Our early attachment experiences as babies and infants inform all our relationships in later life. They are the backdrop to every romantic entanglement and disentanglement, to every Machiavellian workplace manoeuvre, to how we operate as parents. They can be felt in the raw anguish of John Lennon’s voice as he sings “Mother.” It is through early attachment that we become who we are. Attachment, too, provides an X-ray vision into our relationship patterns, which as a result can be broadly broken down into 6 different types. But first, a little background.
Attachment: How we relate—then and now
The idea that children seek strong, nurturing early relationships with caregivers for optimal social and emotional development, was formulated by John Bowlby in the 1950s, following a World War in which so many attachments were violated. His ideas were strenuously resisted by the psychoanalysts and drive theorists of the day, but gradually his position became accepted as more child studies revealed the impacts of early maltreatment. Paraphrasing Schopenhauer, attachment theory, like all truth, first was ridiculed, then violently opposed, then accepted as self-evident.
Largely thanks to Bowlby, many of the old parenting norms, such as limiting newborns’ exposure to their parents in maternity wards, rationing the attention parents paid to babies, and even subjecting them to prolonged periods of isolation outdoors, fell out of vogue in the 1950s and ’60s. These anachronistic attitudes live on in spirit still, however, with notions of “controlled crying” and bestselling parenting guides that reject “baby-led” approaches in favour of the imposition of strict and sometimes cruel one-size-fits-all routines peddled by the likes of Gina Ford.
In the 1960s and ’70s, one of Bowlby’s former researchers, Mary Ainsworth, devised and developed a study in which infants were subjected to brief, controlled separations from their mothers. It became known as The Strange Situation. Ainsworth discovered that the children’s behaviour fell into specific patterns of responding, which were dictated by the habitual patterns of communications between mother and child. This gave rise to a classification system of attachment styles or “schemas”:
• “Secure”: The infant misses the mother on separation, shows signs of distress, is comforted on return, then quickly resumes play. Ainsworth said that securely attached children are beneficiaries of “maternal sensitivity”—the mother’s ability to notice the infant’s signals, interpret them correctly, and respond appropriately and quickly—a skill known as attunement. Two-thirds of infants are estimated as being “secure.” Or, at least, secure enough.
• “Insecure-avoidant”: The child shows few overt signs of missing the parent on separation, offers little protest, then ignores and avoids her on return and continues to play throughout—an apparent unemotional indifference. However, physiological studies show there is a significant nervous/stress response. The child has typically experienced consistent maternal unresponsiveness, insensitivity or rejection—postnatal depression can have such consequences—and in response deliberately detaches.
• “Insecure-ambivalent/preoccupied”: The infant is greatly distressed on separation and highly focussed on the parent, and cannot be soothed on return, alternating between clinging and displays of anger, and generally failing to return to play. This is associated with inconsistent responsiveness or availability from the mother, sometimes including moments of intrusiveness—when mothering becomes smothering. This parental Jekyll & Hyde inconsistency, an example of “intermittent reinforcement,” leads to a maximised focus on the attachment system—the baby becomes an expert in interpreting and predicting the mother’s mood. Donald Winnicott memorably described this as “studying the weather.” (A fourth category, “insecure-disorganized/disoriented,” added in 1990, is reserved for those rare, tragic children whose odd, erratic and inappropriate behaviour shows no consistency. They have generally been victims of frightening or disorienting patterns of communication from the parent; fear and love get mixed up. Such children are at the greatest risk of developing psychiatric problems.)
Many studies have shown the persistence of attachment styles across generations. Secure children generally have secure mothers; insecure-avoidant children have “dismissing,” unresponsive mothers; insecure-ambivalent children have “preoccupied,” inconsistently responsive mothers. (Insecure-disorganized/disoriented children have “unresolved,” terrifying mothers.)
These categories are of course gross simplifications. I like to think of attachment as a spectrum; a bell curve. The dial on the attachment meter is marked “cold” at one end and “hot” on the other. Dismissive/avoidant people are deactivated; underinvolved with emotions and with other people, cherishing their own autonomy, self-reliance, stiff upper lip. Preoccupied people, by contrast, are hyperactivated; overinvolved with emotions and other people, organising their behaviour around their emotions, often letting their heart rule their head. Secure people—“warm” on the dial—fall somewhere in the middle. We all constantly jump around on this scale—the “temperature” is in constant flux—though for each of us there is a default setting dictated by childhood attachments.
What’s your default setting? And what’s the setting of your partner, or partners past, or imagined partners in the future? Here are my 6 archetypal relationships derived from the matrix of possible hot-warm-cold combos—again, I acknowledge that this is just a simple model, a coarse categorisation that masks all kinds of varied partnerships. Each and every relationship, of course, is unique. Read the descriptions, decide what colour your relationship is, then tell us by taking the poll.
