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John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Updated on July 6, 2014


John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who carried out most of his research on the attachments formed in human relationships and is known as the “father” of attachment theory. In his belief, the formation of attachments with other people is vital for a human being and if these are not made the person may not be able to function properly (Bowlby, 2005).

Bowlby argues that the capacity for attachment is innate and its formation is dependent on early experiences, beginning in infancy, with significant others, such as the mother. Accordingly an individual’s inability to trust or to form close long-standing relationships may occur due to the primary caregiver’s absence or inability to form a secure and reliable bond with them as a child (Elliot and Reis, 2003).

The primary carer is usually the mother. Though parents, other members of the family and close friends act as attachment figures, adult attachments were found mostly directing toward romantic partners (Hazan and Zeifman, 1994). Bowlby argued that in order for a child to be able to form close relationships with others when grown up, the carer must be able to provide a ‘secure base’ (McLeod, 2009). He supported the view that the formation of secure attachments was vital in the first five years of life in order for the child to develop emotionally, socially and intellectually (Aldbridge and Rigby, 2004).


Parental loss and attachment

Experiences of parental loss may cause emotional disturbances and harm an individual’s ability to form close relationships in the future (Furukawa et al., 1999). Although Bowlby (2005) stressed the importance of the parents being kept alone with their child right after it is born in order to form a strong attachment, a review of the studies conducted (Goldberg, 1983) showed that there is no great or long-lasting impact of early contact on attachment.

Others have argued that it is the quality of the time spent which is of great importance rather than the quantity (Fox, 1977; Ainsworth, 1974). Therefore mothers’ responsiveness and physical contact were suggested to be most vital for the attachments with their children (Anisfeld et. al., 1990).


Nevertheless there has not been much doubt concerning the importance of the formation of attachments between a child and its primary carer.

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Related research

Researchers such as Ainsworth (1978) and Main, (1991) as cited in McLeod (2009), aimed to develop a more meaningful understanding of attachment theory as well as how this theory could be used within therapy. Ainsworth (1978), as did Bowlby, held the belief that the child’s personality and character will be mostly shaped by the primary carer. Ainsworth stated that infant behaviour could be explained by that of their parent. Additionally, in studies carried out to explore attachment, Ainsworth used the ‘strange situation’ technique. This involved observing infants while their mother would leave the room twice and then return.

According to Fraley and Spieker (2003) this procedure splits up attachment into three forms. First, the secure form of attachment is when a baby searches for comfort or protection by the mother, therefore receiving care constantly. Here the mother is mostly regarded as providing love and affection. Second, the avoidant form of attachment is when a baby has the tendency to avoid the mother. Thus, the mother is regarded as rejecting the attachment behaviour of the infant. Finally, resistant attachment is when an infant usually stays close to the mother showing an unbalance regarding the care provided by the mother to her child.

Main (1991) carried out research exploring adult attachment patterns by developing the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) thus finding strong correlations with the attachment types of their parents. For counselling one of the most important aspects of this research was the finding which supported the view that individuals who developed secure attachments, functioning well in their lives, had the ability to speak rationally and collaboratively about their past. Main, (1991) as cited in McLeod (2006, p.109) has argued that these individuals were able to do this because they could ‘step back from the situation and reflect on what they were saying’. This was known as meta-cognitive monitoring. Therefore effective therapy takes place when an individual is capable of reflecting on their experiences (Fonagy, 1999, cited in McLeod).

Attachment theory has been applicable within approaches dealing with emotionally-important relationships or active attachment behaviour including parenting, family counselling, grief counselling (loss), abusive adult relationships and child abuse (Pistole and Watkins, 1995; Bartholomew and Thompson, 1995). Bartholomew and Thompson (1995) argue that attachment theory cannot provide an integrative framework for the whole field of counselling but can help inform some features of counselling.

Although the ideas of attachment have not contributed to the development of a therapy, the theory has influenced psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy in several ways. For instance, therapists make use of this theory in order to develop more awareness concerning their clients’ relationship patterns as well as the underlying dynamics of their emotional difficulties.

Pistole (1989) argues that attachment theory could be used to produce therapeutic change in a client as well as more productive functioning. There has also been evidence supporting the view that the attachment type of the client as well as that of the therapist has an effect on the way in which the therapeutic process is shaped (Rubino et al., 2000). Researchers such as Johnson and Greenberg (1992), Alexander (1993) and Dutton et al. (1994) as cited in Bartholomew and Thompson, (1995) have used attachment theory in an attempt to better understand couples’ therapy, the long term impact of child abuse as well as abusive marital relationships.

Therefore attachment theory and the conducted research in this area has shown to have an impact on counsellors’ sensitivity enabling them to become more sensitive regarding how their clients tell their stories.

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    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      Thanks for reading and commenting rasta1

    • rasta1 profile image

      Marvin Parke 4 years ago from Jamaica

      Attachment Theory is a subconscious science. The ego normally masks any issues we may have with attachment. It is a very hard concept to prove. I guess that is why babies were observed for the theory.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      ripplemaker and Pamela99: Thank you both for reading and commenting. I am very glad you have found this subject interesting.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      Your hub on the attachment theory is very interesting. I remember studying this is college many years ago and I know basic trust is formed in that first year of life. This is such an important topic and you did a wonderful job of explaining the theory.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Attachment to the primary caregivers is very important indeed. Thank you for sharing such an interesting topic. I also enjoyed reading the sharing from various readers on their experiences.

