Relationship Attachment Model

Overview of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is one of the most exciting and promising areas of research and intervention in premarital and marital relationships (Jacobson and Gurman, 1995; Hazan and Shaver, 1994).  Much of the past research has investigated Bowlby’s “types” or “styles” of human attachment (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980; Ainsworth, 1982; Hazan and Shaver, 1994).  This landmark three-volume exploration of attachment, separation and loss by Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) provided an in-depth understanding of the varying styles of unidirectional attachment which occur from the infant to the mother.  Subsequent studies expanded this individual, object-relations theoretical orientation to include more systemic and transactional concepts.  These in-depth descriptions of how infant-mother affectional bonds are formed and broken spawned a massive amount of research in infant, adolescent and adult attachments (see a review of research in Weiss, 1982 and Ainsworth, 1982), and specifically, the development of love and romance (Hazan and Shaver, 1987; 1994). 

The majority of this research has continued to use the three styles of attachment (secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent) first proposed by Bowlby, and expanded by Bartholomew (1990) into a four-group model. Bartholomew portrayed attachment styles as reflections of the degree of positive (+) or negative (-) characteristics in the working models of the self (S) and the attachment figure (O for other).  These working models are broad, cognitive schemas of self and the other that are prototypically formed by the infant-caregiver interactions.  Bartholomew’s four styles are the: 1) Secure (+S, +O); 2) Dismissing (+S, -O); 3) Preoccupied (-S, +O); and 4) Fearful (-S, -O).

In the eighties, several researchers applied Bowlby’s three styles of attachment to adult romantic relationships (Hazan, C. and Shaver, P., 1987)  They found that there was continuity between the infant’s early experience of attachment and the style of attachment experienced in adult relationships.  Their study supported and expanded the typology developed by Ainsworth and her colleagues.

In the nineties, attachment theory continued to attract more attention and predominance in the understanding of love and romance.  In addition to hundreds of research articles, major volumes were written on this subject each year throughout the last decade (Bartholomew and Perlman, 1994; Socha and Stamp,1995; Goldberg, Muir, and Kerr, 1995; Feeney and Noller, 1996; Meins, 1997; Simpson and Rholes, 1998; Cassidy and Shaver, 1999). 

The results of much of this research have found that a person’s attachment style does not change.  However, there has been a lack of utilitarian models of attachment that could be used to assist people in understanding and modifying their experience of intimacy and closeness in relationships.  This may be due to the focus on the style of attachment and not on the dynamic components that comprise the different styles of attachment.

Bonding Processes in Adult Attachment

Attachment is the essence of all relationships, and a model that identifies and explains the bonding processes that produce attachment will provide the much needed, overarching structure for organizing and applying the many subjects in relationship research.  Feeney and Noller (1996) stated that although they “know of no published empirical work integrating all three components of romantic bonds (attachment, caregiving, and sexuality), such work will undoubtedly be carried out.  This integrative approach offers the promise of a comprehensive theory of romantic love.” (p. 121). Attachment, then, is best conceptualized as a metarelationship concept which incorporates all the universal bonding forces that make up human love and closeness. 

People marry because they feel an overwhelming attachment of love; communication and conflict styles express and monitor attachment; intimacy, commitment, sex, trust and reliance are all components that produce attachment. 

Couples divorce because their experience of attachment has deteriorated; other couples reconcile because they rekindle attachment. 

Therefore, a model of attachment is the best vehicle for presenting mate-selection education.  Falling in love is much more than just knowing what to look for in a prospective mate, or developing the right skills for handling a relationship.  Love is attachment, and an educational program that omits this intrinsic subject overlooks the core of mate selection in romantic-based cultures. 

The need for a unifying, theoretical model of these dynamic components is challenging because of the lack of clarity in even defining the specific inter- and intra-personal components which comprise attachment.  “Love,” “trust,” “commitment,” “affection,” “emotion,” “dependence,” “needs,” and “intimacy” are among a few of the terms which overlap the concept of attachment.  And each of these terms are equally difficult to define (Moss & Schwebel, 1993; Fehr, 1987; Stede, Levita, McLand and Kelly, 1982). 

It was proposed by Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) that sexuality and caregiving are independent behavioral systems.  Romantic love, then, encompassed these three crucial components: attachment, caregiving, and sexuality. However, Shaver and Hazan (1988) have argued that previous conceptualizations of romantic love could actually be integrated within the attachment framework. 

Carnelley, Pietromonaco, and Jaffe (cited in Feeney and Noller, 1996) and Kunce and Shaver (1994) have also provided support for the link between attachment styles and the caregiving components of romantic love.  They found that caregiving was imbedded in the styles of attachment, although it was expressed differently by each. 

