Attachment theory, adolescence and adulthood; the AAIs

Authored by Henry Strick van Linschoten

Mary Main (George et al., 1985; Main et al., 2003; Main, 1999) was another pioneer of attachment theory. She was one of the central developers of the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a structured interview lasting over an hour. It is recorded, transcribed and the transcript analysed. It is designed to elicit attachment patterns in adulthood. A good description of the AAI, how it is conducted, and the research based on it, can be found in Hesse (2008). The premise of the AAI is that attachment styles determine the way that individuals narrate their history in the presence of another person in terms of coherence, degree of detail, contingent affect, and appropriate turn taking in dialogue. The analysis of coherence was much influenced by the work of linguistic philosopher H.P. Grice (1989). The subjects of the AAI are asked a series of questions about their early attachment-related experiences, i.e. their relationships with their parents or parenting substitutes.

When analysed according to their coherence and other characteristics, the interviewees are placed into five categories: secure; dismissing; preoccupied; unresolved / disorganised; and “cannot classify”. It is important to note that these designations are somewhat similar to, but also clearly different from the categories coded in the Strange Situation protocol. This is for the excellent scientific reason that the constructs being measured in the two protocols are clearly different, and that it was and remains a matter for research to determine their similarity or difference. Research has so far shown little correlation between attachment security measured in Strange Situations and security as measured in the AAI as an adult (Hesse, 2008). This makes it all the more important to be systematic in reviewing research about attachment theory, or thinking about clients, which categories one has in mind.

The AAI protocol can also be used is by allowing therapists who are familiar with the questions asked in the AAI and the ideas of coherence used in their scoring, to apply the same kind of thinking in reflecting on the words used by their clients in therapy.

Crittenden has developed a modified version of the AAI called Dynamic-Maturational AAI (DM-AAI). Crittenden & Landini (2011) is the major book in which they summarise their ideas built up over two decades. The authors provide a severe critique of the existing AAI, designed and developed by Main, Goldwyn and Hesse. They have reason to be disappointed with the results of 30 years of AAI, and the low correlation between AAI categories and other classifications of interest. However, their approach amounts to making a new start: their scoring method is materially different, and they have also gradually changed the questions being asked and the guidance given to interviewers. In consequence, moving to the DM-AAI would mean abandoning all conceptual and statistical continuity with the original AAI. Crittenden & Landini (2011) also want to use the DM-AAI with its extended range of subcategories to be a replacement for parts of the DSM and ICD systems. It is only if substantial numbers of researchers and research departments shift their allegiance from the AAI to the DM-AAI that the latter will have a chance to build up over a period of decades enough statistical confirmation and research articles to make this ambitious new departure credible and successful.

The AAI protocol has been found in practice too cumbersome to use for studies of people in the context of relationship problems and couple therapy. However, the wish to use the attachment categories of the AAI to classify adults has led to a development of different instruments which allow researchers to classify the people they work with or who are research subjects. These are usually more conventional psychometric questionnaires which depend on self-reporting. Quite appropriately the attachment styles established are usually given the AAI names instead of the Strange Situation names (e.g. preoccupied and dismissing, vs anxious/ambivalent and avoidant). However, most attempts to link these constructs with the same words used for the AAI categories have failed. It is probably inevitable to accept that this new class of (self-reporting) instruments measure something that is valuable, but not necessarily the same as what is observed in the AAI. A description of the efforts in this respect can be found in Crowell et al. (2008). After careful consideration they come to the conclusion that it will be necessary to consider that the AAI and self-reported tests of adolescent and adult attachment styles both measure interesting constructs, but that what they measure is not the same.

The usage of self-reporting instruments to establish adolescent and adult attachment style has grown substantially, and led to a great deal of literature. What sometimes is called “romantic attachment” seems to be clearly relevant to understanding and working with adult relationships, as illustrated in Simpson & Rholes (1998), Mikulincer & Goodman (2006)Mikulincer & Shaver (2007)Zeifman & Hazan (2008), and Mohr (2008). In this growing literature usually the relevance of Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment categories is amply confirmed. And just as thinking about attachment styles of therapist and client is constructive and helpful in therapy, in working with couples it turns out that an understanding and reflection on the attachment styles of the partners can be helpful in better understanding and managing those relationships. The intuition of Bowlby that infant attachment patterns, grown and developed as they may be in the course of life, remain relevant to the character and quality of (adult) relationships, continues to be confirmed.