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December 2010

Adult Attachment Styles Affect Intimate Relationships

Joyce S. Parker, Ph.D.

With the holidays fast approaching, your intimate relationship may be a causality of the pressure and stress you feel this time of year.  Here is an article that can help you better understand why you may have more trouble getting along with your partner particularly when you are both very busy and trying to make many decisions together.

Attachment Styles” can explain how you feel and behave in relationships  

Eli, Jen, Doris and Sergio.  4 Adults. 4 different ways of handling important relationships. 

Sergio gets along well in most relationships. He seems prepared to accept and give love, trust and partnership. He seldom has a hidden agenda or ends up in a fight with his partner.

Eli gets uncomfortable when a woman wants to get close: he seeks distance.  He seems to value his intimate relationship less than his job, fantasy games, buddies or sports.

Jen's need for reassurance never ends. She is suspicious about her boyfriend’s activities and obsessively worried that he might not truly love her. Her neediness, demands and accusations sometimes push partners away.

Doris doesn’t know what she wants from her partner. She may be unable to leave an unhealthy or abusive situation. She suffers emotionally or physically, but is paralyzed by doubts and confusion. She often feels overwhelmed.

What is behind these different styles of attaching to romantic partners? The aptly named, “Attachment Theory,” describes a relationship style as being either secure or insecure. Once you become aware that an insecure attachment style may be lurking behind your own or your partner’s relationship issues, you can begin to see the patterns that have hindered you and move to some awareness of what may be interfering with your happiness in love.

Here is a word of explanation about Attachment Theory: John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist developed this theory after WW II. He determined that your first attachment is to the person who gives you the majority of your care; most often, that is your mom. Babies depend on caretakers to keep them alive and they know this instinctively. They use the tools available to them to get attention and comfort: smiling, cooing, crying, clinging, approaching parents for comfort and following them to stay in the safe zone Mom provides. Babies will use their tools in various ways depending on what works with their particular caregivers. This becomes their childhood attachment style. Everybody emerges from infancy with an attachment style.

Researcher Mary Ainsworth was able to validate that attachment styles were a reality and describe infant attachments as coming in 4 different styles. Her work showed that an attachment style emerges in every infant, based on the relationship to the primary caregiver. Growing babies will use their tools in various ways depending on what works with their particular caregivers. Since caregivers come in all varieties, some babies will find they need to be more demanding to get what they need. Others may give up trying to get emotional support and find ways to distract themselves. A few babies can’t find a way to get what they need and become very confused and frightened.

Not everyone has the same attachment style at 30 as they did at 3, but it comes up surprisingly often in couples therapy. As it turns out, insecure attachment styles from childhood don’t work very well in adult relationships. As a counselor, I am frequently able to help couples identify close similarities between behaviors that are interfering with having a good relationship to their partner and their early attachment styles. The parallels can be amazing.

Little Eli, Jen, Doris and Sergio.  4 Toddlers. 4 different ways of handling important relationships. 

Imagine four kids sitting in grocery baskets while their Moms shop. It doesn’t have to be Mom, but we’ll use that term to describe the primary caregiver. Each Mom is momentarily absorbed with her shopping, and she moves out of sight.

In the first scenario you are Sergio. You don’t notice Mom’s absence right away because you are happily chatting about Sponge Bob with the honey bear bottle. Suddenly you find yourself alone and frightened. You call out for Mom; she appears quickly. She gives you comforting reassurance, which helps you pull yourself back together. Good old Mom, you can trust her to be there. I call this type of person the “Attuned Parent”, because she seems to understand how her baby feels and respond appropriately and reliably.  Your behavior indicates you’re attachment style is classified as Secure. Researchers say at 18 months of age 61% of children are securely attached. In my mind, I call kids like Sergio, “Sweeties,” because they are delightful to take care of most of the time.
Now imagine you are Eli. You are trying to balance sponges on top of a cereal box and chew a binky at the same time when your mom wanders out of sight. You could act up to get Mom's attention, but typically, she doesn’t pay much attention when you want her to comfort or hold you: if she knows you are safe and in no physical danger, she’ll keep on doing what she is doing. I’ve termed this Mom, the  “Oblivious Parent,” because she doesn’t seem to understand the child’s feelings or need for comfort. Resigned to this situation, you, Eli, have a style like an emotional shrug: you don’t make a fuss if it isn’t going to bring comfort. She returns after a little delay. You don’t ask to be held; you just go on playing. Your attachment style, like an estimated 22% of kids at 18 months of age, falls under the official category of “Insecure, Avoidant.”  I would describe Eli as a  “Distancer,” because he doesn’t seek closeness when he is stressed. Instead, he contains his anxiety by focusing his attention on something like toys or TV.

