Effects of early experience on adult relationships

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Effects of early experience on adult relationships

Key Terms:

Continuity hypothesis: The claim that early relationship experiences continue in later adult experiences.

Attachment style: A characteristic way of behaving in relationships, for example a tendency to be trusting or jealous.

Horizontal relationships: Those between individuals of similar status or power.

The continuity hypothesis

Attachment theorists such as Bowlby argue that the early relationships with our primary caregivers provide the basis for later adult relationships – an idea termed the “continuity hypothesis”. According to attachment theory, the young child develops an internal working model (IWM) from their first relationship with their primary caregiver. This consists of a view of themselves as loveable or otherwise, a model of other people as basically trustworthy or not to be relied on, and a model of the relationship between two people. Young children also develop characteristic attachment styles in their early relationships which influence later relationships by providing the child with beliefs about themselves and other people and relationships in general.

Ainsworth et al. (1971) divided attachment styles into three types using the “strange situation” methodology. These types were secure, insecure avoidant and insecure anxious. Research has taken place to establish whether these attachment types influence the relationships a child develops with those of the same age – friends and peers – and whether they persist in adolescent and adult relationships as the hypothesis predicts.

Relationships with peers

Most children do not grow up in a vacuum but within a rich social environment surrounded by siblings, peers and friends. Relationships with peers are characterised as horizontal relationships, as they take place between two people of roughly equal knowledge and power such as siblings or friends and are characterised by equality. Peer relationships provide young people with the opportunity to develop and practise “social competence” – relationship skills and abilities.

Attachment theories suggest that the child’s attachment classification may influence their popularity with peers so that the child who has a secure attachment style should be more confident in interaction with friends.

Considerable evidence has supported this view. Waters, Wippman and Sroufe (1979), Jacobson and Willie (1986) and Lieberman (1977) have all found that children classified as “secure” go on to be more socially skilled in their relationships and friendships than both types of insecure children.

Lyons- Ruth, Alpern and Repacholi (1993) carried out a longitudinal study which suggested that infant attachment type at 18 months was the best predictor of problematic relationships with peers amongst five year olds. Hartup et al. (1993) argues that children with a secure attachment type are more popular at nursery and engage more in social interactions with other children. They also argue that researchers know surprisingly little about the extent of cross-age linkages between attachments and later relationship experiences. This is because it is difficult to assess cause and effect. It is possible that the child’s temperament may influence their early attachment style and later friendships, so personality factors and individual differences could also play a role.

 In contrast,



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