Why Understanding Your Partner’s Attachment Style Is So Important.
I remember only too well when my fatal attachment injury happened. It was 1995. My dad had died the year before, so I was a bit fragile anyway. I found a lump in my breast. There was a history of breast cancer and prostate cancer in my family. I was scared sh*tless. When I told my husband, now my ex-husband, he told me I was attention-seeking. He gave me no sympathy. I was hurt…
I thought he was supposed to be my support, my protector. He’d let me down, not for the first time. I went to the doctor who sent me for a biopsy. The biopsy came back questionable, so I was booked in for a lumpectomy. Fortunately, it was not malignant but was pre-cancerous. After that, I never felt the same about our relationship. We lasted another 6 years, but I found out then that he had been seeing someone else from around that time. I would have forgiven him for that if the affair had been the only thing wrong, but after a series of similar attachment injuries, I knew for my own sake I needed to leave this dysfunctional relationship.
I became a psychologist and could have recognized the signs that things were not right from the relationship’s start. We met at University. I was two years above him and on the hall of residence committee. I knew from the moment I saw his photograph that he was the one for me. When he arrived, we instantly connected. We were inseparable. I was working away that Christmas as I was a Butlins Red Coat during the holidays. I wrote him a letter over the holidays, but he never got it. His mother had intercepted it, opened it, and told him to concentrate on his studies and not bother with girlfriends as he’d already had to repeat a year in school as he messed up his exams over an affair with a married woman!!
Over time I came to realize that his relationship with his mother had been quite dysfunctional. She’d had his sister when she was quite young, and he came along 18 months later. When he was a few months old, his sister was diagnosed with polio, which meant a long hospital stay. He was an inconvenience. The hospital was miles away from where they lived, and they had no car. It meant having to take a young baby in a pram across Manchester to wait outside the sterile room in which his sister fought her way back to health. When she recovered enough to be discharged, she was sent to stay with her family in Switzerland to recuperate. Again, he was in the way as his mother would really have liked to go with her. Later that year, his brother was born. His mother doted on him. The two brothers never really had a close relationship, and I can understand why now.
Aristotle said, ‘Give me the child until he’s 7, and I’ll show you the man’. It refers to how important early childhood influences are in the development of character. The psychologist J B Watson took it further, saying ‘Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one of them at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.’
However, most children are not brought up in a laboratory setting but are equally influenced by their upbringing. Like most other mammals, humans are raised by their parents to whom they develop a close bond. Unlike many other animals, humans take a long time to mature to the stage where they can look after themselves and, therefore, are dependent on adults to feed them and carry them around for many months, thus forming a close attachment. John Bowlby, a child psychologist said, each child has a built-in attachment behavioral system, like an antenna, designed to regulate proximity to the attachment figure.
This attachment system fundamentally determines whether the attachment figure is nearby, accessible and attentive. If these are in place, the child feels secure, loved, and confident that he is safe to explore, play and be sociable. If any of the pre-requisites are missing, the child feels anxious and starts to search for the attachment figure or, if really anxious, will make a loud noise until they can re-establish connection or, if the connection cannot be re-established, the child eventually gives up and becomes depressed or full of despair at best.
After studying infants’ reactions to separation from their mothers, Elizabeth Ainsworth, another child expert, concluded that children develop an attachment behavior pattern which could be classed as secure (60%) where a child’s security needs are met consistently, anxious (20%) where security needs are inconsistently met, or avoidant (20%) where it becomes obvious that security needs are not met with parents who may even reject any attempt to gain security. Attachment in childhood causes an internal working model to be formed in the child’s brain, which determines how they feel about themselves and others, e.g., I am worthy/unworthy of love, they are trustworthy/untrustworthy. My ex-husbands internal working model told him he was unworthy of love as his mother was unavailable and therefore untrustworthy. Yes, of course, he was well-fed and well-dressed and went to the best school money could buy. But money could not buy his mother’s love.
Attachment patterns and our internal working model can be evident throughout life. The emotional bond between adult romantic partners is partly a function of this attachment behavioral system and the internal working model and shares many similar characteristics. E.g., both feel secure when the other is nearby and responsive; both engage in close intimate bodily contact, both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible. Therefore, we can conclude that romantic relationships, like infant-caretaker relationships, are attachments. Romantic love is a property of the attachment behavioral system that gives rise to caregiving and sexuality.
We see the same pattern of attachment behaviors in adults that they displayed in childhood. Those with secure adult relationships feel confident that their partners will be there for them when needed and develop a healthy interdependency. In contrast, those with an insecure-anxious attachment will worry that their partner may not truly love them and become angry and frustrated when their needs are not met. Those with an insecure-avoidant attachment will be distant and appear not to care too much, not wanting to become dependent on anyone else or have someone dependent on them.