In addition, evidence of the link between attachment and sexuality has also been forged by Brennan and Shaver (1995).  They found that the avoidant style were more accepting of casual, noncommited sex than the other attachment styles.  Hazan, Zeifman, and Middleton (1994) conducted a comprehensive study of the overlap between attachment style and sexual behaviors.  They concluded there are three distinct sexual styles that correlate with the three attachment styles. 

In reviewing the research on connections and closeness in relationships, several constructs repeatedly emerge.  Sternberg (1986) developed a triangular model of love that had three components: intimacy- feelings of bondedness, closeness, and connectedness; passion- the drives and motivations that lead to arousal; and commitment- the decision that one loves another and is committed to maintaining that love over time. 

David Olson’s Personal Assessment of Intimacy in Relationships (P.A.I.R.) found six factors which he identified as types of intimacy: emotional, social, sexual, intellectual, recreational, and conventionality (Schaefer, M.T. & Olson, D.H., 1981).  Olson found that individuals desire varying amounts and combinations of the six types of intimacy.  These findings are comparable with Kunce and Shaver’s (1994) findings that an individual’s attachment style is reflected in different preferences on constructs of intimacy and caregiving

Moss and Schwebel (1993) attempted to define intimacy in romantic relationships.  They conducted an extensive review of the subject of intimacy in research and literature and found 61 unique definitions.  Seven themes were identified in these definitions, and were reduced to five components.  These components were: a) Commitment; b) Affective Intimacy; c) Cognitive Intimacy; d) Physical Intimacy; and e) Mutuality. 

The Description of the Bonding Processes of the R.A.M.

In response to this need of a unifying theory for these components, I have developed a conceptual model of attachment: the Relationship Attachment Model or the R.A.M. This model portrays the sequential development of the five bonding dynamics that emerge from the numerous studies on intimacy, love, caregiving, sex and attachment.  These five dynamics are the ingredients of the glue of attachment.  They embody and explain all of the characteristics of the experience of attachment in every relationship in life.

A basic proposition of the R.A.M. is that the five bonding processes are actually expressions of the five commonly accepted categories of a human.  It is generally thought that there are five major aspects or clusters of the self every human possesses.  These clusters of self are groupings of similar interpersonal and intrapersonal functions in a person.  They are 1) your physical/sensory self, 2) your mental self, 3) your emotional self, 4) your relational self, and 5) your sexual self.  Each of these clusters functions interdependently, yet is distinct and separate from the other.  They are interdependent because they cannot exist without each other, and the functioning of one affects the outcome of the whole.  Yet, they are distinct because every one supplies a unique contribution to the overall human experience.  This is particularly true in the formation and maintenance of attachment.

Each of these five clusters produces a bonding dynamic that contributes to the overall experience of attachment.  They are bonding because they are forces of energy that create connections between people.  They are dynamic because they have ranges of intensity that vary according to the experiences within a person and the exchanges between persons.

The five bonding dynamics, like the clusters that produce them, are both independent of and interactive with each other.  They can be isolated and examined individually, although one never functions without the involvement of the others.  If one is altered, there is an automatic effect on the others and the overall experience of attachment is altered.

The first bonding dynamic, generated from the sensory self, is the ability to know another and be known by that other.  The sense of knowing and being known is frequently at the core of intimacy and is further delineated in information processing theories.  Hinde (1978) illustrated this by defining intimacy as “the number of different facets of the personality which are revealed to the partner and to what depth” (p. 378).  Research has supported that couples which are better acquainted before marriage have significantly higher rates of marital quality (Birtchnell and Kennard, 1984; Grover, Russell, Schumm and Paff-Bergen, 1985; Kurdek, 1991, 1993).  In the case of couples who are less acquainted, Grover, et. al. (1985) has found that they experience greater problems when they face the inevitable difficulties of marriage.

There are three ingredients that contribute to this dynamic.  The first is mutual self-disclosure (Derlega and Chaikin, 1975).  It has been found that disclosing information considered highly intimate can result in physiological changes- increased blood pressure, heart rate and palmar sweating (Ashworth, Furman, Chaikin, and Derlega, 1976).  The second ingredient that makes up this dynamic of knowing and being known is sharing diverse experiences together.  Olson (Schaefer, M.T. & Olson, D.H., 1981) identified examples of this in the recreational intimacy factor in his P.AI.R.S. inventory. In Lauer and Lauer’s (1986) study of 351 couples who were married a minimum of 15 years, it was found that friendship was one of the key elements of the enduring marriages.  Sporakowski and Axelson (1984) also found enjoyment and fulfillment were present in enduring marriages.  The bond of knowing and being known necessitates involvement in enjoyable, fulfilling, mutual friendship-type experiences.  The third ingredient in this dynamic is time.  In Robinson and Blanton’s (1993) research on intimacy and enduring relationships they found that time alone was important for positive marital closeness.  The accumulation of shared experiences created a deeper feeling of connection and attachment.

