Relationship Success Can Be Gauged By Looking At Attachment Styles

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Anyone who has been in a long term relationship will testify to how it changes over time. There is the initial “falling in love” phase described earlier where there is more sex, attention and romance. The individuals concerned, like peacocks, flash their colors to attract the other and are on their best behavior. This is followed by the “being in love” stage where the real person comes through, warts and all and the relationship is a question of working together to ensure a firm secure base is formed. This part is hard work and many relationships fall by the wayside when the initial euphoria of the early stages is over. Some never get past this stage. Why this happens is down to many factors and in therapy they often become clear.

Couples who enter therapy do so for a number of reasons but one issue tends to stand out amongst all others is poor communication and different expectations of how a relationship works. A mixture of emotions cloud the problem from anger through to resentment with a dash of pride thrown in. This is, of course, in complete contrast to the early stages of a relationship described earlier when all is well in our world. During this time, we are at our most attentive, concentrated and communicative as we are trying to attract the other. We can look very closely at the past for a clue as to why things often go wrong in adult relationships. The early attachments (or not) that we make with our primary caregivers set the tone for behavior and conditioning in adulthood. These attachments, whether secure or insecure go way back to our very early days. How children and parents react in “strange situations” and through separation are the determining factors.

When a child is separated from its parent, the infant goes through a series of three stages of emotional reaction. First is protest, in which the infant cries and refuses to be consoled by others. Second is despair, in which the infant is sad and passive. Third is detachment, in which the infant actively disregards and avoids the parent if the parent returns (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). The way a parent handles this is crucial to how attachment with the infant develops and subsequently how the child feels about itself. The fundamental assumption in attachment research on human infants is that sensitive responding by the parent to the infant’s needs results in an infant who demonstrates secure attachment, while lack of such sensitive responding results in insecure attachment (Lamb, Thompson, Gardner, Charnov, & Estes, 1984).

Theorists have postulated several varieties of insecure attachment. Ainsworth originally proposed two: avoidant, and resistant (also called ambivalent; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). This triarchic taxonomy of secure, avoidant, and resistant attachment was developed as a way of classifying infant behavior in a “strange situation.” It states:

Secure infants either seek proximity or contact or else greet the parent at a distance with a smile or wave.

Avoidant infants avoid the parent.

Resistant or ambivalent infants either passively or actively show hostility towards the parent.

Attachment theory provides not only a framework for understanding emotional reactions in infants, but also a framework for understanding love, loneliness, and grief in adults. Attachment styles in adults are thought to stem directly from the working models (or mental models) of oneself and others that were developed during infancy and childhood. Ainsworth’s three-fold taxonomy of attachment styles has been translated into terms of adult romantic relationships as follows (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).

Secure adults find it relatively easy to get close to others and are comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. Secure adults do not often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to them. Avoidant adults are somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; they find it difficult to trust others completely, difficult to allow themselves to depend on others. Avoidant adults are nervous when anyone gets too close, and especially love partners who want them to be more intimate than they feel comfortable being. Anxious/ambivalent adults find that others are reluctant to get as close as they would like. Anxious/ambivalent adults often worry that their partner does not really love them or will not want to stay with them. Anxious/ambivalent adults want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.

As a therapist doing frequent couples therapy, one can see that attachment theory holds many clues to the solutions that couples can find. Understanding how we bonded to our primary caregivers can help us see where relationships are going wrong. Couples create a special dynamic when they come together. Attachment theory will tell us a lot about this and each couple creates a couple “type” which could change over time and with different partners. Just another factor that goes into the success or failure of a relationship.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner's approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients' internal "parts," or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. bostongirl13

    Dr. J,
    My own insecure attachment, specifically Insecure Ambivalent, render me unable to benefit from EMDR that my therapist wanted to try.

    I’m not even sure how efficacious if would have been. I personally don’t take too much stock in it. Sounds more like a crack pot practice. I prefer diagnostic and treatment measures that credible science based double blind study generate.

    What, treatment options do you feel if any exist for adults to repair the damage suffered at the hands of emotionally unavailable caregivers as infants and small children?

    I have a male friend who had holding therapy done while in the foster care system as a teen with very a bad outcome.



    1. Thanks for the comment. I have also heard good things about EMDR but I guess it depends on the therapist and the client situation. My thoughts on developmental trauma are well documented here and I personally use a combination of therapies to help that always include IFS, which I find very effective as a therapy for trauma.