Romantic Love & Attachment

One of the most interesting things about romantic love is that nobody really knows what it is or why it happens. Why do we fall in love? Why do we have a compelling urge to make a man fall in love with us, or make a woman fall in love with us?

Lots of theories have been proposed over the years including the idea that it’s about reinforcing a pair bond in which to bring up children more easily, or that it’s a social mechanism which evolved to overcome a biological predisposition to have one alpha male mating with many females – a kind of mechanism of “social fairness” as it were. This idea of falling love was due to biologist Desmond Morris who wrote a lot about love.

And another idea is that romantic love between adults is just a reflection of the attachment process that takes place between human infants and their parents or caregivers. Falling love,. or making a ma fall in love with you take son a very different aspect, when you think of it as something that is down to our childhood experience…..

Love & Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is the area of psychology which deals with the way in which infants attach to their parents. There are three main categories of attachment: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious / ambivalent attachment.

All of these reflect different ways in which a child can bond with its parents. The question is, do these styles or ways of attaching in childhood continue to influence the types of relationship that people form in romantic loving relationships in adulthood?

Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver of the University of Denver conducted some research back in the 1980s to investigate what connection there might be between the way we learn to attach as children and the way we love other people during our adult life.

We all know that love takes many forms – romantic love for another adult, the love we have for our children, the love of places, concepts and ideas, and so on.

If these are variations of the same human emotion, it’s not necessarily going to be very easy to find a formula to explain love in a single framework. Maybe, however, these ideas could explain why we are so keen to make a man fall in love with us?

But by transferring our thinking from social theories to psychological attachment theory, we can frame love in a different way: we can include positive and negative emotions such as fear of intimacy and jealousy, and qualities of love such as caring, intimacy and trust. Maybe this will also provide an easier way to make a man fall in love with you? (If love is a predictable process…)

Attachment theory also deals with loss – an important thing for any investigation of love to consider, because we all know the pain of losing a loved one. Attachment theory also helps us to understand how loneliness and love might be connected.

It all began back in the 1970s when John Bowlby did some research on how infants and young children who were separated from their primary caregiver – which would normally be the mother – for varying lengths of time responded to the separation, and later to being reunited with their mother.

The series of reactions which a child goes through when separated from its caregiver start with “protest”. What we mean by that is crying, searching, and resistance to other people’s efforts at soothing.

The next stage of separation is “despair” – which anybody has broken up with a lover will probably recognize: the main symptoms being passivity and sadness.

The third phase of a child’s response to separation from its parent is “detachment”, in which there seems to be almost a purposeful, deliberate detachment, and a disregard and avoidance of the mother when she returns.

It’s possible this is a defensive mechanism – in other words something designed to protect the infant from the pain of the separation.

Of course the reason we have all these reactions is that it’s important for young infants to stay close to their mother because a baby has no ability to care for itself. And so, programmed into the human system, we see things like eye contact, smiles, cuddling, and crying – all of them mechanisms to keep mother and baby united.

The Principles Of Attachment Theory

In essence attachment theory is about three ideas: first of all, if a baby is confident that her attachment figure will be available whenever needed, that child will experience much less fear than one who can’t be sure there’s going to be a secure and caring attachment figure available.

This isn’t just a childhood process, however, because the second idea on which our theory rests suggests that the certainty of someone being securely there “for one” is built up slowly all the way from birth through adolescence.

And the expectations formed during this period are pretty much how an individual is going to perceive his or her attachments for the rest of their life.

And thirdly, the expectations we have of there being a secure person to whom we can become attached in adulthood is probably a close reflection of the actual experience we had during childhood with our parents.

It’s a regrettable thing, but in our society a lot of children do not have a mother or father with whom they can bond securely or safely; disrupted attachment is common, and it has a variety of consequences.

Disrupted attachment may flow from interrupted parenting, inconsistent parenting, or simply inadequate parenting. These issues can take many forms – for example, a mother who is slow or inconsistent in responding to her baby’s cries for attention, or perhaps a mother who disrespects a child’s boundaries and intrudes upon, or forces affection upon her child, or unduly interferes with the individual’s sense of self.

So an infant who has a slow or inconsistent caregiver, or a caregiver who steps over the child’s boundaries, or interferes with child’s wishes and desires, may develop a mixture of anger and anxiety as their base emotional state…. the anxious attachment style.

But when a mother rejects or rebuffs an infant’s attempts to establish physical contact, the baby often learns that the best way to deal with this is to avoid the mother altogether: avoidant attachment.

This has led to a definition of three states of attachment – the first, the normal healthy one, is “secure”. The second one is anxious or ambivalent; the third one is avoidant.

You might recognize these states in children whom you know: the anxious or ambivalent style of attachment leads to protest behaviours, while the avoidant attachment style leads to a kind of detached way of being in the world.

