What is the thing that upsets us more than anything else? It is surely our relationship with ‘other people’. Just think about it; notwithstanding what is happening in the outside world, it is the way it affects our core relationships that disrupts sleep, makes our head hurt or wrenches our guts out of kilter. So it is so often our partner who makes us anxious or angry, and our relationships with our friends or family that cause us to feel envious, ashamed, humiliated, inadequate, unwanted, sad and hurt. We may respect and love them, but at times we also dislike them, are disappointed by them, but we still miss them when they are not around. We are social animals; all of our emotions are experienced in relation to other people. In fact we might say there is no such thing as the individual; each of us is defined in relation to the attachment we have with other people, and no one more so than the person we choose to live our lives with.
During that first exotic phase of falling in love, we project all our wishes and dreams upon that one special person. Just being with them makes us feel so much more alive; so much better. Sad to say, the magic rarely lasts more than about 2 years. Idealisation is replaced by realisation; the floaty, flirty feeling of being in love has to give way to everyday attachment; living arrangements have to be negotiated, bills paid, meals prepared. And as the reality soaks in, our projections may not only include admiration, but also frustration and disappointment as our soul mate becomes a convenient receptacle for some of the behavior we don’t like to acknowledge about ourselves.
The transition between these two states hinges on the tolerance of the couple for disillusion and the acceptance of reality; the person you regarded as special is just an ordinary person after all. The evolution from fantasy to the reality of attachment may be too much for many people to bear, which might explain why many couples part before the two year watershed when the emotional climate tends to cool.
If couples are to survive, they must learn to contain each other’s projections. They can do this more easily if they ‘know’ where they have each come from. This does not just mean education and culture, but more the similarity or complementarity in how they were brought up; in other words, their attachment histories (Crowell and Treboux, 2001). As couples get to know each other, they disclose the secret, painful parts of their childhood; the loneliness, losses and misunderstandings. So as the relationship develops and identification deepens, your partner becomes the person who understands you best in all the world. But that also means they can hurt you more than anybody else. Falling in love is one of the riskiest things any of us ever do.
Through our everyday encounters with our parents and other accessory caregivers early in life, we created internal maps which we use to navigate future relationships, predicting how people will behave and how we will feel in our dealings with them. So there are not just two people in any relationship; there are at least six. We each carry a template of our attachments with our parents and their attachment with each other and they in turn carry their own attachment histories from their own parents and so on up the generations.
If we have internalized secure attachments, we expect to be liked and respected, anticipating pleasure in social contact. Secure and autonomous, we value relationships and have the capacity to empathise with others and work collaboratively. We are resilient and will work to try to find solutions in adversity, and are able to grieve and forgive when faced with rejection and loss.
If, on the other hand, we have internalized insecure relationships, we might expect other people to behave in unhelpful ways (irritating, tantalising and withholding), so while we may hope for an ideal relationship that is reliable, satisfying and secure and will heal all our old wounds, we are just as likely to choose a partner who seems reassuringly like our mother or father.
Insecure attachments cause emotional tension. Partners may feel frustrated that they are unable to live their own lives or even express their needs. If there is no alternative source of relief, the unremitted tension may give rise to the sort of illness that has no medical explanation; illnesses like IBS. The illness may even assume the role of the third person in the relationship, expressing a demand for care and attention which may otherwise be lacking.
There are as many types of insecure attachment as there are forms of unhappiness, and human relationships demonstrate infinite variation and mutability. Nevertheless research into the emotional development of infants has identified two categories that can be reasonably well defined: avoidant or ambivalent. Avoidant attachment often develops from experience with parents who were emotionally unavailable, so that their children learn early on to be self sufficient and look after themselves. In the past when there was significant childhood mortality, parents were advised not to get too fond of their children because they might lose them. Nowadays there are other causes of emotional neglect, such as preoccupation with social media. Children reared in such an abstinent environment may grow up unable to communicate feelings. They cannot allow themselves to be dependant and trapped by the obligations of a relationship. They have private inner worlds and find it difficult to share, to trust or to work together. They fear intimacy, because that would mean exposing their innermost feelings, like a snail with its shell torn off. Feeling uncomfortable with feelings, they may suppress grief and adopt manic defences, like work.
