The Ties That Bond: Adult Romantic and Sexual Styles May Grow out of Parent-Child Affiliations

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, August 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Ties That Bond: Adult Romantic and Sexual Styles May Grow out of Parent-Child Affiliations


Bower, Bruce, Science News


More than 50 years ago, as World War II's horrors and hatreds raged, British psychoanalyst John Bowlby bucked the global tide, delving into what he suspected were the roots of love. Bowlby took seriously Sigmund Freud's notion that individuals unconsciously orchestrate adult relationships on the basis of feelings and reactions originally evoked by childhood caretakers. He felt that the Viennese psychiatrist's idea had an untapped potential for exploring grown-up intimacies.

Bowlby, now deceased, first noted extensive delinquency in boys who had seen little of their mothers as infants. He also came across reports of a "failure to thrive" in youngsters reared in institutions and cared for by rotating squads of nurses.

Soon afterwards, Bowlby came to appreciate caregiver-child attachments, as he called them, in many animals whose young require extensive care. For instance, ducklings instinctively trail after any larger creature who regularly offers them aid and comfort, whether it's a mother duck or a curious scientist. On the darker side, monkeys who grow up clinging to the cold, unresponsive body of a wire-mesh substitute mother become social misfits, cowering and staring blankly out of hollow eyes.

Bowlby theorized that the human species has made a heavy evolutionary investment in mutual bonds. An innate attachment system, consisting of behaviors and physiological responses that weave pairs of individuals into interdependent units, increases both the survival of helpless infants and the reproductive success of their parents.

On the basis of childhood ties to core adult protectors, he proposed, kids develop implicit expectations about how people operate in relationships. These working models of intimacy, which are presumably open to revision as one's social world expands, provide a blueprint for adult romantic pairings.

His conception of attachment as an evolutionary product that organizes interpersonal life from cradle to grave sparked little interest among developmental researchers. Instead, they applied Bowlby's ideas solely to the study of mother-child interactions. In the last decade, however, a growing number of scientists has embraced attachment theory as a useful perspective from which to explore the evolution of close relationships among adults.

"There seems to be little room for doubt that the same mechanism that evolved to tie infants to their caregivers was exploited by natural selection for keeping adult partners together," write psychologists Debra Zeifman and Cindy Hazan, both of Cornell University, in a chapter of Evolutionary Social Psychology (1997, Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum).

The evolutionary reasons for plugging the infant-caregiver attachment system into an adults-only mating game are subject to dispute. Some researchers suspect that a lifelong capacity for social intimacy evolved as a single type of interpersonal glue, binding infants to their caregivers and tying sexual partners to one another so they can provide consistent care to offspring. Others regard caregiver-infant bonds as comprising a spectrum of arrangements that can steer a child's mating proclivities down any number of paths, from heartfelt monogamy to conniving promiscuity.

Much research has documented the existence of three possible attachment orientations in children and adults: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant.

Most infants achieve secure attachment to at least one caregiver. For these youngsters, the mother or another adult consistently responds to their needs, serves as a source of comfort at times of distress, and offers a safe base from which to explore the world. Adults with a secure orientation tend to have trusting, lasting relationships in which they share intimate information and work out conflicts through compromise.

Ambivalent youngsters receive inconsistent support that sows doubts about the caregiver's availability. …

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