From an unknown other to an attachment figure: How do mental representations change as attachments form?
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Bases of adult attachment: linking brain, mind and behavior
Mental representations are the building blocks that guide affect, thought, and behaviors within adult attachment relationships. To date, research has focused on how individual differences in mental representations meaningfully relate to a person’s chronic attachment style and the attachment dynamics of a specific relationship, as well as their effects on perception, behavior, physiology, well-being, and other consequential outcomes. In the present chapter, we address a fundamentally different question: How do mental representations change as two individuals develop an attachment bond in adulthood? We propose a social cognitive framework for understanding how mental representations of others and self change over time as a function of various relationship turning points and lead to the formation of a full-fledged attachment bond. We propose that the positive psychological and physical outcomes, as well as the emotion regulatory effects, observed in pair bonds occur as a result of the two people forming over time a linked or “coupled” cognitive system. This “coupled” or “interlocked” system reflects enduring changes at the level of mental representations in the minds of both individuals, including elaboration and increased chronic accessibility of the partner mental representation, increased interconnectedness between self and partner representation, and automaticity of behavioral scripts. We review literature from diverse fields, including social and cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and integrate it within this social cognitive approach. We end by identifying questions and avenues for future research.
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