Video – Attachment Theory

Relating Attachment and Romantic Love

So to what extent can these three attachment styles be related to the way that we as adults love each other?
Oddly enough, although it seems like a natural assumption to make, at the point where Hazan and Shaver conducted their research, nobody seems to have considered the possibility that the characteristics of the parent-child relationship way back in an individual’s past might influence their expectations and experience of romantic attachment in adulthood.

We know about 60% of children can be classified as having had secure attachments. This reflects what we could call “good enough” parenting.

Around a quarter (25%) of all children are said to have avoidant attachment styles, and around 15% are said to have anxious ambivalent styles.

We see the same proportions of attachment styles in the adult population. These styles, once learned, are persistent. They influence how we love later in life.

And furthermore, since we know that these attachment styles seem to be permanent and long-lasting in individuals, we might expect men and women who fall into these three groups to experience romantic love in adulthood in three broadly different ways.

You might, for example, think that children who had an anxious attachment style would experience love in adulthood as a struggle which causes anxiety, as they try, in effect, to merge with another individual. (This is a  mirror of their childhood experience.) This has been called anxious romantic attachment or limerence.

And you might expect children who had an avoidant attachment style to grow into adults with an avoidant attachment style of loving, experiencing fear of closeness and a lack of trust in their romantic experiences. They are avoidant style adults.

It follows too, that people who had the experience of secure attachments in childhood may well believe in romantic love that goes on forever, find other people to be trustworthy, and have confidence that they’re likeable.

Video – Attachment styles

Avoidant types may well grow up to be adults who probably have some doubt about the reality of long-lasting love, perhaps believing they can be happy without falling in love, or indeed without a partner.

Equally, anxious types will probably also have difficulty finding true love. since they have never experienced secure childhood attachment, but they might want to fall in love frequently and easily, while the same time displaying self-doubt and anxiety.

But Is This All True?

So what does the research actually demonstrate? Is it true that the way we learn about human attachments in infancy and childhood can influence our adult experiences of romantic love? And can that help us choose the person with whom we want to fall in love, or help us discover how to make a particular person fall in love with us?

By placing a questionnaire in a regional newspaper in America, the researchers were able to involve a large number of people in their research.

The questionnaires were designed to establish what kind of attachment style individual had adopted, and then asked for detailed information about the kind of romantic love relationship the people had as adults.

For example, questions asked how these people felt when they were in relationships, and how they thought romantic love developed over time; there were many more such questions.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn the results showed that a lot of people experience romantic love in adulthood in a way similar to the style of attachment that they developed in childhood.

Sure, not all of our experiences of anxiety or, for that matter, security in a relationship are entirely due to an individual’s attachment style – there are many other factors which may can cause anxiety in a relationship – but, broadly speaking, there’s a close correlation between an individual’s attachment style from childhood and their expectations and experience of romantic love as an adult.

How Does Attachment Play Out In Adult Relationships?

Broadly speaking, individuals with a secure attachment style are seen by other people as socially adept, charming, cheerful and likeable.

Anxious individuals tend to be seen as less likeable, anxious, self-conscious and preoccupied. Avoidants may be seen as hostile or defensive.

Even allowing for the fact that relationships are influenced by factors other than the psychological make-up of the individuals within them, it does seem that adult romantic love and the way we experience it are broadly based on our experience of attachment in childhood.

The good news, however, is that you can overcome the dysfunctional attachments which stem from bad parenting, and develop into a mature individual who can parent your own children securely, thereby breaking the cross-generational chain of disrupted attachment.

Over the years a lot of people have thought romantic love is some kind of regressive emotional state, perhaps representing a regression to the way we attach to others in infancy, or perhaps involving inhibited emotional development – that romantic love is a fixation of some kind stage of early development.

By contrast, when you see romantic love within the framework of attachment theory, it ceases to be a regressive experience or an immature emotional state, but the outcome of our actual childhood experience.

In other words, romantic love is some kind of biological and social process – a process important to the human race, founded on our experience of attachment and childhood.

This counters a historical tendency in the world of sociology and psychology to see romantic love as some kind of invention, perhaps involving the courtly traditions of the 13th and 14th century European troubadours.

Our researchers concluded that romantic love has existed throughout the entire history of human race and its function is as a way for individuals to connect.

As the researchers say, “Our idea… is that romantic love is biological process designed by evolution to facilitate attachment between adult sexual partners who, at the time love evolved, were likely to become parents of infants requiring that reliable care.”

And they draw parallels between the way in which children grow up and move away from their parents, becoming less dependent and perhaps even interested in their parents as time goes by, to the parallel process which occurs within a romantic relationship where two partners show a decreasing level of fascination and preoccupation with each other as they move from the romantic phase of love to a secure attachment.

Find your own way to love truly, madly, deepy