attachment styles and divorceWhat does attachment have to do with divorce? Two previous posts provided adult attachment and attachment style basics, drawing from the book “Attached – The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love” by Levine and Heller. Nearly all research studies addressing attachment styles and divorce focus on the effect of divorcing parents on the attachment of their children.  This post, however, provides further findings from the book above and my own conclusions about attachment styles of divorcing adults and the impact this may have on divorce mediation.

Attachment Styles and Divorce

People with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are attracted to each other and make up about half of the total population. As a result, there is almost certainly a very large number of marriages in which one partner has an anxious style and the other an avoidant style.

Why do they form relationships? Opposites do attract but also each reaffirms the other’s beliefs about themselves and relationships. The avoidant’s belief that others will want more closeness than they are comfortable with will be confirmed. The anxious one’s belief that they want more intimacy than their partner can provide will also be confirmed. There is a sort of gravitational pull between anxious and avoidant-style people, and once they become attached, it’s often very hard for them to let go.

The “Anxious – Avoidant trap” is where the anxious one is preoccupied with intimacy and the avoidant one wants to avoid it. Even when they love each other very much, they can easily get trapped in a cycle of exacerbating each other’s insecurities. Their colliding intimacy needs often result in a stormy relationship. They sometimes can bring out the worst in each other.

It would be very interesting (and not particularly surprising in my view) if research were to confirm that avoidant/anxious marriages are those most likely to end in divorce and that most divorces are of avoidant/anxious couples. Such clashing attachment styles might even be one of the best predictors of divorce since our attachment needs are so fundamental.

Attachment Styles and Conflict

People with insecure attachment styles (anxious or avoidant) tend not to approach conflict head on. Anxious/avoidant couples often struggle to find solutions acceptable to both of them. Conflict is sometimes left unresolved because the resolution itself would create too much intimacy for the avoidant partner. Conflicts then repeat. In these clashes, the anxious partner is more often the one who loses ground.

People with insecure attachment styles also don’t communicate as effectively as securely-attached individuals in intimate relationships. Here are some principles that securely-attached people tend to use (and insecurely-attached people have difficulty with) when they are having a disagreement or conflict with their partner:

  • Be willing to engage;
  • Show concern for the other person’s well-being;
  • Maintain focus on the specific problem at hand and refrain from generalizing the conflict
  • Effectively communicate feelings and needs;
  • Don’t blame or focus on your partner’s shortcomings.

Securely-attached people have the potential to get along well with people who have anxious or avoidant attachment styles and be happy, effective partners with them – but only if they are able to maintain their secure frame of mind. When emotionally triggered, securely-attached people can slip into anxious or avoidant thoughts and behaviors.

What are some implications for divorce and divorce mediation?

  • If either or both partners are securely-attached, divorce is less likely.
  • If either or both partners are securely-attached, divorce mediation will be easier because the securely-attached individual(s) will tend to be balanced and have good communication skills.
  • If you do not yet have an intimate partner and you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style, look for a securely-attached partner to reduce your odds of an unhappy marriage and divorce.
  • If you do have an intimate partner and one of you has an avoidant attachment style and the other is anxiously attached, learn about the challenges you face and how best to work through them.
  • Most divorce mediations are probably with avoidant/anxious couples.
  • In divorce mediation with anxious/avoidant/ couples (and to a lesser extent with anxious/secure couples), the anxiously-attached spouse may be inappropriately prone to yield ground.