Avoid Divorce - Pick the Right Partner Using Science (Attachment Theory)

attachment theory Oct 20, 2022

What is this subject doing in a blog about divorce?

Well, if you don’t want to get divorced (again), you will definitely want to read this!

Adult attachment theory may well be the most important key to creating healthy, functional intimate relationships.  It may also expose the underlying problem in most marriages that end up in divorce.

Before I begin discussing this issue in detail, I want to acknowledge an excellent, well-researched book, which I read cover to cover in preparing to write this blog.  The book is Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has additional interest in this subject matter.

Adult Attachment Theory

Adult attachment theory focuses on the ways in which people perceive and respond to intimacy in romantic relationships. There are three main attachment styles:  Secure, Anxious and Avoidant.

1 – About fifty percent (50%) of the population is securely attached.  Those with a secure attachment style are warm, loving and comfortable with intimacy.

2 – Approximately twenty percent (20%) of the population have an anxious attachment style.  People with an anxious attachment style desperately desire intimacy, but worry continually about their relationships and their partner’s ability to love them.

3 – Twenty-five percent (25%) of the population have an avoidant attachment style.  Adults with an avoidant attachment style want intimacy – but only at a distance, because they fear losing their independence.

** The remaining three to five percent (3-5%) fall into a fourth, less common category.  This category is a combination of both anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

How do you find out your attachment style?  Well, you could read Attached. There is an attachment style inventory in the book.  Otherwise, you can go online and find additional resources.  You may even know intuitively what your attachment style is after reading this section.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people with different attachment styles have different needs with respect to intimacy and togetherness.  They also approach the subjects of conflict, sex, and communication from different angles.  Finally, they have different expectations about the partners, and their relationships, generally.

In Attached, the authors point out that the knowledge of attachment styles can be an easy and reliable way to both comprehend and forecast a partner’s behavior in a romantic relationship.  As it turns out, one’s attachment style results in pre-programmed responses in relationship.

  • Securely attached people trust themselves and their environments, and are able to easily articulate their needs through communication.
  • Anxiously attached folks feel insecure in relationship, and deal with their insecurity by being hyper-vigilant about their partner and their relationships.  Anxiously attached people want to stay very close to their partners, and are often branded as “clingy” or “needy.”  When their needs are not met, those with anxious attachment styles often use what is known as protest behavior.  I call it acting out.  In any event, they act out to get their needs met.  Often, the protest behavior has nothing to do with the real need that is going unmet.  In other words, an argument over taking out the trash may really be due to the underlying need of the anxious partner to feel supported in the relationship.
  • Finally, those with avoidant attachment styles are uncomfortable being too close to others and often find it difficult to depend upon someone else.  When someone gets to close, they employ “deactivating strategies,” which are behaviors or thoughts that are used to squelch intimacy and disengage from their partners.

Ideally, both those with anxious and avoidant attachment styles would end up with securely attached partners.  Why?  Because people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles become more secure in relationship with someone who is securely attached!   The securely attached person values the needs of the partner as importantly as his/her own.  So, the person with an anxious attachment style gets their needs for closeness and intimacy readily met by a securely attached partner, without having to resort to protest behavior.  A securely attached person is also able to value the independence of a partner with an avoidant attachment style, while still providing closeness and intimacy.

But guess what?  People with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are not initially attracted to someone with a secure attachment! Rather, those who have anxious and avoidant attachment styles are often attracted to each other!  This is what the authors of Attached refer to as the anxious-avoidant trap.

The anxious-avoidant trap is a collision between two people with vastly different relationship needs.  Their union is likely to be turbulent, as opposed to a safe-harbor for each.  After eighteen years in practice, I can tell you that I see this dysfunctional pairing so often, I believe it must be a predictor for divorce.

The partner who is anxiously attached craves intimacy, while the partner with an avoidant attachment style feels uncomfortable when things become too close.  Neither party is secure in the relationship.  Rather, both parties are trapped in a vicious cycle of exacerbating their respective insecurities.  The anxious partner may want to be exclusive, move in together, or get married.  The avoidant partner may want to see other people, maintain separate residences, and avoid formal commitments.  Further, the anxious partner is often the one who makes concessions in the relationship, accepting the “rules” imposed by the avoidant partner, all in an attempt to keep the relationship, and access to some amount of intimacy and closeness, intact. Sound familiar?

Here is what was most stunning to me: People with an anxious attachment style will misinterpret the activation of their attachment style for “the spark” or “chemistry” or “passion” with a prospective partner.  In order words, feeling inexorably drawn to someone (think love at first sight) can be a BIG RED FLAG that you have just met someone with an avoidant attachment style!  Those with avoidant attachment styles often experience this in a slightly different way.  They often pine for the “phantom ex” who was “the one” who got away, as a way to avoid intimacy and commitment with the person they are currently dating!

In contrast, people with both anxious and avoidant attachment styles tend to feel calm in the presence of a securely attached partner.  The messages from someone with a secure attachment are sincere, straightforward and consistent.  These folks feel worthy of love and are not afraid of intimacy.  They don’t engage in games, beat around the bush or play hard to get.  They also communicate their needs and desires well.  Mixed messages, tension and suspense go out the door.  Yet, sometimes this can be experienced as boredom or difference by someone with an anxious or avoidant attachment style, who expects bells, whistles, heavenly choruses or rainbows in their wine to anoint the appearance of “one.”

Here’s the great news.  If someone with an anxious or an avoidant attachment style can reframe boredom and indifference for what it really is (caring, concern and availability), then their likelihood for success and happiness in relationship goes up exponentially.  A person with either an anxious or avoidant attachment style, who forms a relationship with someone securely attached, has a better functioning, less conflicted, and more highly satisfying union.  Why? The secure partner acts as a buffer, who nurtures their partner into a more secure and highly functioning position in the relationship.

Why does this matter if I am divorced?

It matters, because it is highly likely that you will not remain single forever!  You will go on to have other relationships, and, if you desire to have a future relationship that is loving, nurturing and functional, then a little knowledge of attachment theory can help you get there!