The second bonding dynamic, generated from the mental self, is the ability to trust another and be trusted by that other.  This dynamic corresponds with the concept of internal working models in attachment theory, the development of object representations in object relations theory and cognitive schemas in cognitive theory.  These working models are internal, mental representations of another.  They are like maps that are used to determine one’s expectations, feelings and interpretations of another.  Collins and Read (1994) substantiate the complexities of internal representations and their corresponding emotional responses.

Trust, then, is defined as the degree of positive cognitive, affective attributions one holds in their mental representation of another.  As a person gets to know another, he/she constructs a mental profile of that person.  Initially, stereotypes, associations and ideals are used to “fill in the gaps” of what is assumed to be true about the person.  But as time allows for more interactions and experiences, the mental profile is adjusted to reflect the deeper knowledge gained about the other person.  Bretherton (1985) explained that inner working models organize previous experiences in a way to enable one to anticipate and manage new situations and relationships.  He found, for example, that children with responsive caregivers are more likely to develop trust in their working models of others (see also Collins and Read, 1994). 

The three styles of attachment reflect variations of trust in the mental model.  A person who has a secure attachment style has a healthy trust capacity.  However, someone who has either the avoidant style or the anxious-ambivalent attachment style has a damaged trust capacity in their working models of others.  Altering one’s attachment style may be influenced by facilitating cognitive shifts through teaching the concepts of these internal mental profiles and how they relate to the development of trust.

The third bonding dynamic, generated from the emotional self, is the ability to rely on another and be relied on by that other.  This dynamic reflects what Clinebell and Clinebell (1970) referred to as the most extensive and refined definition of intimacy…”a mutual need satisfaction.”  This dynamic allows for individual differences in needs.  Attachment occurs as the specific needs of the individual are met.  The reciprocity of need fulfillment results in a deeper experience of closeness and intimacy than unidirectional need fulfillment as described in detail in social-exchange theory. 

Olson’s P.A.I.R. inventory captures this construct in many of the factors (social needs, intellectual needs, sexual needs), but most in the conventionality scale (e.g. item 36 asks if all needs are being met by partner). 

The fourth bonding dynamic, generated from the relational self, is the ability to commit to another and be committed to by that other.  It, like the other bonding dynamics, is a natural expression of an innate structure of personality.  People form commitments in relationships because of an innate need for a stable, secure sense of belonging to another while feeling that “my partner belongs to me.”  The concept that persons are in systems which have varying degrees of influence and interaction is at the heart of systems theory.

The concept of commitment is present in almost every study on intimacy, closeness, or love.  Numerous studies have been conducted on love, romance, and commitment (Knox & Sporakowski, 1968; Simmons, Von Kolke, & Shimizu, 1986; Simmons, Wehner, & Kay, 1988; Brown, 1993; Stanley & Markman, 1992; Fehr, 1988; Hobart, 1958; Rubin, 1970; Rubin, 1973).   These studies have attempted to define this abstract, dynamic process in a relationship.  The degree of commitment is measured by the amount of personal investment someone places in another.  This investment is often represented by a specific label or definition of the relationship.  For instance, an “acquaintance” indicates a low level of investment, whereas a “best friend” suggests higher levels of personal investment.  Consistently, research supports the importance of a strong commitment for positive love and romantic feelings and marital satisfaction. 

Commitment, like the other relationship dynamics, contributes to the bond of a relationship.  Beach and Tesser (1988) found that the more commitment a person feels toward another, the more he/she will focus cognitive and affective attention toward that individual.  Tesser and Paulhus (1970) also found that the amount of time someone spends thinking about another he/she had dated was positively related to higher scores on the Rubin Love Scale (1970).  In fact, it has been shown that a person thinks and feels more positively toward another once a decision to commit is made (Brehm and Cohen, 1962).  

The fifth and final bonding dynamic, generated from the sexual self, is the ability to form sexual bonds with another and feel sexually desired by that other.  Intimacy is often equated with sexual involvement in the literature- the greater the sexual involvement, the more intimacy.  This dynamic involves everything from extended gazing to uninhibited sexual intercourse (Exline, 1972; Rosenfeld, Kartus, and Ray, 1976).   It is correlated with the Sexual Intimacy scale in Olson’s P.A.I.R. (Schaefer and Olson, 1981). 

In the dating relationship the first bonding force, Knowledge, is what you know about the person you are dating.  When you spend time talking and doing things together, a deeper understanding of the person develops.  This understanding, or knowledge, creates a growing feeling of closeness.

As you gather these pieces of understanding about a person, you arrange them to create a portrait of what you believe this person is like.  This portrait is the second bonding force, your internal image of the person (or, your Trust Picture).  It is this mental picture which prompts your expectations and feelings of trust.  Trust and attachment increases as your trust picture becomes more positive.

