The psychology of attachment

Is attachment the same as love? Bethan Page from Experimental Psychology (University of Oxford) explains. 


New romantic relationships can be really exciting! When new couples first fall in love, they often flirt with each other, feel a strong sexual attraction to the other and may be unable to get the other person out of their head! But is this attachment? Attachment is an important topic in Psychology. It is defined as a deep long-lasting emotional bond which offers a strong feeling of protection and emotional closeness. Attachment bonds are different from the burning attraction and excitement that brings individuals together at the start of a relationship. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a famous book. Quotes from this book are often read out at weddings because they capture what long-lasting love and attachment really are. Have a look at this quote:

“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is…  Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.”

Psychologists first studied attachment in parent-child relationships. More recently it has been applied to romantic relationships. Young children turn to their parents for comfort when they are upset and show signs of distress when separated from their parent. When a child cries, the parent comforts them and helps them to manage their emotions. The parent provides a secure base for the child. Does this happen in romantic relationships too?

In attachment relationships between romantic partners, the person provides a secure base for the other a bit like a parent does to a young child: they help them to face the challenges life throws at them and support them through the good and bad. They also help look after each other’s emotional happiness and feel safe and comfortable in each other’s company. Often at the beginning of a relationship, a partner doesn’t take on the role of the primary attachment figure, this might still be a member of the person’s family. If the relationship lasts a long time and is a strong relationship, attachment often begins to develop. It doesn’t happen overnight and you may not necessarily realise it’s happening! Some relationships are genuine attachments but others aren’t. Some people might want to fall in love but not want attachment processes to develop. Attachment isn’t necessarily what everyone looks for in a relationship. 

There are different types of attachment styles in both adults and children which can affect how likely we are to get into romantic relationships and how healthy our relationships are. Adult’s attachment styles are often influenced by their childhood relationships with their parents. Our childhood experiences can therefore strongly influence our romantic relationships as adults. Below are descriptions of the different types of attachment styles:


Securely attachment adults find it easy to become emotionally close to a partner, are comfortable with having somebody dependent on them and do not worry too much about rejection. They are comfortable with both being intimate and being independent.


People with this attachment style find it difficult to trust others and become close to them. They become nervous when somebody gets close to them and may shy away from intimacy.


Anxious-preoccupied attachment types often become emotionally intimate very quickly and can become overly dependent on their partner. This can sometimes scare people away. People with this attachment style often worry that their partner doesn’t really love them or might leave them.

Clinical psychologists and child psychologists often use questionnaires and observations to decide which attachment style a person has. Next time you watch something on TV or a film, try to identify whether you think the relationships are attachment relationships or not. You could also see if you could identify which attachment styles the characters have.