History of Attachment Theory

Okay, so here we go! This is going to be a series of blog posts all building on one another to help give a better understanding of relationships, romantic love, and the problems that can arise when trying to form intimate bonds with a partner. 

To get a better understanding of how adult relationships can go awry, we need to have a look at some of the first relationships we form in life.  But, to understand why that is important we need a bit of a history lesson.  **If you want to skip the super interesting history lesson, just scroll to the bottom for the important take away**

Enter John Bowlby, a British psychologist, who basically pioneered attachment theory. Behavioral theorists of this time were set on the idea that attachment was a learned behavior that was merely the result of the feeding relationship between the child and the caregiver. Because caregiver feeds child and provides nourishment, child becomes attached. Bowlby, on the other hand, was interested in understanding the separation anxiety and distress that children experienced when removed from their primary caregivers. He had begun to observe that when distanced from these primary caregivers, even feedings would not diminish the anxiety and dysregulation experienced by the children. Bowlby began to theorize that it wasn’t necessarily about the nourishment, but more about the nurturing. He saw that frightened children, sought out proximity to their primary caregiver in order to receive both comfort and care. 

There’s actually a super sad study (although extremely valuable due to how it changed our understandings) that was devised by psychologist Harry Harlow, in the early 1950’s. Harlow was one of a few people, including Bowlby, that were pushing back against the behavioral theorists who were suggesting the mother-infant bond was primarily due to nourishment. Harlow basically conducted a series of experiments with baby rhesus monkeys that had been separated from their mothers. Essentially, the researchers created two sets of inanimate “surrogate” mothers of out wire and wood. One mother was equipped with a bottle and food, the other was wrapped in soft terry cloth and had no food. When exposed to a moving toy or a strange room, babies with cloth mothers rushed to them, buried their faces in the soft fabric and relaxed. Their peers, with only wire mothers, shook in terror against the wall. Even when the wire mother could provide nourishment, the monkeys visited her only to feed. Harlow concluded that there was much more to the mother–infant relationship than milk, and that this "contact comfort" was essential to the psychological development and health of infant monkeys and children.

Harry Harlow

Harry Harlow

Bowlby expanded on all of the new research, proposing the theory that attachment is an emotional bond with another. He suggested that this type of attachment also served an evolutionary function. Children who maintained proximity to an attachment figure were more likely to receive comfort and protection, and therefore more likely to survive to adulthood. In addition, primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant's needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. Thus, through the process of natural selection, a motivational system designed to regulate attachment emerged.

In the 1970’s, Mary Ainsworth, another groundbreaking psychologist, greatly expanded upon Bowlby’s original work. Ainsworth created a study dubbed the “Strange Situation” which observed the behaviors of children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers. Based on the research, Ainsworth was able to categorize three (a fourth was added later) major styles of attachment: secure, anxious and avoidant. A number of studies since that time have supported Ainsworth's attachment styles and have indicated that attachment styles also have an impact on behaviors later in life.

I’ll get into more about the “Strange Situation” experiment, and attachment styles in upcoming posts. But, hopefully that super brief rundown about attachment theory gives you a little foundation as to what exactly we are talking about. 


“How the hell does this pertain to my intimate relationship,” you’re asking me. Well, more shall be revealed my friends. For now, the most important thing you need to understand is that all of these important figures, and all of this research basically concluded that we come into this world biologically primed to seek out comfort and care from safe and secure others. We have a universal need to seek close proximity with important “attachment” figures when we are under stress or threatened, and when that nurturing is inconsistent (or unavailable) it can have a lasting impact on our physical and psychological development. 


Focus Therapy, Jay Wick, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist