When it comes to love, it seems most everything we know, we
did learn before kindergarten. We learn how to relate to people -- and,
especially, how to love -- from our mothers, or from whoever takes care of us
But not everyone is lucky enough to get the right kind of
mothering, the kind that reassures the undeveloped baby mind that love and
protection will always be there.
Some mothers don't feel confident they can take care of a
baby; some didn't learn how to love from their own mothers. Sometimes, a woman
feels angry and trapped by a pregnancy she never wanted. Although oxytocin
associated with labor and birth provides an opportunity for forming a deep bond
between mother and baby, circumstances or the mother's own needs or fears may
prevent a secure bond from forming.
In the 1940s, psychologist John Bowlby realized that not
every child formed a deep and secure attachment with his mother.
Bowlby's idea was that we learn "attachment
styles," the way we behave in close relationships, from our mothers -- or
whoever is the primary caregiver during our infancy. He and collaborator Mary
Ainsworth identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant.
Anxious kids are never sure what response they'll get from their mothers, so
they expend a lot of energy trying to get affection and attention. Avoidant
kids have decided they're not going to get much love, so they do their best to
These coping strategies are encoded at the neurochemical
level: The stress response and the oxytocin response seem to be set by the
relative amounts of anxiety and love a baby experiences.
According to Bowlby's and Ainsworth's theory of attachment,
we tend to use the same style of relating to others that we learned with our
mothers. But the brain is plastic; it continues to grow in response to
experience. How much do we automatically apply the way we relate to Mommy and
Daddy to the friends and lovers we meet?
Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh is a psychologist studying attachment,
working in the lab of R. Chris Fraley at the University of Illinois. Fraley was
a student of Phil Shaver's, one of the modern attachment theorists who took
John Bowlby's ideas and extended them to adult relationships.
Fraley and others have expanded the list of attachment
styles to provide more nuance.
Fraley has been tracking attachment styles for several
years, via studies and Internet surveys. He and Brumbaugh hope to understand
just how set these styles are, whether they change as we look outward from our
In a recent study, Brumbaugh and Fraley asked people to
describe one of their parents and their current love partner. They also
determined how secure each person felt in these relationships, as well as their
general attachment styles. Next, they created fictional profiles of people,
some of them designed to be similar to each person's parent and lover, putting
them into the form of a personals ad.
In a separate session two weeks later, participants were
asked to read the ads of people who were
similar to their parent and to their lover, as well as ads that were like
neither; these were the controls.
In a similar early study that only looked at love
relationships, Brumbaugh and Fraley found that when people read the ads of individuals
who were like their romantic partners, they tended to apply the same emotional
strategies to the new person.
It looks like Mom and Dad -- and especially Mom -- provide
the basis a global working model that we start with when trying to connect with
someone new. But as we meet and get to know more and more people, we edit the
model until it's more of an average of all our experiences of others. We may
also develop some more specific models: parental figure, friend, lover.
Ideally, we continue to edit all these models based on our ongoing experiences
in the world.
Brumbaugh and Fraley have a paper in press that describes
their latest study. I spoke with her in April 2007.
HUG: Tell me about the concept of multiple working models
for relationships. Some are general and others represent a specific type?
Brumbaugh: Most attachment researchers measure a more global
attachment style: How we approach close relationships in general. But people
can have different attachment orientations to different people in their lives.
You don't necessarily have the same feelings toward your mother as toward a
boyfriend. I'm interested in the specific models of relationships.
HUG: In your paper, you wrote that "attachment
orientations toward parental and romantic relationships have been shown to be
only modestly correlated to one another." Does that mean that when we
start to move out of the family circle, we start from scratch to build new models?
Brumbaugh: They're called working models for a good reason.
The working aspect means they're open to change and revision. It's hard to
conclusively say what's going on, but it seems we do use our parental models as
the basis for new relationships. However, they are up for revision with life
experiences and new relationships. In
childhood, your attachment orientation and relationship-specific working models
are the same thing; for most people, it's their parents. Over time, we build
relationship-specific models for other people in our lives. The modeling
becomes more complex and multidimensional.
HUG: Can we completely change our attachment style?
Brumbaugh: I'm not aware of any research, but I've heard
people tend to move in a more secure direction over time; they're more likely
to become secure than insecure over time.
HUG: I know it’s an unconscious process, but how do we
“decide” which model to use?
Brumbaugh: It can be a variety of things, it seems. In my
research, I ask people to provide an open-ended description of their attachment
figures. They write down 14 sentences about someone, whether parents or a
romantic partner. They can describe anything, from day-to-day behavior, such as
enjoying cooking, to fundamental characteristics, like being supportive. I use
these descriptions to create profiles. It seems that most any aspect of a
person can trigger the use of these working models.
HUG: One of your hypotheses was that when similarity exists
between a new person we meet and someone who's the basis for an existing
relationship model, that model is activated, so that we use the same style in
the new relationship. Did that happen in your study?
Brumbaugh: Even when there was no similarity between the new
relational target and an existing model, people applied their partner models to
both the partner target (that is, the person who resembled the partner) and the
parental target. They also did use their parental model, but not in a selective
way. There was more selectivity in the way people applied their partner models.
HUG: What about in the control condition, the person who
didn't resemble either the parent or the partner?
Brumbaugh: People applied the parental model significantly
more. It may have something to do with how parental models are foundations of
working models; they might have a minimal but persistent way of being applied.
When no resemblance exists between the past and present situation, the parental
model may be more of a default.
HUG: You found that the subjects who were avoidant toward
their parents didn't apply that strategy to the targets, not even those who
resembled their parents.
Brumbaugh: Correct. It seems like people start relying more
and more on their partners. But you have to take into consideration the
demographic I'm working with. These people are falling in love; they may be
having their first romantic experience at age 18 or 19. People who were not in
romantic relationships were excluded from my study. I have the feeling it's a
crucial time period for them. They've just left home for college, and maybe
there's some distancing from their parents going on. At the same time, these
romantic relationships are becoming really important.
HUG: But anxiety toward the parent seemed to pervade new
Brumbaugh: The thing I found most interesting was that
people were more positive to new people who resembled their partners. At the
same time, they were more anxious toward the partner target. They were
seemingly more attracted to and interested in the person who resembled the
partner but also afraid of them at the same time. Obviously, attraction makes
sense. Possibly, the anxiety is because partners can break up with you and
parents can't. The more important the relationship was, the more they transferred
anxiety to the partner target. They seemed to feel, "You're the one,
please don't leave me."