Internal Working Models
in Attachment Relationships
A Construct Revisited
KRISTINE A. MUNHOLLAND
Attachment theory underscores the central role of relationships in human development from the cradle to the grave (Bowlby, 1969/1982, 1973, 1980). Beginning in infancy and continuing throughout the life course, an individual’s mental health is seen as intimately tied to relationships with attachment figures who afford emotional support and protection:
For not only young children, it is now clear, but hu-
man beings of all ages are found to be at their hap
piest and to be able to deploy their talents to best
advantage when they are confident that, standing
behind them, there are one or more trusted persons
who will come to their aid should difficulties arise.
The person trusted provides a secure base from
which his [or her] companion can operate. (Bowlby,
1973, p. 359)
Human attachment relationships, according to Bowlby (1979), are regulated by a behavioral– motivational system that develops in infancy and that is shared with other primates. This system monitors the physical proximity and psychological availability of a “stronger and wiser” attachment figure, and activates/regulates attachment behavior directed toward that figure. As long as an attached individual feels at ease, the attachment figure functions as a secure base of operations whose supportive presence fosters exploration, play, or other social behaviors. When the attached individual feels afraid, however, exploratory goals are overridden by the impetus to seek refuge with and reassurance from the attachment figure, especially if the attached individual is an infant or young child. An individual’s attachment to one or a few specific figures therefore becomes most visible under conditions of perceived threat. By seeking an attachment figure’s protection, immature offspring are believed to increase the likelihood of their survival and reproductive success.
How well attachment can fulfill its function of physical and psychological protection, however, turns on the mutually responsive quality of interactions between an attached individual and his or her attachment figure(s). Beyond infancy, attachment relations come to be additionally governed by internal (or mental) working models that young individuals construct from the experienced interaction patterns with their principal attachment figures. These internal working models are conceived as “operable” models of self and attachment partner, based on their joint relationship history. They serve to regulate, interpret, and predict both the attachment figure’s and the self’s attachment-related behavior, thoughts, and feelings. If appropriately revised in line with developmental and environmental changes, internal