“Just how stable are attachment styles?” (click here to learn more about what attachment styles are) This question is raised every year by my students. Some ask because they are curious if attachment styles are similar to personality traits. Others wonder if attachment styles imply destiny with their relationship outcomes. Yet others are certain that attachment styles are flexible and malleable, changing with context, situations, or partners. Others hope that attachment can be changed, or even overwritten entirely. It turns out these questions aren’t that different from the ones attachment theorists have debated for decades.
In “Camp P” are the “prototype theorists” who argue that attachment orientations are stable. Camp P theorists maintain that although our attachment styles can be modified and adjusted, they cannot be entirely re-written. They contend that attachment styles are stable, and that the attachment patterns we develop in early life anchor any gradual change that may occur. The underlying pattern will be carried forward, albeit modified. I tend to think this camp would like the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” because the lyrics lament, “You know I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change, but I’m here in my mold./I’m a million different people from one day to the next/I am here in my mold.” I’m different, yet stuck in my mold.
In “Camp R” are the “contextual-revisionist theorists” who argue that attachment styles do in fact change quite a bit with changes in people’s environments and partners. Change may in fact occur, but these changes are not anchored, making it difficult to predict later security. Here, attachment style is akin to a recording on your TiVo. Your current environment shapes your expectations about relationships, and you’ll find it stored in your “My shows” folder. However, once you find yourself in a new relationship with a new partner, you delete your old expectations from your hard drive and write completely over it with your new expectations. I think this camp would be fond of Natasha Bedingfield’s song, “Unwritten,” in which she states “Live with your arms wide open/Today is where your book begins/The rest is still unwritten.” Future pages are blank, and each day begins anew.
Let me come clean: I roast my marshmallows with the researchers from Camp P. And as with many debates in psychology, both camps have presented data to make their case. However, a recent article suggests that the evidence that has been presented so far is insufficient to determine which camp is right. To better answer this question, we need to study people at more than two time points, and we also have to use different ways to examine these data.
Using two different samples (one that included daily measures of individuals’ attachment to parents and partners over a period of 30 days and another that included weekly assessments over a period of 45 weeks), Chris Fraley and his colleagues examined whether Camp P or Camp R could better account for the pattern of findings across both samples. Hands down, they were able to determine that Camp P was the clear winner, although with a caveat. Attachment to parents and partners are both stable, but attachment with respect to romantic relationships are much less stable than that with parents.1
As a developmental social psychologist, these findings are exciting because they are part of a series of findings that lead me to believe that prior developmental history AND current circumstances both influence how our current relationships function. “In other words, a person’s attachment orientation is not simply a state or trait. Instead, it is a combination of influences from both contextual factors and enduring ones.” For example, let’s say I’m securely attached with my current partner and have a history of secure attachment. I’m likely to react to my partner’s current behavior differently than a person who is also securely attached with my partner and have a history of insecure attachment. Knowing both the contextual factors and the enduring ones, we may be better able to understand how and why people behave as they do in their current relationships.
1Fraley, R. C., Vicary, A. M., Brumbaugh, C. C., & Roisman, G. I. (2011). Patterns of stability in adult attachment: An empirical test of two models of continuity and change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 974-992.
Dr. Minda Oriña – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Oriña is a developmental social psychologist whose program of research examines processes that help individuals maintain and enhance the quality of their adult romantic relationships. Her primary interests involve studying romantic relationships within a developmental context.