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. To read and vote, this way please https://hubpages.com/community/An-Invitation-To-A-...

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      I'm glad to learn more about attachment theory. Thanks, Chris. I suppose it has ramifications re the care of orphaned and otherwise parent-less infants and toddlers? And of infants and toddlers who eventually are diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum? And I wonder if the specifics of early attachments -- strong, or ambivalent, or hot and cold, or lost, etc. -- affect the development of an individual's personality type.

    • Jlava73 profile image

      Jennifer Vasconcelos 5 years ago from Cyberspace and My Own World

      Great Hub. Brought me back my early childhood development class in High School.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you kayha, I am glad you have found it useful :)

    • kayha profile image

      kayha 5 years ago

      Great hub! I am studying Psychology and we just had a lecture on Attachment theory. This is very useful.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your own experiences Kim. :) I am sure you are a lovely mother. I really appreciate your comments :)

    • Kim Cantrell profile image

      Kim Cantrell 5 years ago from Deep In The Pages of a Book

      This is very interesting. Very, very interesting.

      I'm probably putting too much out there about myself when I say this, but I know first hand the importance of attachment. I was an 18 year old, unwed mother when my oldest son (now 20) was born. His father was MIA and I was too young to understand the importance of parenting, so he formed an attachment with my mother. Although our relationship is now what I would consider very good and strong, I believe if it were to truly be studied I'm more like a much older sibling while his "Nannie" is, subconsciously, more of the mother to him. Alternatively, my youngest child, a female (the only of four children total) was born when I was 35 and had a better grasp of the parenting roles and she has a strong attachment to both her father and I, equally, and the line between parents and grandparents is more clearly defined.

      In other words, I think I may have finally gotten it right. :)

      Voted up and interesting. Thanks for sharing on a truly interesting and most important topic.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you for your comments Minnetonka :)

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Excellent and interesting article on attachment theory. I received a Bachelor and Master's degree in Psychology and this theory always intrigued me. I too have seen many children with attachment issues in the counseling field. The most notable sign of this in children, was an extreme neediness towards adult figures, especially women.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      That is lovely Pamela N Red :), it seems like you have formed a successful attachment bond with the infant. A very important factor may be because you made the baby feel security, love and warmth.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Hi Pamela. Thank you for you comment and vote :)

      Regarding your question, "... it is reasonable to suppose that the mother hasn't followed through on her end of the attachment bonding on a regular basis? Can there be other reasons for it?..."

      Well, we may suppose that the mother has rejected the attachment behaviour of the infant however this might not be the case. Maybe the infant formed a stronger attachment bond with another family member; the Father or Nan for instance.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      thank you :)

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      thank you molometer :)

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma

      As a social worker I witnessed many children with attachment disorder, some of those children came from mothers that also had attachment disorder.

      I adopted a child who I've had since she was six months old. As an infant she exhibited some of the withdrawing signs but after a few months started acting like a more normal baby. She is now almost 18 and quite attached and social.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 5 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      I enjoyed this hub and also your excellent referencing. It's a good reminder to all of us to reference our work properly.

      In the second form of attachment you described, do you mean that the child is avoiding the mother, for instance with eye contact and hugs -- and therefore it is reasonable to suppose that the mother hasn't followed through on her end of the attachment bonding on a regular basis? Can there be other reasons for it? I know a toddler like that. He's been pulling away from the mother's hugs since he was big enough to pull -- and she really wants to hug him. She's baffled. (I've heard of that happening if the mother was on drugs during pregnancy, but this lady wasn't.)

      Welcome to Hubpages. Voted this up and interesting.

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 5 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      As a teacher, I fully understand the necessity of children forming attachments with their caregivers. If those bonds are not formed, there are many issues that form because of the lack of that bond. This hub is very informative!

      Welcome to HubPages!

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Excellent information and well put together hub. Bookmarked for future reference.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      I have completed a BSc in Psychology and a University Diploma in Counselling studies and skills. I will add a profile as soon as possible. :) Thank you for your comment and tip revmjm.

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      Margaret Minnicks 5 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I tried to find your profile to read about you and your background. I figured you know a lot about attachments based on your article and the titles of your other articles.

      Please consider adding a profile so we can get to know you better. I would like to read more articles similar to this one because I am interested in this subject.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Forming attachments as a child is very important especially the mother child attachment. When attachments are not formed the child will confront many difficulties when forming relationships with other people as an adult.

      Thanks for your comment revmjm :)

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 5 years ago from Richmond, VA

      We often discuss the attachment theory at my church. One of the therapists said that if a child does not form the proper attachments as a child, when he becomes an adult he is walking around still holding the umbilical cord. What an image; however, I know adults still holding their umbilical cords in their hands waiting to find someone to plug them into to receive the bonding they never got as a child.