If there is anything trickier in life than relationships I have yet to find it. This reflection, on attachment, may be the first of a few!
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There are few things that humans yearn for more than to be in a relationship with a special other. We think that it is love we long for, intimacy, companionship, but there is a driver more compelling than any of these and that is our need for safety. We may not be conscious of this, but research tells us that it is safety that is paramount, and to feel safe our psyche tells us we need to be in a close relationship.
It is important to realize that seeking relationship for safety is not about love (although love may be involved). It is about attachment.
The yogi and mystic, Sadhguru, says that love is like a flower. It is delicate, fragile, beautiful, and it needs to be treated with great gentleness and care. Attachment, he says, is like a plastic flower. It may look nice from a distance, but it is hard, static and you can use it to beat your partner around the head without causing it much damage.
Which, of course, we often do. When we do find a mate, once the initial bliss of being in love with a person has settled down a bit, we start to notice their flaws. They don't quite fit the bill in this way, we find, and in that. You don't quite fit the bill for them either, it turns out. These observations make us anxious - is this going to work? we ask ourselves - and it is at that point that our attachment styles start to kick in.
It all started, of course, when we were very young, when we had lovely intimate times with our mother or main care-giver. Because we felt safe and protected and loved and nourished and satisfied when we were feeding we came to believe that all good things come from another person, another special person. So we spend the rest of our lives trying to replicate that wonderful feeling and we do that by looking for that special person.
Attachment theory was first described by British psychologist John Bowlby who proposed that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, as demonstrated in Lorenz's imprinting experiments with ducklings, because this will help them to survive. The quality of that first attachment, he said, will form the template for future relationships.
His theory was further developed by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who identified three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant. The latter two are both insecure attachment styles. Which style we have depends on a combination of the quality of our early relationships and our genetic predisposition.
Our attachment styles, not surprisingly, have a huge bearing on the way we operate within relationships.
Secure types look for intimacy in their relationships and their relationships tend to endure. They are giving in relationships, because they enjoy giving and not because they are looking for something in return. When things go wrong they respond maturely, wanting to understand the problem and how to put it right. When relationships come to an end they will grieve, but not unduly. They will go into a new relationship when they are ready, and not as a matter of urgency.
Anxious types also look for intimacy, but if that intimacy is threatened they feel anxious and may try to control the relationship in order to feel more secure. A threat might be their partner not calling quite as often as they used to, arriving home late, or subtle signs of withdrawal. They may bottle up their fears and hurt for a while and then explode, much to the bewilderment of their partner who had no idea anything was amiss. When a relationship ends it can feel catastrophic and the grieving may go on for a long time. They may rush into new relationships to quench their neediness, and then suffer badly if it doesn't work out. Of all the attachment types, this type suffers most.
Avoidant types need intimacy like anyone else, but it frightens them, so while they may be active in pursuing another, once it looks as though things might be getting serious, or tricky in some way, they will tend to pull away.
Some people have a combination of anxious and avoidant styles, their behavior oscillating between one and the other.
Human beings are programmed to need attachment, there is absolutely no shame in it. We just handle it differently, depending on our attachment style. If you have a secure attachment style you are very lucky. If you don't you are unlucky. Not weak, not childish, not bad, just unlucky.
So what happens when people with different attachment styles get together?
Well people with secure attachment styles tend to get along famously. They both want intimacy, neither uses withdrawal to deal with problems and neither becomes unduly anxious if the other person needs some time to themselves.
When secure types hook up with anxious types there is also reason for optimism. Secure types will tend not to trigger anxious types too often, as they enjoy intimacy and do not over-react if their partner wants something from them or is critical. Over time the anxious type will come to realize that their partner is not about to leave them, that an argument doesn't mean that the relationship is at an end, that they can afford to relax a bit.
Relationships where secure types meet up with avoidant types have a chance of working because they don't take the avoidant type's tendency to withdraw as something personal. However, secure types seek closeness and this need is unlikely to be met. And they tend not to have too much of a problem ending a relationship if it isn't working for them.
When avoidant types get together the relationship is unlikely to last for long. There simply isn't enough 'glue' to keep them together.
The trickiest combination is where one person has an avoidant style while the other has an anxious style. When things get difficult in a relationship, say an argument, the anxious person wants to keep talking till it's sorted, otherwise they will continue to feel anxious and worry about losing their attachment to the other. The avoidant, of course, wants to get away. When the avoidant withdraws the anxious person is further triggered and so they cling on, trying to control even more. That behaviour triggers the avoidant into withdrawing even more, and so on. There is a lot of potential for suffering in these relationships, on both sides.
Because we all need attachment, we are all liable to stay in relationships long past their sell-by date and this is especially true of anxious types. When John Mortimer wrote about his time as a divorce lawyer what he said amazed him was not how many people divorced, but how many didn't, despite the relationship having hit rock bottom. There were couples, he said, who had not spoken for years, communicating only via acerbic notes left on the kitchen table. The love, if it was ever there in the first place, had long evaporated. What was left was attachment.
Alain de Botton says in his recently book The Course of Love, that instead of asking questions like 'what do you do', and 'where do you come from' to a potential partner, perhaps the question we should be asking is:
'In what ways are you mad?'
In that way we can check if their and our particular forms of madness are likely to get along with each other. He is certainly right when it comes to attachment!
Whatever your attachment style, and the style of your partner, the important thing to remember is that some of us are more secure than others and that controlling or avoidant behaviour stems from fear, not from unkindness.
1. Think of an important relationship in your life, either current or past. How is (or was) that relationship in terms of:
- levels of intimacy
- a sense of safety
- what happens in arguments
2. In what way can knowledge of attachment styles help you to understand your relationship? What styles do you think you and your partner have? What kinds of behaviours cause problems in your relationship, and whose needs for intimacy and safety are, or are not, being met?
3. If you were to ask your partner for help with your own needs, how could you explain them and what would you have them do differently? And vice versa.
For further reading, try ' Attached: the new science of adult attachment' by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
Enjoy exploring your relationships this week....