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Understanding Attachment Theory

An unusual realisation that lovers may eventually make is that it is hard to envisage successfully navigating any relationship without some understanding – and mutual discussion of – Attachment Theory. 

First developed in England in the 1950s by the psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the theory proposes that getting close to someone or – as the technical term has it – ‘attached’ invariably generates a degree of fear and risk. 

Love requires that we surrender our emotional autonomy. A partner may hurt us through indifference or egoism; they may cheat on us; we could grow deeply dependent on them and then be left at a moment of their choosing. 

For those among us fortunate enough to have enjoyed consistent and reliable love from our parents in childhood (roughly 50% of the population), the risks of attachment, though always present to some degree, will be manageable. When they experience doubts, securely attached people know how to voice these calmly before they become intolerable. They can bear to ask for reassurance directly. They can lay bare their vulnerability and need – without terror of humiliation or mockery.

However, Bowlby and Ainsworth identified two other categories of lovers for whom things will not be so easy – on account of having endured less reliable and consistent relationships with their early care-givers (and also, as importantly, of never having fully realised this or taken steps to mitigate the after-effects). They proposed that some 25% of us are what they termed ‘avoidantly attached’; a pattern in which the risks of getting close to someone are inwardly felt to be so great (because they were precisely so in childhood) that a person quickly becomes ‘avoidant’ – that is, cold, detached and overly independent – in response to challenges. If there is a period of doubt, if it’s unclear whether they are still cherished by their partner, an avoidant person will have no inner strength to admit to their fears and then to share their feelings with self-possession. They will simply pull up the drawbridge, claim that they are very busy and announce that they need space. What they absolutely will not do is generously explain that they are feeling abandoned and desperately need a hug. It’s a lot easier to go into the next room and watch a long film.

A comparable problem is to be observed in that other problematic category of lover known as the ‘anxiously attached’ – though here, rather than going cold in response to a perception of emotional threat, a lover will become angry. They will accuse their partner of all manner of flaws, while carefully keeping hidden the one issue they actually have on their minds. They will say that the partner is no good around the house, or that they are boring in company. They will get accusatory and mean when, in truth, they are sad and scared. They will denigrate their partner rather than touch on the more poignant and horrifying thought: that they love them deeply and are very worried that they are not loved back.

Both anxious and avoidant patterns of behaviour generate predictable storms. Feeling their loved ones going cold or becoming angry, most partners will withdraw in turn – setting off cycles of distress and recrimination.

Fortunately, the dangers associated with avoidant or anxious responses diminish hugely if lovers are able to admit without shame that they are prone to them; if they can explain, perhaps over an early dinner, the temptation to pull off certain antics when they are scared of being abandoned but then don’t in fact do so; if they can confess to their fears without getting swept up by the need to act them out. 

We don’t need our lovers to be sane. We don’t need them to be securely attached. What we need, as ever, is an intense mutual commitment to self-awareness, a huge curiosity about our psyches, constant apologies and some reliable maps of human insanity.

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