Exploring why we stay in a "so-so" or other unsatisfactory relationships
A recent article in the Daily Mail reports on new research finding that of 2,000 adults polled, 73 percent have "made do" with their partner because their "true love" slipped through their fingers. The survey respondents are “settling” in their romantic relationship. Why is this percentage so high, and is this really true? What about the all too frequent relationship pattern of breaking up and getting back together many times? Or the common relationship pattern where one partner “pursues,” the other “distances,” and this game goes back and forth endlessly. Some people just cannot seem to move on from an unsatisfying relationship. These are all difficult questions to answer, and have often been explored in the social sciences along with a myriad of other relationship issues. The answer to these relationship conundrums ultimately seems to lie in the psychology of “attachment.”
What is “attachment” and why is it so important?
The theory of attachment was initially developed by Mary Ainsworth (1913 - 1999) and John Bowlby (1907 - 1990), two psychoanalysts who were attempting to comprehend the anguish often experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. These researchers observed that infants would go to surprising lengths to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish contact with a missing parent. Some of these behaviors included crying, clinging or frantically looking for their caregiver. They also postulated that such actions are common to a wide variety of other animals, and consequently believed that these behaviors may serve an evolutionary function. From that data, they argued that these attachment behaviors were adaptive responses to separation with a primary attachment figure--someone who provides support, protection, and care. Because human infants, like other mammals, cannot feed, clothe or protect themselves, they are dependent upon the care and protection of adults. As a result, babies who are able to successfully and consistently get their needs met from a parent or caregiver are more likely to thrive.
Our attachment system essentially asks the following elementary question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive? If the child perceives the answer to this question to be "yes," he or she feels loved, secure, and confident, and, behaviorally, is likely to explore his or her environment, play with others, and be sociable and feel secure in doing so. The freedom to explore is enhanced by knowing that one has a “home base” to go to whenever needed. If, however, the child perceives the answer to this question to be "no," the child feels anxiety. The child will constantly seek security from the caretaker (usually the mother) until he or she obtains a desirable level of physical and/or psychological contact. If this fails to happen, the child may give up and this will lead to emotional distress. This can take the eventual form of avoidance of the attachment figure as the child learns he or she cannot count on this person. This emotional distress usually happens if the child experiences long separations, loss, or neglectful treatment by caretaker.
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Although Ainsworth and Bowlby were chiefly focused on understanding the nature of the infant-caregiver relationship, they believed that attachment characterized human experience from "the cradle to the grave." Other researchers (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007) began to explore their ideas in the context of romantic relationships. This is where this subject gets really fascinating. What was discovered is that the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners is part of the same early attachment system.
The relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners in satisfying relationships often share the following features:
- both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
- both engage in intimate bodily contact
- both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
- both share discoveries with one another
- both play with one another's facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
- both engage in "baby talk"
Adult romantic relationships are attachments, and romantic love triggers that same early patterned way of relating to someone we love.
While attachments help create stability, there is a downside. Attachments are less concerned that you are happy with your partner and more concerned that you stay together. In fact, many people form an attachment to someone who they do not like as a person. It is possible to form a deep bond to someone who is less than an ideal romantic partner – hence, we stay when it is just “O.K.” Romantic attachments are designed to keep people together because over the course of human evolution, people who stayed together had an easier time raising offspring than people who only came together for the purposes of sex. From attachment theory, we also know that there is a significant amount of interplay between the attachment system and the sexual system. This should be a warning sign to be careful with whom you have repeated intimate contact, as you are likely to form an attachment to that person. It can be very difficult to break things off after having sex with someone once an attachment is formed.
It is highly advised that in order to prevent this sort of situation from happening repeatedly (or after finally extricating yourself from a bad or mediocre relationship), it is advised to explore your insecurity and attachment tendencies in therapy. People who have the most “secure” attachment style report more relationship satisfaction overall, stay in unsatisfactory relationships the least amount of time and are less likely to divorce. Those who have an “anxious” attachment style tend to breakup, then get back together with the same person multiple times or stay in a chronically unhappy situation. Those with an “avoidant” attachment style are most likely to run at the first sign of relationship distress and are least likely to seek out loving relationships to begin with.
If you are already married, couples therapy can address such concerns as feelings of dissatisfaction, frequent negative patterns of interaction, and a lost emotional connection. If you are in a good relationship and simply wish to create a more loving connection, a good understanding of attachment theory and what your attachment style is can help you achieve this. Emotionally Focused Therapy, developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, is particularly helpful as it is well researched and based on attachment theory. It focuses on creating a strong bond between the couple so that they can be that “secure home base” for each other. If you are still dating and searching for your perfect match, understanding your attachment needs will help you with the number one rule of relationships: Choose wisely!
Are you in a relationship that you are not quite sure about? Reach out to Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT for help with exploring any relationship issues you may have. Her website is www.TheTalkingSolution.com.