Avoidant attachment response to separation and reunion

Nicholas Radcliffe, Fordham University


The present research examined the differential responses of 141 young adults with either a secure or an avoidant attachment style to one of two film vignette stimuli. One stimulus presented a vignette depicting an emotional separation of intimate partners. The alternate stimulus presented an emotional reunion of this same relationship. The responses of study subjects were assessed by self-report measures, a thought sampling procedure designed to tap cognitive indicators of distress, and heart rate measurements designed to assess physiological indicators of distress. It was expected that individuals with an avoidant attachment style would experience greater distress following the reunion stimulus and would be more distressed than those with a secure attachment style. The basis of these hypotheses draws on the research of Bowlby (1969/1982, 1973, 1980), Ainsworth (Ainsworth et al., 1978) and Main (1981). Their work indicates that avoidant infants, and hence avoidant adults, experience more distress following reunion with their caregiver than following separation from her. They also found that avoidants were less able to be soothed upon reuniting with their caregiver than were securely attached infants. Sroufe and Water's (1977b) study on infant heart rate responses to separation indicated that the emotional distress was matched by a slower calming as shown by their heart rate. Researchers of adult avoidant attachment have found adult avoidants to be dismissive of attachment and attachment feelings (Main, et al., 1985) and less comfortable with closeness (Collins & Read, 1990). It was expected that avoidants would be significantly different from each other in each of the experimental conditions, and that the avoidants in the reunion condition would be significantly different from secures in each of the experimental conditions. Analyses indicated that the differences between avoidants' reactions to the two stimuli were not statistically significant. Analyses did find significant differences on five of the six dependent variables between the avoidant-reunion group and both the secure-separation and secure-reunion groups. Heart-rate measures did not distinguish meaningfully between the experimental groups. The results suggest that avoidants do respond differently to reunion than secures in a way that may indicate a difficulty with intimacy and closeness. These data suggest that avoidants may bring a heightened sensitivity to distress into their daily experiences. Their heightened emotional and physiological reactivity may prevent avoidants from distinguishing cues that represent little or mild threat from greater emotional or attachment threats. All cues are interpreted as threatening instead of being evaluated differentially and flexibly.

Subject Area

Psychotherapy|Developmental psychology|Personality

Recommended Citation

Radcliffe, Nicholas, "Avoidant attachment response to separation and reunion" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9999832.