I am noticing a trend: more people seem to be reading and commenting on my articles about healing from a breakup than the ones on improving our relationships. In many ways this makes sense; crisis brings us to search for help and for answers. After all, this is how we grow. But it is also a concern. Our divorce rates continue to hover around the 50% mark, and the rates are even higher for second marriages. Clearly, many couples are in pre-divorce crisis. Unfortunately, they are not taking proactive steps to get out of the crisis, at least not before it is too late. Many probably don’t recognize how bad things are. Like frogs in a pot of hot water, they are getting cooked without realizing it. Understanding the role of attachment in marriage and romantic relationships may help us to reverse this trend.
My great wish is that people will learn to recognize the signs of distress and take active, collaborative action to heal their relationships. I understand that breakups can provide tremendous opportunities for growth and expansion, and I personally do not regret the breakups I have had, because I can see how much I gained from them. But I also know that relationships can be healed, and we actually know how to do it. So with that in mind, I share some advice for couples whose relationships are in distress, in order to help you understand what went wrong, and then how to get back on track.
Attachment in marriage and romantic relationships: Where did the love go?
Last week I wrote about the principle that the partner in our life is a reflection of the one in our mind. I described how, when we allow ourselves to focus on our partner’s challenging qualities, we will more readily see him or her in a negative light, react to the negative charge, and create a vicious cycle in which we experience a continual deterioration of our love bond. On the other hand, when we practice thinking of our partner’s good qualities, we will see more of those good qualities; we therefore react to those good qualities, and this sets up a “virtuous cycle” in which we experience more of those good qualities in our lives.
If this sounds good in principle but you found yourself asking, “what if my partner is a jerk?” take a breath. It probably has to do with attachment, and wounds to your love bond. Learning how attachment affects our relationships gives us a map of the relationship terrain, and a better sense of where we are and how we got here.
Attachment and love bonds
Much of our current understanding of what goes wrong in adult relationships is grounded in the research on attachment in childhood. For several decades now, psychologists, therapists and educators have understood the bond between children and their primary attachment figures ― usually their mothers. Learning how to have better relationships starts with understanding attachment.
The Strange Situation
Mary Ainsworth conducted the iconic “Strange Situation” experiments in order to study mother-baby attachment. In this simple experiment, a researcher would follow the mother-baby dyad and note how often the mom responded to her baby’s needs and bids for connection. Then, mom and baby would go to an empty playroom; the mother would leave; and then the mother would return. How the baby reacted to mom’s departure and return was remarkably consistent among groups with similar bonding: secure, anxious, and avoidant.
Babies of attentive, responsive moms tended to be happy, adventuresome explorers of the playroom. When mom left the room, the baby would cry in distress. Modern versions of the experiment use physiological measures to measure heart rate and sweat. These babies experienced increased heart rate, and they started to sweat. When mom would return, baby would allow her to console them. They would calm down, and go back to happily playing. These babies have developed a secure attachment system. They grow up expecting to love and be loved, to have their needs met, and to be comfortable asking for those needs to be met.
Babies of unpredictable moms tend to become anxious. They were less willing to explore the playroom, preferring to stay close to mom’s side though they were not interacting with her. When mom would leave the room, they become quite distressed; but when mom would return, these babies would have a hard time calming down. They are developing an anxious attachment system. They often grow up to carry this attachment anxiety into their adult relationships. They feel insecure in love and are never quite certain that they can trust that their partner really loves them and is really going to be there for them.
Babies of unresponsive, aloof moms tend to be aloof themselves. Their primary attachment figure, mom, seems uninterested in forming a close bond to them, and these babies get it; they seem to shut down their drive for closeness and connection. In the Strange Situation, they venture forth and play in the playroom, and appear to be unconcerned when mom leaves them alone. But their affect belies their physiology. When mom leaves the room, baby’s hearts are beating faster and they also start to sweat. When mom returns to the room, their vital stats eventually return to baseline, but they act as if they couldn’t care less. They are developing an avoidant attachment system. They tend to grow up to be avoidant in love; they feel suffocated by a partner who seeks emotional connection and continually engage in distancing behaviors, keeping themselves familiarly aloof.
It has always struck me as sad that parenting mores have probably contributed to the problems of attachment. Many people are still afraid that if they pick up a crying baby, they will “spoil” it, yet exactly the opposite is true. Babies need to be picked up when they cry; they need to feel safe, secure, and well taken-care-of in order to develop secure attachment systems.
Attachment in adulthood
When we are grown, our primary attachment figure is no longer our mother, but our partner. We have a strong drive to form close emotional bonds. However, in our frenetic-paced, time-strapped, isolated culture, the best place to have those needs met is in our romantic relationships.
Research shows that people who have happy marriages are far better off than those in difficult marriages are. Single people are better off than people in difficult marriages are, but not as well off as those in happy marriages. Happily married people not only have the economic benefits that often accompany a two-earner family. They are happier, and they even have physiological advantages. They get sick less often, recover faster, and may even experience less pain.
Attachment in marriage and romantic relationships
The payoffs for connection are great, and the drive for connection exists despite our American cultural myth of independence. We have bought in to the idea that we are supposed to be able to do everything on our own. To have needs is often equated with being needy, and we are not supposed to be needy.
The problem with this is that it is simply not how human beings operate. We all have needs for love and belonging. In modern America, we are disconnected from extended family. Indeed, we are disconnected from our community in any meaningful way. Maybe it’s because we work so much; maybe because we watch so much TV. At any rate, we are a singularly lonely collective. Our romantic partner offers our best hope to have our love and belonging needs met.
But not if we see him or her as a jerk. And when we have been hurt, it is easy to see our partner in just that way. We unconsciously build up walls to “protect” ourselves from our primary attachment figure in an attempt to prevent further hurt. It is important to understand that the “hurt” that causes the breach does not even have to be a big, dramatic hurt. Little unanswered attempts to connect can lead to the same problem as big breaches of trust. Luckily, when we understand that that is what is going on, we are able to take a step toward cultivating a connected, loving partnership. When we have that, we are also able to reap all the many rewards that come with it.
In another article, I will discuss how to shift from blame and criticism, to love and acceptance. Until then, take heart, remember the role attachment is playing in your marriage or relationship, and take some slow deep breaths….