We are all different but subterranean forces exist which compel us into similar patterns of attitude and behavior and allow us to be typed by psychologists into a single collective category. In intimate relationships we fall into one of three according to Levine and Heller.
The authors take their lead from Mary Ainsworth’s groundbreaking experiment which has come to be known as the strange situation test where infants had differing reactions to their mother’s short absence. In Ainsworth’s scheme the children fell into one of these same three categories -- secure, avoidant or anxious. Having had its anxiety aroused by the mother’s absence, the secure child happily resumes its play on her reappearance, the anxious child continues to be demonstratively upset and the avoidant child stifles its anxiety in a display of indifference.
Ainsworth’s work on childhood attachment, along with that of John Bowlby has done much to influence contemporary parenting styles. We no longer believe that a proper distance should be maintained between parents and their children, or that physical affection should be doled out sparingly. In the 1940’s parents were told not to lavish too much attention on their infants, to allow them to cry for hours and to train them to eat on a strict schedule. But although our attitude to child-rearing has changed, say Levine and Heller, we are less indulgent with ourselves as regard our close relationships and do not appreciate properly the significance of adult attachment. Among adults, the prevailing notion is still that too much dependence in a relationship is a bad thing.
The authors maintain that the character traits recognized by Ainsworth are carried into adult life and deeply affect our relationships. The ideal obviously is to have a secure personality. They maintain that half the population fall into this category and the other fifty per cent are divided between avoidant and anxious. It is worth noting that Ainsworth calculated seventy per cent of children were secure. The authors don’t discuss this discrepancy or the reasons for it. However, both parties agree that the secure attachment style predominates which gives the lie to the popular prejudice that women fall predominantly into the anxious category and men into the avoidant. The categories do not appear to be gender determined.
The aim of Attached is for readers first of all to recognize their own attachment style and then change it if they find they have either an anxious style, being too needy in relationships, always coming on a bit too strong or if they are avoidant, continuously suppressing their need for closeness, constantly running away from intimacy. We can, with this new self-awareness, change and become more secure about ourselves. We can experience closeness with another person without either fretting or feeling uncomfortable. But in order to be properly attached, we need to become somewhat detached, to stand back and answer the questions posed by the authors to see what attachment style we operate.
The authors are at pains to point out that while the way we were brought up has some bearing on our adult attachment style, it is not the whole story. There is increasing evidence that an entire mosaic of factors come together to create an attachment pattern: our early connection with our parents, our genes, and also something else -- our romantic experience as adults. It is usually within these romantic episodes that change occurs. Our romantic relationships are so powerful they actually revise our most basic beliefs and attitudes towards connectedness. This can be both an opportunity and a threat because secure people can become less secure and the insecure, secure. But it also means that we don’t have to wait for cupid to strike to change our attachment style.
At the heart of this book lies a conundrum. In order to benefit from its advice we need to change our working model of the world and of ourselves. According to the authors we are not the rugged individualists that our wealth creating capitalist culture would have us believe but persons fundamentally dependent on an intimate reciprocal relationship with another person. In order to have a productive life we need love to provide us with a secure base. The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become -- the ‘dependency paradox’.
The authors urge us to recognize that our attachment needs are legitimate: that we shouldn’t feel bad for depending on the person you are close to as it’s part of our genetic make-up; a relationship should make us feel more self-confident and give us peace of mind; if not, alarm bells should ring.
If you have an itch to know how other people conduct their lives, and very few of us don’t, this book abounds in true life examples, which makes for a fascinating read. There are self tests to help determine where you lie on the anxious --avoidant spectrum. And an excellent coaching section in the art of plain speaking or effective communication to help us test the foundation of our relationships or not blunder into ultimately dead-end involvements. They also follow up with some handy tips about handling everyday conflicts and keeping them on a productive level and also a way of avoiding them in the first place with the help of a little neuroscience.
Of course this book is proposing yet another typology. Introvert/extrovert, divergent/convergent, Briggs Myers - the world of psychology abounds with them. The authors are wise enough to see these as tendencies rather than labels; clusters of behavioral phenomena which can change depending on circumstances. They are nothing to do with the surface elements of personal charm, humor or looks and all to do with communicating our attachment needs honestly to our partners and accurately to ourselves.
© 2012 Chris Vaughan
Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.