The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) is a 1-2 hour semi structured interview with an adult about their early experiences and relationships, and how they have developed to the present day. The interview consists of a series of questions that ask the speaker to consider their childhood experience and how this might affect their thoughts and behaviour in the present, especially as parents. A particular feature of the AAI is that it asks for the same information in multiple ways; this permits exploration of conflicting ideas that could motivate incompatible behaviours.
Individuals with less integration of thought and feeling, which is indicated when the speaker gives varied and incompatible answers to the same question, are more likely to behave in unexpected and unacceptable ways than adults with greater awareness of how the past motivates their current behaviour.
The AAI elicits in the present the adult’s attachment pattern (i.e. the mental and behavioural strategies used by children and adults in order to stay safe and elicit support) when faced with anxious or threatening situations. In other words, an attachment strategy describes what adults (and children) do and think when they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Such defences, whilst developed in infancy and childhood to elicit nurture and protection from parents and carers, continue to shape close relationships into adulthood, as well potentially changed and developed by new relationships and dangers experienced in later life (Crittenden and Landini 2011).
In addition, the AAI explores possible past traumas that could elicit extreme behaviour or failure to take protective action in dangerous situations. Being exposed to extreme or ongoing danger or loss interrupts a child or adult’s strategy of staying safe, because how they are thinking and feeling has more to do with the adult’s past experience than any dangers the adult or their children may currently face.
Unresolved trauma and losses refer to traumatic events or deaths/separations that an individual has been unable to extract a protective meaning from, and so develop a way of managing similar events in the future. In such cases either too much information is carried forward, such that causally unrelated events trigger a fear response in an individual because he or she has made mistaken links between events; or alternatively too little information is carried forward, as the individual attempts to dismiss the event in question. The former (preoccupying trauma) might result in the adult being overwhelmed and acting in an uncontrolled or bizarre manner. The latter (dismissed or blocked trauma) may result in a parent may become unresponsive or unable to take protective action regarding themselves and/or their children in potentially dangerous situations.
The AAI (or aspects of it used in the assessment) is audio-recorded, and transcribed verbatim. Where possible, within the time constrains of the assessment, it is then interpreted by a colleague who is external to the assessment and has no knowledge of the presenting concerns or the situation, beyond what is presented or discussed in the interview. Information is gained by attending both to the individual’s speech (the discourse) and their relationship with the interviewer. In analysing the discourse, the historical content of the interview (i.e. what happened) is less important than how the speaker thinks about their childhood, as an adult. The interview has been extensively researched and validated over the last 25 years.