Updated: 24 August 2019
The Continuity Hypothesis was put forward by John Bowlby (1953) as a critical effect of attachments in his development of Attachment Theory. He was greatly influenced by Sigmund Freud (1940) who viewed an infant’s first relationship – usually with the mother – as “the prototype of all later love-relations”. This ‘prototype’ Bowlby termed the internal working model – a set of conscious and/or unconscious rules and expectations which will be applied to all relationships we develop with others. So our first experiences will influence our expectations and actions in future experiences – hence the sense of continuity. In his concept of the internal working model, Bowlby was borrowing Kenneth Craik’s (1943) concept of ‘mental models’ – ie: that all humans carry in their heads mental representations of the external world and their relations with it. These mental models – schemas and complexes of schemas in the selfplex – then provide the basis on which the individual perceives and deals with the external world. According to Bowlby, with the aid of working models, children predict the attachment figure’s likely behaviour and plan their own responses. What type of model they construct is therefore of great consequence.
How the internal working model formed will influence the formation of and engagement in future relationships is the basis of the Continuity Hypothesis.
Alan Sroufe’s reports from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study (MLS) have shown strong support for the playing out of the internal working model in children’s later relationships. In the MLS a cohort of children were followed from the age of 12 months to adolescence and beyond. Throughout the children were rated by teachers, trained observers and camp counsellors at special events arranged for the children. Those rated as securely attached in infancy (using the Strange Situation) were also rated later as being more popular, having more initiative, more empathy and being higher in social competency, self-confidence and self-esteem (Alan Sroufe et al, 1999). In Gravesian terms, this can be seen as the PURPLE vMEME, having its safety-in-belonging needs met, facilitates the development of healthy RED. On the other hand findings that insecure-avoidant children are most likely to have low social status (Peter LaFreniere & Alan Sroufe, 1985) and most likely to be bullied, with insecure-resistants doing most of the bullying (Michael Troy & Alan Sroufe, 1987), suggest that failure to meet PURPLE’s safety-in-belonging needs may lead to unhealthy forms of RED emerging.
Karlen Lyons-Ruth, Lisbeth Alpern & Betty Repacholi’s (1990) longitudinal study is one of the few to have also used Mary Main & Judith Solomon’s (1990) additional Strange Situation classification of Type D: disorganised. They found that infant attachment type at 18 months is one of the best predictors of problematic relationships at 5, with Type Ds struggling the most to form friendships.
Not all research strongly supports the Continuity Hypothesis, though. Mary Main & Donna Weston (1981) found only low correlations between the child’s attachment type and the child’s various relationships.
Interestingly, Inge Bretherton et al (1989) have suggested that children may develop several internal working models that help them make sense of their different social roles (son or daughter, sibling, cousin, friend, etc). Given what we now understand about the the formation of schemas, the concept of multiple internal working models may help explain Nick Fox, H Joesbury & D R Hannay’s 1991 observation that the attachment type an infant displays with one parent may not be a reliable indicator for the attachment type the child displays with the other parent.
Manuela Verissimo et al (2011) carried out a prospective study in which they assessed the attachment types of 35 children aged between 29 and 38 months from 2-parent families, using separate observations for each parent in the child’s home. Not only did they find some children displayed a different attachment type with each parent but that secure attachment with the father correlated strongly with the number of reciprocated friendships in nursery at the age of 4 years-old. Paradoxically the quality of the child’s relationship with the mother did not impact on nursery friendships. Not only does this finding seem to contradict Bowlby’s emphasis on monotropy but it offers support to both the concept of the Continuity Hypothesis and the idea of multiple internal working models.
Carollee Howes, Catherine Matheson & Claire Hamilton (1994) state that there is not always a positive correlation between parent-child & later child-peer relationships. Even if there is a correlation, there may well be other ways of explaining it than the inner working model concept – eg: some children may simply be better at forming relationships.
Cynthia Wilson Moore (1997) measured the attachment style of 100 14-15 -year-olds using an interview process and asked a close friend of each teenager to rate their behaviour for social acceptability. What Moore found was that secure teens were less likely to engage in risky sexual activities – eg: unsafe sex – than their insecure peers but were more likely to have had sex. She concluded from this research that having a secure attachment type better prepares an adolescent for entering the world of adult sexual relationships. Having positive self-esteem would enable RED to stand up for itself with a strong internal locus of control and enter the adult world more on its own terms. Having low self-esteem may drive an unhealthy vMEME harmonic of RED engaging in risky behaviours to get acceptance for PURPLE’s belongingness needs.
Again, though, not all research shows continuity. In a longitudinal study Peter Zimmermann et al (2000) reassessed via interviews 44 16-year-olds who had originally gone through the Strange Situation between 12-18 months. They found that infant attachment type was not a good predictor of attachments in adolescence, with negatively-impacting life events seeming to have altered secure attachments to an insecure type.
