Alyssa and Seth have been seeing each other for several months. Seth considers it a serious relationship, but Alyssa views it as a more casual relationship. In fact, this difference is a source of contention.
“A friend of mine was helping me out with a project,” reports Alyssa. “Seth totally wigged out. He demanded that I tell him exactly how long we had stayed up working on the project and where we were working on it. We were in a crowded coffee shop, for goodness’ sake!”
Seth tells it slightly differently. “I know guys, and I know this dude was putting the moves on Alyssa. It matters a lot to me that Alyssa respects our relationship. If we decide to get married, I am obviously not going to want her seeing other guys.”
“But I wasn’t ‘seeing’ another guy!” protests Alyssa. “When we get married, is he going to let me talk to men I work with? Maybe he’ll want me to stay home and never go outside! I don’t want to have to deal with his jealousy.”
Alyssa and Seth struggled for several more months, breaking up and getting back together. It was always the same argument: Alyssa felt that Seth was demanding, controlling, and jealous while Seth felt that Alyssa did not take the relationship seriously.
You are probably thinking: this relationship cannot possibly work! Alyssa is not ready for a relationship and Seth is moving too quickly. They are simply not ready to be in a serious relationship. But in fact, if we fast-forward two years, we may find Alyssa and Seth repeating the same scenario…albeit with two new partners! Alyssa is still trying to keep things light, and Seth is still trying to control the relationship.
But there is another, more intriguing, way to view this situation. Alyssa and Seth have two different relationship styles.
In fact, according to psychologists who study adult attachment theory, they are polar opposites. Seth is “preoccupied” (or “anxious ambivalent”) while Alyssa is “dismissing” (or “avoidant”).
Are you telling me that, no matter whom Alyssa dates, she is always going to be dismissive, and Seth will be jealous and clingy with everyone? Get out!
The Mother and Child Reunion
The answer has deep roots in our past. Some psychologists speculate that the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners is directly related to the way the individuals bonded emotionally as infants. Studies showed that insecurely attached infants experienced anxiety, increased clinginess and even anger, which ultimately can affect their adult emotional relationships. Do I see myself as lovable? Do I have a healthy sense of self-reliance and confidence? Do I feel worthy of care and protection? These questions may find their root in the way we become attached as babies to our mothers.
A baby needs to feel a loving attachment to his mother (or a primary caregiver), which he senses by holding, affection, cuddling, and responsiveness to his cries.
Mothers everywhere will say, “Duh!” But this was not always obvious, especially to psychologists and social scientists.
For much of the 20th century psychologists believed that showing overt affection for a baby–cuddling or picking up a baby when it cried–would create clingy, demanding children who would demand more and more attention. Even today some parents believe that responding to an infant’s cries will result in a selfish, demanding child.
But this view is rooted in behaviorism. If you see the infant much like
Pavlov’s dogs (responding to stimuli), then you may come to believe
that responding to the infant’s cries will only result in more
crying and increased demands. Behaviorists believed that a baby only
“loves” his mother because she feeds him. They claimed that attachment
pioneer John Bowbly’s research showing the devastating effects of
maternal deprivation only proved that these children did not have
Harlow conducted his famous experiments on rhesus monkeys to prove that
the infant’s attachment to its mother is based on more than the
instinctive need for food.
were separated from their mothers at birth and placed alone in
cages—with varying types of surrogate “mothers.” These surrogate
mothers were in some cases nothing more than a block of wood covered
with terry cloth with eyes painted on it, and sometimes only a wire
mesh cone. Some of these “mothers” could feed the baby monkey, and
others could not. The poor little monkeys would cling pathetically to
their cloth-covered block of wood for 16 to 18 hours a day—regardless
of whether they were fed or not.
1958 experiment proved that infant monkeys needed more than food to
survive. They needed cuddling from a mother figure. These inanimate
surrogates were woefully inadequate mothers, yet the little monkeys
were extremely attached to them and became upset if researchers
attempted to remove them from their cages. The monkeys, however, did
not survive without some serious emotional scars. Later experiments
showed that the deprived monkeys had serious difficulties relating to their peers and raising their own babies.
short separations of only a few days, the infant monkeys showed signs
of distress, depression, clinginess, and timidity. The monkeys who had
been separated from their mothers for 6 months, however, showed serious
abnormalities in their social and sexual behavior and became
abusive–even sometimes murderous–parents.
proved that Harlow’s experiments with monkeys also applied to human
beings. She developed the “Strange Situation” in order to study
attachment in infants. From the Strange Situation, three categories of children emerged: the securely attached,
who were confident of their mother’s availability and who were upset
when she left them, but were comforted when she returned; the avoidantly attached,
who were far more clingy and demanding around their mother, yet showed
a lack of interest in her when she returned after being away; and the ambivalently attached,
who were the most anxious and clingy around their mother, were
distressed when she left, but were angry or unable to be soothed upon
Whether a person was securely or insecurely
attached in early childhood may affect his adult relationships. If
romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then we might
expect to find similar patterns emerging.
attached person (also called “dismissive”) may have an unrealistic view
of his childhood; for example, he might admit that his parents were
abusive, but shrug this off saying, “That’s what makes me the strong
person I am today.” He does not readily reveal his emotions, and most
of his friends do not know him deeply.
ambivalently attached child may grow up to have difficulty sustaining
relationships and still holding onto anger and hurt towards her
parents. She dreads abandonment, is easily overwhelmed by her emotions,
and tends to be clingy and demanding with friends. She becomes the
“preoccupied” adult who rides a roller-coaster of romantic
The Love Quiz
In 1985 Cindy Hazan and
Philip Shaver of the University of Denver published a “love quiz” in a
local paper designed to test the impact of attachment on romantic love.
Respondents identified themselves as being characterized by one of the
following three statements:
- I find it relatively easy to
get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having
them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about
someone getting too close to me. [Secure.]
- I am somewhat
uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them
completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous
when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more
intimate than I feel comfortable being. [Avoidant.]
- I find that
others are reluctant to get as close as I would like, I often worry
that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I
want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes
scares people away. [Ambivalent.] 
you might guess, the respondents who were securely attached were also
happier and had longer-lasting relationships with fewer divorces, and
were more able to accept their partner, flaws and all. Those with the
avoidant style revealed a fear of intimacy, a lack of commitment, and a
doubt that romantic love could exist. Those indicating the ambivalent
attachment style fell in love easily, but had roller-coaster romances
marked by jealousy and obsession.
We realize as Catholics
that, whatever attachment style we may have, we are created in the
image and likeness of God and are fundamentally free—free to choose to
respond in a way different than we have before, free to accept God’s
transforming grace, and free to forgive those who may have hurt us in
the past. However, at times we may need professional guidance to help
us work through past emotional hurts that have become obstacles to our
freedom and to our capacity to love.
If you want to find out what your attachment style is, you can take a quick relationship quiz (attachment style) at www.yourpersonality.net.
P.S. Alyssa and Seth are a real couple, though their names have been changed. They
finally broke up for good, and Alyssa went on to date the fellow with whom she
was working on the project.