Based on your level of trust, you form a dependency upon this person to meet more and more of your needs.  This third bonding force, Reliance, is a natural outcome of your trust in the other person.  To the extent that the person meets your expectations, you alter your mental picture in positive ways, becoming more confident of your reliance and their dependability.  Your attachment continues to increase with this process.

Your growing trust and reliance produce a deeper definition of your relationship.  This fourth bonding force is the degree of commitment which develops as the other three processes occur.  This Commitment produces feelings of security, safety, connection and closeness.

The closeness in the relationship becomes expressed in physical touch.  This fifth bonding force, Sex, includes the expression of sexual touch and the experience of a sexual chemistry.  The extent of the physical/sexual expressions produces a corresponding attachment and closeness.

The Dynamic Quality of the Bonding Processes of the R.A.M.

The interrelationship between these bonding processes can be conceptualized as five, rheostat control-slides, similar to a graphic equalizer on your stereo.  Each control-slide functions independent of the other, but they all affect the overall sound.  In a similar way, each bonding process can be viewed individually.  They have a similar low-to-high range, just like the control slides on the mixing board.  You can increase the intensity of any one of them without increasing the others.   And every bonding process contributes a unique aspect of the relationship connection.  However, it is only by their mix that the complex feeling of attachment in a relationship is produced.

The Definitions of Healthy and Unhealthy Attachment from the R.A.M.

The five bonding processes are in a hierarchical order and the combinations of their levels express healthy and unhealthy relationship attachment.  In other words, the balance of the levels of the five bonding dynamics portrays the healthiness of the attachment in a relationship.  They have an inter-relationship with each other.  A feature of these five bonding dynamics is that they are inseparably linked even though they are distinct.  This is evidenced by the interaction between them.  As one’s commitment increases, then the trust and feeling of reliance tends to increase (Beach and Tesser, 1988).  As trust increases, then the feeling of reliance on the other also grows. 

The level of each bonding process, however, must be kept in balance with the others in order to insure a healthy attachment.  This balance is maintained by a simple rule:


However, when imbalance does occur in a relationship, then the result is increased vulnerabilities, overattachment and minimization of problems.  Therefore, the level at which one knows his/her partner establishes the maximum level of earned trust, which establishes the maximum level of safe reliance, which establishes the maximum level of healthy commitment, which establishes the maximum level of appropriate sexual involvement.  In other words, the degree of sexual involvement should not exceed the degree of commitment, which should not exceed the degree of reliance, which should not exceed the degree of development in your trust picture, which should not exceed the degree of what you accurately know about the partner. 

An example of this is the recent research that supports the conclusion that premarital sexual intercourse is related to subsequent marital dissatisfaction and divorce (Kelly and Conley, 1987).  The extensive study by Janus and Janus (1993) established that divorced men and women reported more premarital sexual experience than the still-married individuals.  One explanation of this is the imbalance between the extent of sexual involvement and the extent of commitment during the premarital relationship.  The frequency of sex outside of marriage may have a weakening effect upon a person’s commitment level in marriage (Thomson and Collela, 1992; White, 1990).  This is consistent with the repeated finding that premarital sex is predictive of extramarital sex, which frequently disrupts marriages and leads to divorce (Newcomb and Bentler, 1981). 

Another example of this same imbalance between the extent of sexual involvement and commitment is cohabitation.  Even though many would think that cohabitation would serve as a good test of marital compatibility, there is strong evidence that the later marriages of cohabitors are less stable and satisfactory than those who did not cohabitate prior to marriage (Bennett, Blac, and Bloom, 1988; DeMaris and Leslie, 1984; Janus and Janus, 1993; Trussell and Rao, 1989).  In fact, it was found that the risk of marital dissolutionment was 50% higher for cohabitors than noncohabitors (Balakrishnan, Rao, Lapierre-Adamcyk, and Krotki, 1987).  The notion that this imbalance in the bonding forces led to overlooking potential crucial problems is supported by a study by Booth and Johnson (1988) in which they provide evidence that cohabitors are at risk for marital problems even before they marry.          

The old saying, “love is blind”, has been supported by the research of Waller (1938).  He found that partners tend to idealize each other during courtship.  The P.I.C.K. a Partner Training Program (Premarital Interpersonal Choices & Knowledge) suggests that each partner will have better marital selection judgment when the boundaries of the relationship attachment are kept in a proper balance.  When this does not occur, the premarital closeness will mask salient characteristics of the other person that should be exposed and explored in the premarital process. 

Source: P.I.C.K. (Premarital Interpersonal Choices & Knowledge), a Partner-Selection Education Program. Copyright © John Van Epp, Ph.D., 2003.


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