A more ambivalent experience, in which their parents were exciting for some of the time, but unavailable at others, may set up a needy more dependant type of attachment. People with that type of attachment find if difficult to manage alone and are constantly afraid of being abandoned or betrayed. This can make them jealous and suspicious of their partner’s relationships with others. They are so dependant, they fear they are going to fall apart, so they cling on long after the relationship has died, unable to let go. Endings are messy and often protracted, there is a great deal of brooding, blaming and pleading.
These are only examples. Research cannot hope to capture all the nuances of different human relationships. There are of course other patterns. Many children grow up with ambitious parents and soon learn that they can only obtain love and approval through hard work and success. Others may have particularly anxious parents, who cannot let their children have the freedom to lead their own lives, and so they grow up lacking the confidence to manage without a partner who is more confident.
Some people may have a very secure early childhood with parents, who love them, but may struggle to leave home as teenagers. This might be because their early life left them little room to explore their own independence. Or it may stem from parental separation. So many parents divorce when their children are teenagers, reasoning that they are then able to look after themselves. This, however, may be the worse time. Teenagers need to know their parents are there and able to cope in order to separate.
People with an insecure attachment history are searching for a partner, who will not only understand them and care, but will be able to fulfil their own attachment needs. So somebody with a more needy attachment history may find stability in somebody who appears self sufficient but somewhat avoidant. Somebody who is avoidant on the other hand may be attracted to a more emotionally demonstrative person to help them navigate their way through life. But like also may attract like. Two avoidant people may achieve a stable relationship in which they have the freedom to do their own thing and do not make demands on each other. Two needy people may adopt an anaclitic relationship, where they seem so interdependent, they lean on each other.
But not all people choose people who are best suited to them. They may fall in love with somebody who has a very different attachment history and way of being and then by the time they find they are not compatible, they may be trapped by children and family and their own other feelings of loyalty and obligation.
People with different attachment histories may bring out different aspects of their characters, but the relationship may be a compromise. Their emotional and physical health depends on the extent to which each other’s attachment needs can be met, if not by one’s partner but by friend, family and other relationships others. Constant unfulfilment can so easily lead to a prolonged state of grievance and illness.
Some relationships may start well, but then something outside the relationship occurs to challenge it. The character and success of any relationship is often determined by how a couple deals with adversity. The challenge is to develop the confidence to be resilient. Although no man or woman is an island, nevertheless the knowledge that one can cope and yet has the emotional capacity to be there for one’s partner can build a resilient, healthy relationship.
Relationships are the biggest investment we make. There is no other type of attachment that becomes so great a component of who we are. The best thing about any relationship is that it fulfils us, it helps us become the person we can be, secure, autonomous and resilient. A good relationship strengthens us. And if it fails or one or other partner dies, it can leave us with enough emotional resources to cope alone.
When a relationship is unstable, it can cause constant anxiety. And when it fails, it can feel like our lives are falling apart. We can lose all sense of who we are for a while and become seriously ill. Recovery, if it occurs at all, is often a process of rediscovery. It may require professional help, but often things have gone too far to be rescued. But just as starting an attachment requires an act of commitment, leaving is also a planned decision. And as I have discussed in a recent post, a good ending can leave us strong enough to anticipate an uncertain but interesting and exciting future.
Bowlby J (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London, Tavistock.
Crowell J and Treboux D (2001) Attachement security in adult partnerships. In C. Clulow (Ed) Adult attachment and couple psychotherapy (pp28-42). Hover, brunner-Routledge.
Kirkpatrick L (1998) Evolution, pair-bonding and reproductive strategies; a reconceptualisation of adult attachments. In Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. pp353-393. New York, Guilford Press.