaking, failed to take account of differences in attachment styles of infants. Subsequent research by Mary Ainsworth showed significantly different patterns of attachment in child subjects.

Ainsworth developed an infant behavioral test called the “Strange Situation” which took stranger anxiety as a basis. The test involved mothers and their children in a laboratory setting, where there were two chairs and various colourful play things for the child to interact with.

Initially the mother would sit in the room as the child was allowed to explore the toys in comfort and security. The mother would then leave the room and the child’s behaviour would be observed.

Further events ranging from short periods of abandonment (3 mins) and reunion would be staged with the involvement of a stranger.

The results of the Strange Situation test appeared to show four different attachment styles as follows;

1. Secure

Secure attachment style is where the child stays close to the primary caregiver, however rarely became distressed when they left the room. They accounted for roughly 65% of infants who took part.

2. Avoidant

Avoidant attachment style is where the infant displayed no obvious signs of distress on the mother leaving the room and again little acknowledgement on their return. Roughly 15% of infants displayed Avoidant attachment style.

3. Ambivalent

Around 15% of infants who took part displayed the Ambivalent attachment style. These infants became distressed when their mothers left the room and on their return remained distressed, rejecting their mothers attempts to comfort them.

4. Disorganised

Disorganised attachment is where infants showed no consistent response to the study conditions. Infants who showed a disorganised attachment style accounted for roughly 5% of those in the study.

Further research by Main and Soloman in 1986 discovered that infants displaying the disorganised attachment style may show signs of fear, confusion, delayed anger and disorientation under test conditions.

It was further noted that infants showing disorganised attachment appear not to be capable of deciding how to react consistently to separation.

The Mother /Father Caregivers

Bowlby noted that unlike animals, who are mostly physically developed such that they can go to their mother for comfort and nutrition, human babies cannot. He says we are initially drawn to infants by its cries, eye contact and smiles.

Attachment theory says that infants develop a relationship with one primary caregiver be that male or female. Although is has been observed in further research by Lamb et al.,1992 that attachment is not exclusive to the mother, taking on variations with other caregivers.

Lamb also found that infants prefer the comfort of their mothers when frightened or upset. They appear to prefer their fatherly figure as a playmate. This move towards the father figure tends to come into effect after the first 12 months of development.

The 4 Stages of Early Attachment

Bowlby identified several stages of attachment in children as follows;

1. 0–3 months Pre-attachment In the early months of development infants draw caregivers to them. Bowlby proposes this to be indiscriminate in the early months.

2. 3–6 months Familiarisation In the following three month period infants appear to begin recognising thise who respond and begin to form stronger bonds.

3. 6–24 months Intense Stranger anxiety tends to be prominent during the next phase of attachment with infants making significant emotional bonds with primary caregiver.

4. 24 months + Partnerships As the infant’s confidence grows they will move further away from their caregiver’s secure base

Some Other Research Studies

According to research by Isabella in 1993, where mothers appear to be anxious and insecure about attending to their child, children may develop an ambivalent attachment style.

Without secure and consistent care from one primary caregiver, an infant may develop these attachment styles and a detrimental internal working model of relationships into adulthood.

Some researchers such as that by Carolson in 1998 have gone on to speculate that infants with a disorganised attachment style may indicate some degree of abuse. However this speculation has not been fully verified.


A child’s Working Model of Attachment is known to be a series of internalised expectations of how their primary caregiver will respond to their needs. A given attachment style will be related to a given working model of attachment.

Infants with a Secure Attachment Style tend to be sure of how their caregiver will respond.

Infants with an Avoidant Attachment Style tend to be sure their caregiver will not respond.

Those infants with Ambivalent Attachment Style tend to be unsure of their caregiver’s response.

Infants with a Disorganised Attachment Style appear to be confused.

Studies such as that by Chess and Thomas in 1982 have shown that although temperament may be an important factor, it does not determine future adult dysfunction. However, our children’s temperament is very much influenced by us.

Parents who exercise an ability to respond in a measured and controlled manner to their children’s temperament tend to have a positive influence on future development of the child.

Parents who respond with indifference or intolerance to their children’s’ difficult temperament tend to negatively influence their children’s’ development (Maziade et al., 1990).

Bowlby’s Influential WHO Paper

In an influential paper by Bowlby in 1951 for the World Health Organisation, he challenged the popular opinion of the time that affection was spoiler of children. On the contrary he proposed that love and affection were inherently necessary to the healthy development of the child, just as nutrition and shelter are.

It appears from the research currently available that there are numerous factors that influence the attachment style in infants, and later as they grow to become adults. The complexity of these factors include cultural differences, environmental differences, infant/carer temperament and so on.

This means that attachment styles in infants and adults can not be absolutely defined and categorised. But rather fall somewhere across a range of relationship characteristics according to widely varying circumstances.

As shown by a study by Lamb in 1985 nature plays a significant role however the nurturing of a loving mother or father can bring about the child’s later success in life.

Originally published at on February 20, 2017.

Howdy, I’m Larry, Writer & Artist. Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. I write short stories about the ordinary lives of people and the challenges they face. My stuff can be edgy, hard hitting, and sometimes controversial, but never contrived. If that’s your bag you can Sign-up To Sunday Letters Here.