“Adult attachment,” which is a broad theory of romantic affiliation, may be the closest thing we have to a science on the subject. Hundreds of scientific research papers have now been published. A colleague suggested to me not long ago that my practice of divorce mediation would benefit from learning about it.
Attachment and Divorce
This post will lay out some basics, taken in large part from the book “Attached – The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love” by Levine and Heller. The next post will discuss in more detail the main attachment styles and how they relate to each other. Subsequent posts will then apply these styles to divorce and divorce mediation.
The key areas of interest underlying my inquiry are:
- how is knowing about attachment useful generally;
- how would it help me as a mediator better understand divorcing couples;
- is it relevant to the qualities a divorce mediator brings to the table; and
- how can it help people move on effectively with their lives after a divorce
“Attachment” is often defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another. Adults have been found to show patterns of attachment to their romantic partners similar to the patterns of attachment of children with their parents.
Getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring the partner’s psychological and physical proximity. We have an internal “attachment system” that includes reactive emotions and protest behaviors that try to ensure we remain safe and protected by staying close to our loved ones.
John Bowlby (who pioneered the subject) saw that it’s in our genes to single out a few specific individuals in our lives, make them precious to us and become dependent on them. This need is independent of how much we love ourselves and how fulfilled we feel on our own. Note that this stands in contrast to “accepted wisdom” that happiness only comes from within and that you should not be emotionally dependent on your partner.
Attachment principles indicate that most people are only as needy in their romantic relationships as their unmet needs. When their emotional attachment needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward. This is sometimes referred to as the “dependency paradox: ”the more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and confident they become.
Having a partner who is inconsistently available or supportive can be a truly demoralizing experience accompanied by a chronic sense of disquiet and tension that can have adverse physical effects.
“Attachment styles” are the broad ways people perceive and respond to intimacy in romantic relationships. There are three main styles:
The two main dimensions which determine these styles are:
- your comfort with intimacy and closeness (or the degree to which you try to avoid intimacy)
- your anxiety about your partner’s love and attentiveness and your degree of preoccupation with the relationship
People who are uncomfortable with and try to avoid intimacy with their partner have an avoidant style. People who are anxious and preoccupied with their partner’s attentiveness have an anxious style. Those for whom neither of these are true have a secure style. Those for whom both of these are true have a mixed anxious and avoidant style.
People with a secure style consistently relate well with their intimate partners. Those with anxious and avoidant styles have many more difficulties in this regard. Approximate percentage of people in each style:
- Secure – 50%
- Anxious – 25%
- Avoidant – 20%
- Anxious and Avoidant – 5%
Attachment styles are stable but plastic. About 70-75% of adults remain consistently in the same style during their lives and the other 25-30% change their style.
Where does one’s adult attachment style come from? Your attachment experience as a young child with your primary caregiver(s) has an effect. We also seem to be genetically predisposed to a certain style. Romantic relationships are sometimes so powerful that they themselves can result in style changes. Evidence indicates that one’s style does not come from a single source.
Some key attachment theory insights based on research:
- Your attachment needs are real and legitimate;
- Don’t feel bad for depending on the person you are closest to – it’s part of your genetic makeup;
- The attachment styles of each partner have a major effect on the relationship;
- A secure attachment style will make you happier in relationship and a better partner;
- A relationship should make you feel more self-confident and give you peace of mind. If it doesn’t, this is a wake-up call;
- Remain true to your authentic self in romantic relationships – playing games will distance you from happiness.