Romantic/sexual relationships are a key area of research in evaluating the Continuity Hypothesis. One of the most famous studies into the lasting effects of infant attachment on adult relationships is the ‘Love Quiz’ by Cindy Hazan & Phil Shaver (1987).
The researchers wanted to see if there was a correlation between the infant’s attachment type and their future approach to romantic relationships. They used a survey, presented as a ‘love quiz’ which consisted of 2 components:-
- A measure of attachment type –
a simple adjective checklist of childhood relationships with parents and parents’ relationships with each other
- A love experience questionnaire which assessed individual’s beliefs about romantic love –
eg: whether it lasted forever, whether it could be found easily, how much trust there was in a romantic relationship – and asked about issues such as fear of closeness, jealousy and obsessive preoccupation
The Love Quiz was printed in local newspaper the Rocky Mountain News and readers were asked to send in their responses. Hazan & Shaver analysed the first 620 replies sent in from people aged from 14 to 82. 205 were from men and 415 from women. 42% of participants were married and 31% were dating. The researchers classified the respondents’ according to Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation infant attachment types of secure, insecure–
- Secure types described their love experiences as happy, friendly and trusting –
emphasising being able to accept their partner regardless of their faults – with such relationships tending to be more enduring, with the initial passion reappearing from time to time and for some ‘romantic love’ never fading. They were happy depending on others and comfortable if others are dependent on them. They were happy to be close to others.
resistant types experienced love as involving obsession, a desire for reciprocation, emotional highs and lows, extreme sexual attraction and jealousy, and worry that their partners didn’t really love them or might abandon them. Their desire for intense closeness could frighten others away.
avoidant types typically feared intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and jealousy and believed they did not need love to be happy. They were uncomfortable being close to and/or depending on others.
From the sample, 56% were classified as secure, 25% avoidant and 19% resistant. These are very similar to the proportions of secure/insecure infants in the classic studies by Ainsworth – supporting the researchers’ hypothesis. Hazan & Shaver concluded that there was evidence to support the concept of the inner working model having a life-
There are issues with Hazan & Shaver’s methodology. The respondents were self-
Hazan & Shaver repeated the Love Quiz in 1993 and again found strong evidence for a correlation between infant attachment type and adult love style –
It is important to bear in mind that Hazan & Shaver only established a correlation. Therefore, cause-
Other research on romantic relationships
A number of studies have supported the Love Quiz findings –
In a 4-
Interestingly Kelly Brennan & Phil Shaver (1995) found that, among undergraduates involved in a romantic relationship, there is also a weak but significant tendency to be attracted to someone with a similar attachment style.
Gerard McCarthy’s (1999) study of women whose attachment types had been recorded in infancy can be considered longitudinal. He found:-
avoidant infants grew up to have the most difficulty in romantic relationships
resistant infants grew up to have the poorest relationships
attached infants grew up to have the most successful romantic relationships and friendships
These findings could be predicted from the Continuity Hypothesis – as could Everett Waters et al’s (2000) longitudinal study of 50 middle class white infants which found that 70% of their sample, assessed through interviews as young adults, received the same secure, resistant or avoidant classification as originally designated via the Strange Situation at the age of 12 months. Those who had changed attachment style had experienced a negatively-impacting life event such as parental divorce or parental death/life-threatening illness. This last point reflects the findings of Zimmermann et al.
Adult Attachment Measures
A transgenerational effect has been shown by Susan Sprecher, Rodney Cate & Lauren Levin (1998). They compared the love styles of 2 sets of students, one whose parents were divorced and one whose parents had stayed together. This second group was then divided into those whose parents had happy marriages and those who didn’t. Amongst the females with divorced parents and unhappily married parents, they were more likely to have an avoidant attachment style and less likely to have a secure one. In terms of John Lee’s (1973) love styles –
The transgenerational effect reflects the power of the parents’ memes to embed into their children’s schemas.
Heidi Bailey et al (2007) were able to catch this transgenerational in vivo, as it were. They observed babies using the Strange Situation and then interviewed their mothers via the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). What they found was that those who reported poor attachments to their own parents were more likely to have poorly-attached children themselves. Bailey et al fit with the earlier findings of David Quinton & Michael Rutter (1984) who found that women raised in institutions were generally less sensitive, warm and supportive of their own children than a control group. However, Quinton & Rutter did not seek to imply cause-and-effect as they identified other variables such as teenage pregnancy and having an unsupportive partner. They also acknowledged that some of the women raised in institutions were, in fact, very sensitive mothers.
The AAI has proved a critical step forward in assessing transgenerational effects of internal working models and investigating how changes in attachment types take place.
