Attachment anxiety: the proximity-distance problem

Partnership: How attachment style separates and holds together

We are almost all looking for it. The great love. Some find them. Some people search for it all their lives – and still don’t find it. They believe they are simply unlucky in love. But there may be something else behind relationships that fail again and again: Attachment anxiety. Typical signs: One always withdraws when the relationship becomes closer, more intimate, more binding. Or you only find others attractive when you can’t have them, for example, because they are married or have no interest in you.

Attachment theory goes back to the English child psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990). In their mid-20s. In the early twentieth century, he concluded from his observations that children develop a mental working model for relationships in the first years of life. A child develops a secure attachment primarily when parents respond quickly, reliably and appropriately to his or her needs, for example, by comforting him or her within a few seconds when he or she cries. Insecure attachment can occur when parents tend to be indifferent, insufficiently responsive to the child, or overprotective, preventing the child from developing independently. Stressful experiences such as the loss of a father or mother also leave their mark.

How to measure attachment style?

Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) observed young children in a standardized behavioral experiment called the "stranger situation test." How do they react when their caregiver leaves the room and they are alone with a stranger? And how do they behave when their attachment figure returns? No such test exists for older children or adults. They provide information about their attitudes toward relationships in interviews such as the "Adult Attachment Interview" or in questionnaires.

This article is included in Spektrum Kompakt, Partnership – How Love Stays

In the 1980s, U.S. researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver transferred childhood attachment styles to adult relationship patterns. The basic idea: If children do not experience their attachment figures as warm and reliable, this can affect their relationships later in life. Eva Neumann, PhD, a psychologist at Bochum University Hospital, is researching how attachment experiences in childhood relate to relationships in adulthood. "People with a secure attachment style are comfortable in close relationships and have trust," says Neumann. Insecure attachment leads some to anxious, closeness-seeking behavior – clinging to their partner – while others avoid closeness. "People with high avoidance tend to keep the partner at a distance and emphasize independence in the relationship," Neumann explains. In principle, they have deactivated their attachment system, out of self-protection. Their motto: I don’t need anyone. Some then actually remain single throughout their lives – even when they are in a partnership.

Studies show that couples often come together in two constellations: Either both partners are securely attached – they make up about 50 percent of couples. Or both are insecurely attached, usually involving one avoidant and one anxious person. According to Neumann, these couples are often caught in a vicious circle: The more one person seeks closeness, the more the other avoids it, and vice versa. It is usually the woman who clings and the man who avoids closeness. There could be old gender stereotypes behind this: Striving for independence is more in line with traditional male roles, and dependence is more in line with female roles.

According to Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, attachment anxiety also has social causes. She attributes unwillingness to commit to men to the different positions of men and women: "Give women power and money, let’s make them leaders of the state, let’s let the men serve the coffee in conferences, raise the children and make the dinner – then the men would be the ones longing for a solid, monogamous relationship."

Particularly stable bonds seem to form out of this imbalance. In the 1990s, U.S. researchers surveyed the attachment styles of 354 heterosexual couples and inquired about relationship status again three years later. Surprisingly, avoidant men and anxious women had the most stable relationships – even though they were not particularly satisfied. Partnerships between securely tied men and women proved to be more satisfying, but less lasting. The researchers could not find out anything about constellations with two anxious or two avoidant partners: There simply were no.

So a stable partnership does not necessarily mean that the parties involved are happy. Actually a reason to think about a separation – but many do not want to be alone. Thus, attachment researcher Eva Neumann advises a separation only conditionally: when alcohol, other addictions or violence are involved. If this is not the case, the most important question is: Is life as a single person really the better choice for me??

Psychologists led by Franz Neyer and Christine Finn of the University of Jena have also studied when a partnership is lasting. Over a period of seven years, they surveyed around 2000 couples at regular intervals about their relationship. 16 percent broke up during the course of the study, the 2020 research group reported. Even the beginning of a partnership was indicative of the subsequent course of events: After an unhappy start, couples usually became even more unhappy and separated more quickly. The best prognosis was for partners with a similarly strong desire for closeness – in the sense that they allowed each other equal freedom and pursued their own interests. Couples were more likely to stay together if they were able to strike a balance between closeness and independence.

With commitment anxiety, that’s harder. Guy Bodenmann, a couples therapist and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Zurich, speaks of a self-fulfilling prophecy: "An anxious person often looks for someone who confirms their negative experiences."Finding the right balance between closeness and distance is extremely strenuous for those affected. They expected even before a relationship that it would not work out because they do not find themselves lovable.

To overcome these fears, people need the inner certainty that they are lovable – even without a partner, if necessary. To do that, you need a healthy sense of self-worth, and that’s exactly what people with insecure attachment styles lack. Therefore, anxiously attached people often got involved in relationships far too quickly, says Bodenmann. "In doing so, they try to establish emotional bonds through sexuality."According to the motto: "If I give good sex, I will be loved, and the partner will stay with me."Disappointments are the order of the day.

Bodenmann therefore recommends that anxious people in particular weigh carefully who they get involved with. "You should choose carefully, be a little sexually cautious and carefully examine the emotional sustainability of the relationship," Bodenmann says. "This is the only way they can learn to sense whether they really mean something to someone."

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