Mental life

Attachment theorists claim that vertical relationships during childhood have an effect on later horizontal relationships. With the view of the different perspectives of attachment theory in mind, this qualitative study examines how an adult perceives that the effects of childhood relationships with significant others (i.e. parents) affected their development. A qualitative textual analysis was carried out on a pre-existing edited and reconstructed semi-structured interview. Thematic analysis of the interview illustrated how an adult perceived that childhood attachments affected her development and later adult-adult relationships as well as the eventual paradigm shift allowing earned security through a revised internal working model.


Human lifespan developmental studies seek to explain the influences on individuals during their development in terms of internal and external factors. In doing so, they aim to identify consistent connections between experiences in one point and behaviour on a latter point (continuities). Central to this is the investigation in to how vertical relationships (child-parent) are likely to shape the patterns of latter horizontal relationships (adult-adult).

Harris (1999 as cited in: Wood, Littleton & Oates J., 2007, p. 20) argues that peer relationships during development are more influential than relationships with primary caretakers. Attachment theorists, such as Bowlby (1969/82 as cited in: Wood et al, 2007, pp. 28-29), contradicts this in claiming that vertical relationships during childhood are of equal importance in that “significant others” in the lives of individuals become part of their mental life therefore contributing to their psychological well-being.

Bowlby (ibid) proposed that relationship patterns acquired in the early vertical relationship are internalised by an individual and forms the basis of how the individual enters and maintains other close relationships (Bretherton, 1997, as cited in: Wood et al, 2007, p. 344). This internal working model (IWM) reflects the feelings and thoughts about the self and the self in relation to others (Kretchmar, Worsham & Swenson, 2005, as cited in Wood et al, 2007, p. 348) as well as expectations of the behaviour of others and their own behaviour due to these expectations (Wood et al, 2007, pp. 32).

Ainsworth et al (1978 as cited in: Wood et al, 2007, pp. 30-31) identified, through observing behaviour in the “strange situation” experiment separating (leaving them with a stranger) and reuniting infants with their primary caretaker, three main attachment types being (a) insecure, anxious avoidant, (b) secure and (c) insecure, anxious ambivalent. These types, according to attachment theory, indicate the main ways in which a child’s IWM may operate (Wood et al, 2007, p. 31) and it plays, via the IWM, an active role in guiding perceptions and behaviour especially in later horizontal relationships.

Hazan and Shaver (1987 as cited in Wood et al, 2007, pp. 23-24) conducted a research applying the three attachment styles identified by Ainsworth et al (1978 as cited in: Wood et al, 2007, pp. 30-31) to adult-adult sexual/romantic relationships via a ‘love quiz’ self-reporting measure. Their findings (from over 1,200 replies) on the question of how the attachment patterns of adults relates toward their childhood attachment to their parents, closely mirrored the findings of Ainsworth et al (ibid) with 12-18-month-olds.Main and Goldwyn (1984 as cited in: Wood et al, 2007, pp. 26-27) illustrates, via analysis of various semi-structured interviews, that although the findings of Hazan and Shaver (as cited in Wood et al, 2007, pp. 23-24) are valuable and does illustrate continuity; latter relationships such as strong and positive marital relationships (Rutter, Quinton & Hill 1990 as cited in Wood et al, 2007, p. 27) can provide opportunities for revision of the IWMs (mental models) of the self and others. They termed this type of autonomous adult attachment earned security contrasting the claim by Bowlby (1969/82 as cited in: Wood et al, 2007, pp. 28-29) that the IWM of individuals is, under normal circumstances, resistant to change.

Adult attachment interviews (AAI) are commonly used to measure the attachment of adults to their own parents and how they perceive the influence these attachments have on latter relationships. This study aimed to provide further insight into this subject by using thematic analysis of a video recording and related transcript of a semi-structured AAI to explore insider feedback from the participant. In recognition of the various perspectives of the attachment theory as to the importance of childhood relationships on adult relationships, this was done within the meanings of the research question: “How do adults perceive that significant others (i.e. parents) in their lives have affected their development?”


The research was conducted by a psychology student of The Open University who analysed existing material consisting of a pre-recorded semi-structured adult attachment interview (The Open University, 2007) and a transcript thereof supplied by The Open University (see Appendix 1). Each line on the transcript has been numbered in sequential order from beginning to end (see Appendix 1). This method has been chosen as the preferred data collection method due to the fact that it allows for an “insider viewpoint” by the participant. The researcher made additional notes (see Appendix 2) about the participant and interview during the data familiarisation process.

The participant (provided by The Open University) was a 50-year-old white British female, identified as “Chloe” (not her real name). The published video was a reconstruction (with an actress) of extracts of the original interview ensuring protection of the identity and confidentiality of the actual participant. The interview was conducted by a fellow researcher of The Open University who gained consent from the participant to use the material for the purpose of the research. The participant was fully briefed prior to the interview with a clear option to withdraw from the research at any given time during or after the interview. The participant signed the consent form after being debriefed at the end of the interview.

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