002 – Does Attachment Theory Apply to Adults?

Attachment theory tells us that we are made to be connected to others. However, a lot of the initial research involved mothers and children. Does it apply to adults as well? In our latest podcast, Rebecca and I talk about this with Dr. Phil Shaver, considered by many to be “the father of adult attachment theory.”



If the player does not show, you can click here to listen: 002 – Attachment and Adults featuring Dr. Phil Shaver


(Please note: The audio is transcribed “as is,” spoken grammar glitches and all.)

G:  Today we are talking with relationship expert Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen and special guest, researcher Dr. Phil Shaver.

G:  Hi Becca!

R:  Hey there Greg, so nice to talk to you today.

G:  In the next few podcasts we’ll be presenting our interview with Dr. Shaver about adult attachment and I’m finding that the concept is quite new to people – at least the adult part.  People are often perplexed that it even applies to adults because so much of the original research is about the mother-child bond.  Can you talk about those roots?

R:  Well yes I can, and that is exactly right.  It did start… the research started on attachment with the mother-child bond.  Originally John Bowlby, who kind of founded attachment theory, or did create attachment theory, was looking at the infant and caregiver relationship, but he also addressed that  attachment lasts across the life-span.  He talked about it as a cradle…from the cradle to the grave… that we all have these attachment processes.  And so it did start, kind of looking, the research specifically, in developmental psychology, looking at children and care givers.  But Dr. Shaver especially kind of put it on the map looking through a social psychology lens at adult attachment.

G:  In the segment of our interview that I want to play, Dr. Shaver references the strange situation test.  Can you talk about that?

R:  Yeah, Mary Ainsworth was a colleague of John Bowlby and started out as a follower of his theory and she took research on attachment, really created a procedure to test attachment, the level of security that people have in relationship.  And she looked at, took parents and children and introduced them into a strange situation – thus the name of the research, “The Strange Situation.”  And this strange situation was entering them into what was a research room, but looked a lot like a kind of a play room or a waiting room with toys in it.  And so she would have the parent and child come in, introduce them to the room, bring in a lab assistant who would be pretending to be just another person in this playroom, to kind of play with the child.  And then have the parent leave the room and come back, kind of come and go and see how the child responded.  And they were able to predict certain things from…they originally started some of this looking at the attachment in the homes, Mary Ainsworth did, in the field work and then she moved it into the lab through this strange situation procedure – which is really great because we’ve learned so much about attachment styles in this childhood pattern, from the strange situation.  The idea is really that under stress, that we need, we have higher needs for support.  Like we always needed as a baseline, that we are social creatures and we always need to be in supportive contact with other people.  But under stressful situations and new situations or strange situations that are new – are more stressful to us. We don’t know what to expect.  And those times are heightened needs for the attachment relationship.  So Mary Ainsworth developed this procedure to be able to look at attachment, how people respond in these situations, particularly children, and we’ve been able to put that, overlay that onto adults later and it’s just been really seminal research from which the field has been able to understand so much about we as human beings, social creatures in loving relationships, how we operate.

G:  Okay, without further ado I would like to play what Dr. Shaver had to say about the validity of adult attachment theory.


G:  For my skeptical friends you would say, for sure attachment theory applies to adults?

