U.S. Survey Explores Relationship Styles

By Bower, B. | Science News, November 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

U.S. Survey Explores Relationship Styles


Bower, B., Science News


An influential vein of psychological research suggests that the foundation of adult romantic love lies in childhood relationships with parents or other caretakers. Yet the implications for overall functioning of the so-called adult attachment styles had been masked because the studies had focused almost exclusively on college students and distressed individuals, such as incest survivors.

Now, scientists have examined for the first time the forms of interpersonal attachment in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. Their findings underscore the pervasive influence of attachment orientations on adults' lives, contend Kristin D. Mickelson and Ronald C. Kessler, both of Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Phillip R. Shaver of the University of California, Davis.

"Attachment patterns appear to be central organizing factors in personality and social development," the researchers conclude.

Three adult attachment orientations have garnered the most attention (SN: 8/9/97, p. 94). Secure attachment fosters lasting relationships marked by trust and compromise; avoidant attachment results in dread of or disdain for emotional intimacy in relationships; and anxious (or ambivalent) attachment leads to insecurity about close relationships and manipulative attempts to control romantic partners.

Mickelson and her coworkers assessed these interpersonal styles in 8,080 adults age 15 to 54 who participated in a national survey that was designed primarily to examine rates of mental disorders and characteristics of people with various psychiatric diagnoses. During extensive interviews, volunteers responded to a brief series of questions about their close relationships; nearly all met the criteria for one of the three attachment categories.

The national distributions of secure attachment style, 59 percent, and of avoidant style, 25 percent, correspond roughly to earlier estimates from studies of college students, the investigators report in the November Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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