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Sex Differences in Attachment

S
Sex Differences in Attachment
Elaine Scharfe
Trent University, Peterborough, ON, Canada
Definition
There is some evidence that men and women have
moderately different distributions of insecure
adult attachment styles. Generally, men may tend
to report higher avoidance and women may tend
to report higher ambivalence, but these ndings
are somewhat inconsistent and controversial.
Introduction
Although controversial, there is some empirical
evidence that there may be small to moderate sex
differences in adult attachment and that these dif-
ferences may be rst evident during middle child-
hood. Despite the controversy, I would propose
that the suggestion that there may be sex differ-
ences in attachment should not be surprising. It is
well accepted that women and men tend to be
socialized differently from birth (Bem 1993)
and, as a result, men are typically less emotional
and less nurturing than women. Furthermore,
there is support that women and men may per-
ceive social interactions differently and conse-
quently behave differently in their relationships.
Despite the proposal that attachment
representations and gender roles have a joint inu-
ence on behavior of adults, sex differences in
attachment do not seem to be evident during
infancy and preschool years, and there are incon-
sistent reports of sex differences during the school
age years (see Del Giudice 2008 for summary of
this research). Furthermore, sex differences in
adulthood are not consistently reported but tend
to be evident with self-report questionnaire mea-
sures, in particular measures of Bartholomews
four-category model. It does seem clear that the
ability to detect (or not) sex differences in attach-
ment may be associated with the type of assess-
ment, the power to test for differences, and
characteristics of the sample.
Sex Differences in Attachment
Over the past 40 years, attachment researchers
have consistently reported that most individuals
in low risk or nonclinical samples, regardless of
the age of the participants or method of assess-
ment, are secure. Although there are no sex dif-
ferences in the proportion of secure and insecure
individuals, some researchers have reported sex
differences in proportions of the type of insecure
attachment. Furthermore, some researchers have
proposed that these differences may be adaptive
and predictable. For example, Del Giudice (2009)
proposed an evolutionary model that, among
other things, proposed that women develop
insecure-ambivalent attachment in conditions of
#Springer International Publishing AG 2016
T.K. Shackelford, V.A. Weekes-Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3592-1
moderate stress in childhood and avoidant attach-
ment under conditions of high stress whereas men
develop insecure-avoidant attachment when they
experience stress in childhood. Interestingly, very
little attention has been paid to the effects of the
gender of the caregiver on the developing attach-
ment relationship. Mothers typically invest more
in the parent-child relationship and are usually a
childs primary caregiver. However, it is unknown
if this primary attachment is more inuential, in
particular, in situations where, for example, the
attachment relationship with the mother is differ-
ent than the attachment relationship with the
father.
Del Giudice and colleagues have proposed that
sex differences in attachment may develop in
middle childhood (see Del Giudice and Belsky
2010) although the proposal is somewhat contro-
versial (see Thompson 2010; van IJzendoorn and
BakermansKranenburg 2010). Early work mea-
suring infant attachment using the Strange Situa-
tion tends not to mention sex differences in
attachment; however, early behavioral work con-
sistently reports that, in preschool aged children,
insecure males tend to be more aggressive
whereas insecure females tend to be more depen-
dent and compliant. These ndings are consistent
with the observed sex difference that when
stressed males tend to engage in ght or ight
behaviors, females tend to engage in tend and
befriendbehaviors.
There are a few studies reporting sex differ-
ences in middle and late childhood and nearly all
report a sex difference in the categorization of the
insecure children: more ambivalence in females
and more avoidance in males. These gender dif-
ferences have been reported in studies using sev-
eral different methods of assessment including
versions of the Doll Story Completion Task, The
Manchester Child Attachment Story Task, and the
Coping Strategies Questionnaire. Although some
researchers continue to insist that these sex differ-
ences are not meaningful, Del Giudice and Belsky
(2010) proposed that the life history perspective
and neurobiological developmental changes may
help to understand why middle childhood may be
an important transition with respect to the devel-
opment of sex differences in attachment.
Del Giudice (2009) proposed an integrated
evolutionary model of the development of attach-
ment, which among other things, may explain
how and why middle childhood acts as a transi-
tional stage in both the development of attachment
and reproductive strategies. He proposed that this
phase of reorganization of attachment may be due
to intrasexual competition in the peer groupand
physiological and hormonal changes associated
with adrenarche both contributing to the devel-
opment of sex differences to improve the adapta-
tion of the insecure child. Although further work
is needed to test his model, it builds upon
Bowlbys original theory, which was rmly
rooted in evolutionary thinking at the time, and
provides insights from modern evolutionary the-
ory to explain why attachment researchers may
observe sex differences in adult attachment.
Sex Difference in Adult Attachment
Early work using the AAI does not suggest sex
differences in attachment, however, as with many
studies using interview assessments; the samples
were typically small and may not have had suf-
cient statistical power to test for differences.
Bakermans-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn
(2009) summarized the data from over 10,000
AAI interviews addressing issues of base-line pro-
portions in clinical and nonclinical samples, gen-
der distributions, as well as differences in
distributions for adolescents and individuals
from low SES samples, ethnic minorities, and
non-Western countries. Using the AAI four-
category classication of a sample of nonclinical
mothers (n=700) as their baseline, their ndings
indicated that nonclinical fathers were more likely
to be classied as dismissing. Although there
were no signicant differences with the preoccu-
pied category, despite the large number of inter-
views in both groups, the authors only had
sufcient power to test for large differences
between the proportions of individuals catego-
rized as preoccupied. Using the AAI dimensions,
which increases the power to test for differences,
Simpson et al. (2002) reported that men scored
signicantly closer to the dismissing end of the
2 Sex Differences in Attachment
activation continuum whereas women scored sig-
nicantly closer to the preoccupied end.