Dr. Shaver:  Absolutely, ya, absolutely.  And another thing that happened at the same time when we were working on this and we didn’t know it then, and should have really, is that Mary Mains, a professor at Berkeley was developing this adult attachment interview.  And her interest, I think, originally was in predicting what someone’s baby would be in a strange situation.  She had been a graduate student at Ainsworth.  And so the procedure was that she and her students did what I would call a fairly general clinical interview – like the original adult attachment interview focused more maybe than those would on their childhood relationship with their parents and parental figures.  So what they did though was have those transcribed and they knew what these peoples babies were with them in a strange situation.  So, in the beginning it was sort of, can we hear anything?  So take a bunch of interview transcripts of people with secure babies, anxious babies, avoidant babies and see what comes out.  And what came out was that, this was surprising to people reading about it too because they thought what would predict with the baby is sort of, what happened to them as children?  Because the theory was obviously about that.  But instead it was about; they called it coherent discourse, being able to talk about what happened to them in those relationships when they were children, in a sensible sort of objective sometimes sympathetic way.  And the ones who have anxious babies, which they end up calling preoccupied with attachment would get lost in emotions, basically, and say ‘What was the question?’  And it sort of, I don’t know if Mary would say this the same way, but to me that sort of reveals what’s happening with the kid, which is they are so preoccupied with themselves they don’t see the kid objectively or, you know, see what the kid needs.  So their often mistiming and their not unaffectionate, and especially when the kid gets their attention.  So, and this is an aside now but, I think this part of it is almost behaviorally explained.  The kid is on a partially reinforcement schedule expressing needs.  So then if you get those people in therapy as adults and sort of say, you know, being stridently needy is not likely to produce a relationship that would solve your problems.  To them that doesn’t add up. At a very deep level that’s not plausible because they have a lot of, lot of, experience that is the only thing that worked.  And the avoidant ones, in the interview don’t want to talk about it.  And they usually give some kind of bland and often blandly positive statements, “You know, she was a mother.”  And then they’ll say, “So, let’s move on.”  So the thing that characterized them was it wasn’t exactly incoherent discourse.  It was the discourse wasn’t responsive to the interviewers need.  So this is another thing.  It’s sort of, anything that you want, this makes me feel uncomfortable, than I don’t want to deal with that.  That’s sort of a, that’s the reinforcement environment that the avoidant child is in.  They get more of what they want if they don’t ask for anything, if they don’t express emotion.  So there is a huge research program about that.  That interview up with pregnant women predicts what their kid will be like with them in a strange situation at about 70-80% accuracy.  Which is amazing for a soft measure.  It’s based on coding verbal discourse.  The thing they call coherence of discourse, I think is really about patterns of defensiveness.  The secure person sometimes is characterized as saying, “Geez I don’t know if I can remember that.”  And then, they remember it and they sort of, you get the sense that they are describing it just as they…

R:  Their internal experience is coming forward.

Dr. Shaver:  Yeah, it’s not being blocked in any way, they’re not afraid of what they have inside of them.  All of that – very interesting clinically.  There hasn’t been very much work, because that interview is so hard, it takes about 45 minutes to interview the person and then it takes a long, long time to transcribe it really faithfully.  So transferring that to the couple domain, has been slower and sort of not taken up as rapidly as our things were because they were… ours were easy to pursue.  But there is at Stony Brook, Judith Crowell, someone who made an adult attachment like interview that is about couple’s supportiveness/trust/things like that.  So in both of these programs of research which have gone on pretty independently, we have a huge amount of evidence. We have the problem that we don’t really know empirically that the patterns came from their childhood experience. That’s an assumption. In the adult attachment interview literature, they do have, because they are developmentalists, there are several 20, 30 year longitudinal studies showing the trail of what you could measure at the time they were 12-18 months old all the way through their childhood.  There is an article by Jeff Simpson at Minnesota, his dissertation was one of the 1990 articles following up on ours.  He is on the faculty at Minnesota where the major longitudinal studies were done.  So he’s sort of in the middle of these two traditions and I just saw from reading the abstract, it shows that you can predict things about trust and other issues in their relationship at age 23 from these things that were measured when they were children.”

G:  From what Dr. Shaver said, is there anything you wanted to add?  Any last thoughts to end today’s episode?

R:  Well, what I really love, is that Dr. Shaver comes from this rich, rich history, his whole career really of looking at adult attachment and being able to apply all the things that he learned across his career to adults.  And it just makes so much sense, you know, we don’t really grow out of needing loving contact and loving relationships.  What he has to say is so relevant to how we can operate in the world and improve our situations in our relationships.

G:  Awesome, okay we’ll end it there and continue with more of Dr. Shaver’s interview in another podcast.

R:  Okay, thanks Greg.


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