So, what are the implications of this research for adult relationships and partner selection? The ideal, identified universally, is to partner with someone who has a secure pattern of attachment behaviors: Someone who is warm, attentive, responsive, and sensitive to our needs without being clingy. However, we often find that we partner with someone who confirms our inner beliefs about relationships. Secure adults often partner with other secure adults, but we often find that one partner is insecure-anxious whilst the other might be insecure-avoidant. Each confirms the others’ beliefs — one that their partner is inconsistently available, confirming their anxiety about forming a close relationship. They should avoid getting trapped by a ‘limpet’ and thus trying to avoid getting close at all costs. What I didn’t know at the time was I was secure. He was avoidant. At first, I gave him the love he craved, but it dragged up all his old feelings of insecurity when the children came along.
Secure adults seem to be happier in their relationships than insecure adults. Secure relationships tend to last longer and have more trust, commitment, and interdependence. Secure partners are more likely to ask their partners for help when they need it and seek them out for support when they are distressed. In contrast, to hide their insecurity and vulnerability, an insecure-avoidant partner will withdraw and show physical signs of stress such as raised heart rate and blood pressure, but outwardly appear cool and in control. My ex was known as Mr Cool. He had a very successful dental practice. He was good at his job, but deep down, he was insecure and vulnerable. I didn’t see this until it was too late. Could I have done something about it? By the time I realized what was happening, he’d already pressed the relationship destruction button. Perhaps we should never have had children. I know after the divorce, I asked him if he was going to have children with his new partner, and he replied, ‘why would I take on any more? I didn’t even enjoy bringing up my own two’.
While there is a moderate correlation between infant and adult attachment styles, research shows that adult attachment can be updated and modified in light of new experiences, which can positively and negatively overwrite old attachment behavioral models. Perhaps I’d hoped that by being a loving wife and mother, I could undo the harm his mother had done during his childhood, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead of me helping him, he destroyed my security. Attachment injuries happen when one partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and care in times of danger and distress, leaving the person with feelings of abandonment and distrust. Such events can cause seemingly irreparable damage to a relationship. An unwillingness to discuss the incident may block the development of new, more positive interactions even in a therapy session.
As a certified divorce coach, I see a lot of attachment injury related cases. Our identity and self-belief system are formed and maintained by the nature of our interactions with those who are closest to us. In her paper about couples therapy, Johnson says ‘Physical or emotional separation from an attachment figure results in a predictable sequence of responses: protest, clinging and seeking, depression, despair and eventually detachment. For those with an attachment insecurity, emotional disengagement and poor responsiveness creates a pathway to negative affect and constricted interactions such as criticize, defend and withdraw, that are strong predictors of divorce’. Did I become too clingy? I don’t think so, but over time I did become detached.
Couples whose relationship is in distress have ineffective communication and reciprocal negativity. They find it difficult to express their emotions and needs, making it very difficult to resolve their conflicts. This leads to a ping pong battle of criticism and complaint from one with a retaliative defensiveness and distancing from the other. Each will interpret the others’ behavior negatively, leading to blame and hurt, and will eventually forget any good times and remember only the troubled times.
Examples of events leading to attachment injuries typically include key transition periods such as a miscarriage, the birth of a child, diagnosis of a critical illness, and death of a parent. If a partner fails to respond as expected, it can lead to feelings of abandonment and betrayal. If the partner discounts, denies, or dismisses the attachment injury, it can lead to constant bickering. It may call into question the relationship’s basic beliefs, the other person, and even oneself. Such beliefs may lead the person that was hurt to feel unimportant or that their hurt didn’t matter and hence their feelings of little self-worth. This can lead to numbing to dull the pain, which then prevents emotional engagement with the partner and prevents resolution of the attachment injury leading to alienation between the partners and eventually to the divorce courts.
If I had known then what I know now, I’m sure I would have done things differently. Perhaps waited a little longer to have children? Perhaps included him in more of the child-care routines? I know I had to teach him to be a good parent to support his children. I had a great role model for parenting in my mum and dad. Whatever me or my brothers did, they were there to support us. They were fully involved in all our lives. My ex-husband’s parents were the complete opposite. They never saw him play rugby or cricket once. Yes, they bragged about him to their friends – their son, the dentist – but they never once told him they were proud of him. When we got married, I was a bit embarrassed when he said he hoped he could be a supportive parent to his children like mine had been. He didn’t go as far as to say not like his, but the hidden message was clear for everyone to see. The lesson I’ve learned from this, and I tell my clients, always put your partner first – above the children, above work, above hobbies. This is especially true if, like my ex, they had a less than perfect childhood. Attachment injuries can kill a relationship.