Although Hazan and Shaver (1987) did not
report sex differences in their original article
using the three-category measure, researchers
consistently report sex differences with
Bartholomews four-category model (see
Bartholomew and Horowitz 1991). Bartholomew
and colleagues have reported that females and
males do not tend to differ on their secure or
fearful ratings; however, females tend to score
higher than males on the preoccupied scale and
lower than males on the dismissing scale. These
sex differences are evident when using both
Bartholomews family and peer interviews as
well as both the categorical and continuous self-
report surveys. Partner- and friend-reports reveal
similar sex differences (see also Scharfe and
Bartholomew 1994). Interestingly, Schmitt
et al. (2003) analyzed the RQ data across 62 coun-
tries and reported small to moderate sex differ-
ences in dismissing attachment across most
cultures in particular, cultures characterized by
low stress and low fertility environments and
concluded that greater levels of dismissingness in
males is near universal.
The introduction of the ECR and the ECR-R
did not include a discussion of sex differences so it
is not known whether or not sex differences were
tested in the original data (see Brennan et al. 1998;
Fraley et al. 2000). Furthermore, there are few
researchers who test (or report) sex differences
in published work using the ECR or the ECR-R,
although it is not clear whether or not there are no
sex differences on the two dimensions or that the
researchers simply did not test for sex differences;
however, there are a few exceptions. For example,
in a recent meta-analysis, Del Giudice (2011)
reported a signicant but small sex difference in
that men scored higher on the avoidance dimen-
sion and lower on the anxiety dimension. Interest-
ingly, he found that these sex differences were
stronger in community samples. Del Giudice
suggested that there are consistent sex differences
in attachment; however, there are variables such
as the distribution and type of the sample, geo-
graphic region, the non-normal distribution of the
data, unreliability of the measures, and effect of
age that may confound the results.
As pointed out by some scholars (see Del
Giudice and Belsky 2010), the fact that
researchers nd sex differences with some mea-
sures, and in some samples, and not with other
measures or samples is likely meaningful and
should not be ignored. As suggested above, it is
well accepted that women and men are socialized
differently and perceive and behave differently in
their relationships and perhaps it would be pro-
ductive to examine the joint inuence of attach-
ment representations and sex role on behavior in
relationships. For example, it is well accepted that
attachment avoidance is related to a greater num-
ber of less-committed relationships for both men
and women whereas attachment anxiety is associ-
ated with dependency and possessiveness for both
men and women. Perhaps a fruitful direction for
research to help to understand the importance of
sex differences would be the examination of
those ndings in which gender boundaries are
crossed. In particular, it may be helpful to examine
the research describing relationship characteris-
tics of anxious-ambivalent men or avoidant
women. The few studies that have highlighted
these unexpected sex differences highlight the
importance of these differences in understanding
the effects of attachment representations on adult
relationships.
There is some evidence that preoccupied or
ambivalent attachment for men and dismissing
or avoidant women may have a more negative
effect on their relationships and well-being. For
example, Simpson et al. (1999) reported that
highly ambivalent mens relationships
(as compared to relationships of other men and
all women) were more likely to have ended over a
4-month period suggesting that highly ambivalent
men may have less successful relationships. Fur-
thermore, Kanninen et al. (2003) reported that
preoccupied men had a heightened affected
response to traumatic events and were proposed
to be vulnerable to the emotions and distress asso-
ciated with past traumatic events suggesting that
highly ambivalent men may have more difculty
coping with difcult life events. Similarly, Bodner
et al. (2014) reported some evidence that, in early
Sex Differences in Attachment 3
adulthood, preoccupied men may experience a
signicant decline in their reports of the meaning
of life. Consistent with the suggestion that women
may develop avoidant attachment under extreme
stress, there is also some support that avoidant
women may have more difculty in their interper-
sonal relationships. For example, Mikulincer and
Florian (1999) reported some evidence that
avoidant women showed weaker attachment to
their fetus and more negative prenatal mental
health. Rholes et al. (1999) reported that more
avoidant women displayed more anger while
waiting for an anxiety provokingsituation
with their partners, and Simpson et al. (2002)
reported that more avoidant women provided
less support to their partners regardless of his
attachment. Although these studies provide some
evidence that anxious-ambivalent men and
avoidant women have more difculty in relation-
ships and coping with life events, very few studies
systematically examine the differential effects of
attachment across gender, and a more comprehen-
sive examination of this issue is needed.
Conclusions
In summary, although the ndings are inconsis-
tent and controversial, there is some support that,
at least in adulthood, men may tend to report
higher avoidance and women may tend to report
higher ambivalence. There are, however, inci-
dences where women report higher avoidance
and men report higher ambivalence and these
ndings might be more interesting and productive
to understand the importance of sex differences in
attachment. As researchers continue to explore
this controversial issue, it will be interesting to
pay particular attention to the effect when individ-
uals go against the norm”–what is the effect
when the insecure female or male is different
than what would be expected. I would suggest that
both the typical and the atypical sex differences
will be informative.
Cross-References
Attachment in Adulthood
Attachment Theory
Individual Variations in Attachment
John Bowlby
Measurement: Categorical Vs. Continuous
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Sex Differences in Attachment 5
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In this book a leading theorist on sex and gender discusses how hidden assumptions embedded in our cultural discourses, social institutions, and individual psyches perpetuate male power and oppress women and sexual minorities. Sandra Lipsitz Bem argues that these assumptions, which she calls the lenses of gender, shape not only perceptions of social reality but also the more material things—like unequal pay and inadequate daycare—that constitute social reality itself. Her . . . examination of these hidden cultural lenses enables us to look at them rather than through them and to better understand recent debates on gender and sexuality. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)