Developed by Carol George, Nancy Kaplan & Mary Main (1984), this semi-structured interview taps into adult representation of attachment (ie: internal working models) by assessing general and specific recollections from the participants’ childhood. The interview is coded based on quality of discourse (especially coherence) and content. Categories are designed to predict parental stances.
Parental Adult Attachment status includes:-
- Autonomous: they value attachment relationships, describe them in a balanced way and as influential – their discourse is coherent, internally consistent, and non-defensive in nature
- Dismissing: they show memory lapses, minimise negative aspects of their childhood and deny personal impact on relationships. Their positive descriptions are often contradicted or unsupported and the discourse is defensive
- Preoccupied/Entangled: they experience continuing preoccupation with their own parents and their discourse is incoherent. They have angry or ambivalent representations of the past.
- Unresolved/Disorganised: they show trauma resulting from unresolved loss or abuse
Some of the strongest external validation of the AAI involves its demonstrated ability to predict people‘s children’s classifications in the Strange Situation. Mary Main & Ruth Goldwyn (1994) found a link between early attachment type and adult relationship pattern. Dismissing is associated with insecure-avoidant, autonomous with secure and preoccupied with with insecure-resistant. Building on these associations, Joan Vondra, Daniel Shaw & M Cristina Kevenides (1995) found dismissing mothers were controlling with avoidant children, autonmous were sensitive with secure children and preoccupied mothers tended to be unresponsive with avoidant children.
Evaluation of the Continuity Hypothesis
Research seems to indicate indicate that the majority of people tend to display a relatively-similar attachment style throughout their lives and this reflects the importance of nurturing the PURPLE vMEME from the start of life. However, maintaining a similar attachment style is far from universal As Zimmerman et al and Waters et al show, negative life events during childhood and adolescence can have a destabilising effect, with the internal working model(s) shifting to a less secure pattern of schemas in the selfplex.
A longitudinal meta-analysis by William Chopik, Robin Edelstein & Kevin Grimm (2019) indicates that the intensity of resistance – Chopik, Edelstein & Grimm refer to this as ‘anxious attachment’ – and avoidance may vary over a lifetime. These insecure thoughts and behaviours are likely to reach a peak during adolescence due to the stress of transitioning from the primary belonging relationship with parents to new belongings with peers and first romantic relationships. Resistance and avoidance tend to decline in full adulthood when people are often settled into more secure and stable relationships. They are usually at their lowest in later life – “declines in anxiety and avoidance may reflect the efforts of older adults to become closer to their close friends and family.”
These developmental changes can be seen as reflecting the stability of the PURPLE vMEME. The adolescent transition to new relationships is a disturbing time for PURPLE which may account in part at least for such powerful assertions of RED for many in the mid-teens and early adulthood. Settling down with a family and building closer relationships in later life all help satisfy PURPLE’s need for safety-in-belonging.
What has been relatively unexplored in Attachment Theory is the impact an adult romantic partner has on the attachment type. As a partner can be incredibly influential in someone’s life, Kim Bartholome & Leonard Horowitz (1991) argue that can change someone’s attachment style – for better or for worse.
Borrowing from the AAI, Bartholomew & Horowitz present a model that identifies 4 categories or styles of adult attachment. Their model is based on the idea that adult attachment styles reflect people’s thoughts about both themselves – Bowlby’s concept of the internal working model – and their partner. Specifically, attachment styles depend on whether or not people judge their partners to be generally accessible and responsive to requests for support, and whether or not people judge themselves to be the kind of individuals towards which others want to respond and lend help. The researchers propose 4 categories based on positive or negative thoughts about partners and on positive or negative thoughts about self – see graphic above.
Bartholomew & Horowitz devised both interview and self-report measures of the 4 styles and what they see as the 2 dimensions – avoidance and anxiety – that organise them conceptually. See graphic above. This approach helps to explain how some people are very different in adult relationships to how they were as children. Michael Rutter, David Quinton & Jonathan Hill (1999), who found that people who had had problematic relationships with their parents, could go on to achieve secure, stable and happy adult relationships. They termed these relationships ‘earned security’. Their terminology again indicates that central to security in all relationships is the health of the PURPLE vMEME.
An alternative explanation for this apparent continuity, where there appears to be continuity, lies in Jerome Kagan’s Temperament Hypothesis (1984). Kagan notes that innate temperamental characteristics which make infants ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ have a serious impact on the quality of the mother-
Joseph Jacobson & Diane Wille (1986) postulate that a child’s temperament may influence the formation of relationships. They state that children who are appealing to their parents are likely to be appealing to others. So that a child who does well in one relationship is likely to do well in others.
So temperament, life events and previous romantic experiences may all strongly influence an attachment as well as the individual’s internal working model(s). Moreover, the recent research of Chopik, Edelstein & Grimm may predicate a sift in the concept of attachment – from ‘types’ more to ‘tendencies’.