Now you are baby number three, Jen. You were busy studying the pictures on the animal crackers box deciding if you would rather have a zebra or an elephant cracker when you suddenly realize you are alone. You make a huge, panicky ruckus that does not let up when Mom returns. You cling to her and wail and take a long time to be consoled. A term for your mom might be the “Intermittently Available Parent,” because, she has lots of things distracting her. Sometimes she is there to comfort you and sometimes she is not. You become obsessed with having Mother’s attention, so you become hyper-vigilant, lest she disappear emotionally for good. You don’t let Mom out of your sight or reach if you can help it. Your attachment style is officially termed “Insecure  Anxious/Ambivalent.” It describes about 17% of children at 18 months of age.  My simple description for kids who respond like Jen is “ Worrier,” because they are constantly monitoring the relationship, trying to keep the attention of their parent and looking for reassurance.

It is important to point out that Attachment Style is not a diagnosis or a mental illness. And the degree of insecurity felt may be anywhere from mild to extreme.  It is even more important to point out that parenting shortcomings are virtually all unintentional. Most parents love their children and are unaware that their behavior is having a negative impact. The reality of maternal love is true even for parents whose style causes a great deal of distress to a child, like the mother of Doris. 

Doris’s mom has some serious emotional problems: She may function normally to some extent, but her life is not in order and at any time she may suddenly become angered and distracted. She loves Doris, of that there is no doubt, but she is unable to respond to her child’s needs with compassion and sensitivity because of her own demons.

Imagine you are Baby Doris. You suddenly look up from trying to pry a pudding snack from a foursome and see no Mom. In this instance, Mom has begun yelling at someone on her cell phone and has moved away from you. You are alone and scared. What should you do? You are not sure. If you call out, she could be so mad at the phone call that she doesn’t want to deal with you right now. Or she might do something that scares you more, like throw something or pick a fight with another customer. You live on the horns of an emotional dilemma. Kids like Doris don't know how to elicit a response from their parent that will calm and soothe them. Doris’s attachment style was labeled as “Insecure, Disorganized/Disoriented.” A shorthand way to describe kids like Doris would be, “Thrashers,” because they are drowning in a sea of confusion. They can’t figure out what to do to get the comfort they need from Mom, nor are they able to soothe themselves.  Fortunately, parents who are this confused and confusing are rare and so are Thrashers. This type of parent may be called The Scary Parent because when their child reaches for them their reactions frighten or put off the child in some way.  Distancers, on the other hand, know what to do. They distract themselves when they need comfort and Oblivious Parents do not usually frighten their children only ignore their emotional needs.

In each example, the adult attachment style is a distant mirror of the little child just trying to cope with the realities of flawed care. Today, these outdated impulses are messing up Eli, Jen’s and Doris’s present relationships. If you have ever wished your romantic partner would stop being so demanding, weren’t a workaholic, would give up on the drama, would be more thoughtful of you and your needs, you might try looking at him or her through the Attachment Theory lens. Get to know yourself, too. Are you, or they, exhibiting signs of one of the three insecure attachment styles?

While knowing about attachment theory does not make you qualified to give advice as if you were a therapist, it can, finally, give you some grasp of what is going on in your love relationship that is not working. You can understand better the patterns of relating that you observe in yourself and your partner. If you begin to understand why you do what you do in relationships and where it came from, it is more possible to change. When you are under stress the old patterns of relating become more intense because we are looking for comfort and support from our partners. But if you have learned ways of coping that may have been effective when you were a child but are not adaptive in your adult relationship, then we put off our partner.  With knowledge can come more compassion for yourself and the one you love. Thus the odds of getting what you need or responding more effectively to what your partner needs increase greatly and the stress level decreases.

Joyce S. Parker, Ph.D. is in private practice in Torrance, CA working with children, families, individuals, and couples. She is an expert in Attachment Theory.

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