1. The Yellow Couple: When “avoidant” meets “avoidant” (cold+cold)
Terry & June
This can be a stable but oh-so-quiet, arid kind of connection. These are the couples who keep a polite distance from their own feelings, from each other, and from everyone else. They marvel that over all the years, they’ve never had an argument. They sit in silence in restaurants with nothing to say. Conversation—and sex—petered out years ago; they’ve lost any physical and emotional intimacy, if they ever had it. They appear to be biding time, waiting for the end, existing rather than living. “Anything for a quiet life” is their coda. They sip their tea from matching mugs that say: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This can be a stale, fetid pool where marriages might collect if left unattended. I can’t really remember much about the unrelentingly beige 1980s sitcom “Terry and June” save that it seems to represent perfectly a certain kind of suffocating, suburban existence. For American readers, it’s hard to find an equivalent to this uniquely British celebration of the mundane. Maybe Terry and June are roughly what "Friends" Chandler and Monica might become after moving to Connecticut.
Burton & Taylor
Fireworks every day! This relationship—which often starts as an illicit affair—is a volatile, tumultuous, dramatic roller-coaster full of passion, obsession and jealousy, with violent storms and ecstatic sunsets; a potent cocktail of love and hate, break-ups and make-ups, and lots of sex. Alas, whether it’s Romeo & Juliet, Bonnie & Clyde or Sid & Nancy, the relationship is doomed to self-destruct. The fireworks burn everyone in sight, or simply burn out, and the show is over. Motto: “Can’t live with you, can’t live without you.” Richard Burton and Liz Taylor were both married when they began their affair. They had a white-knuckle ride of 10 years of marriage, then divorced. “You can't keep clapping a couple of sticks [of dynamite] together without expecting them to blow up,” said Burton. The divorce didn’t hold: they remarried a year later, then redivorced a few months after that. Between them they had 13 marriages.
Charles & Diana
Opposites attract . . . until they annoy. The former, the avoidant one, loves the excitement, drama and passion of the latter. The latter loves the security, peace and calm of the former. But gradually, after the honeymoon period, these kinds if couplings can dissolve into a never-ending argument between never-enough and always-too-much, the nagger and the nagged, Felix and Oscar in “The Odd Couple”; "Abigail's Party." The avoidant half is mystified that he is constantly berated for leaving his shoes in the wrong place, or buying the wrong kind of pasta, or any number of seemingly-trivial offences that the preoccupied partner sees as more entries on the huge and ever-growing rap sheet of you-don’t-really-love-me slights. So he curls up in a ball, like a hedgehog, which enrages the neglected partner even further, exacerbating the problem. Maybe she eventually abandons the boring hedgehog and his unwelcoming spikes and goes looking for love instead. After 13 years together, Prince Charles said his marriage to Lady Di had “irretrievably broken down.” What’s remarkable is it lasted that long. The monarchy hoped it might turn yellow, or perhaps beige, but Diana wanted brighter colours.
Bogie & Bacall
A well-adjusted person, often female, might be drawn to a “strong, silent type,” often male. The latter gets to bask in the charm, vivaciousness and social network of the former without actually having to contribute or do much. Eventually the more secure partner tires of the avoidant’s moribund lack of generosity, his paucity of spirit, his refusal to engage—to live. She now sees his once so seemingly strong silence for what it really is: fear. She leaves him behind—he can’t be budged from the sofa, or his laptop—goes out on her own, and has a good time among her many close friends. Maybe she meets someone new. Unless they can meet halfway. “Successful marriage is the infinite capacity for taking pains,” said Humphrey Bogart of his fourth-time-lucky union with feisty Lauren Bacall, 25 years his junior. “I guess I didn’t take quite enough pains over the other three.”
Bill & Hillary
The secure partner can be a real anchor for the preoccupied person, if she’s willing to put up with his excesses and be supportive. Preoccupied people ride on emotions—their own and other people’s. As a result they often have an ability to connect, swiftly and deeply. They have a lot of libidinal energy that can manifest in conversation, charm, creativity—and cheating. They love their partner dearly . . . but they love everyone else, too—especially other highly-charged, preoccupied people. Lots of successful people have a high-rev, preoccupied attachment style—and a secure, rock-steady partner. There are lots of David Furnishes who put up with the tantrums and hissy-fits of the Elton Johns of this world. There are lots of Marge Simpsons who forgive their Homers time and again. Despite the enormity of the public humiliation and shame, the Clintons are still together—Hillary did not desert Bill. Society is however far less forgiving of women who stray and too much follow their heart. From Anna Karenina to Madame Bovary, from the bunny boiler in “Fatal Attraction” to the disgraceful contemporary phenomenon known as “slut shaming,” the femme fatale gets punished.
John & Yoko
You are alike but not too alike. There is safety and security but also uncertainty and excitement. Your partner is someone you know really well, yet also a complete mystery. There is yin and yang. On the vast, complex board game of relationships, this might seem like the winning square, the destination; a place to call “home.” The optimistic goal of hopeful but troubled couples who haven’t quite yet given up on their ancient vows, who doggedly drag themselves week after week to see a relationship counsellor, who keep trying, against the odds, despite it all, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.
In truth, we never quite get there. Thinking that we “should”—that there’s a fundamental flaw in any relationship that hasn’t arrived in this exalted place, this mythical land of wine, roses and happily ever afters—is a major cause of marital dissatisfaction, discord and divorce. In fact, any of the 6 relationship types can work just fine. No one can say one is better than another. Every square on the board game contains a potential treasure chest of love and happiness.
Not getting there, actually, is kind of the point. Love is a process, one that is not meant to run smooth. For as long as a relationship lasts, it is a commitment, a choice, a belief (“I don't believe in Beatles,” John Lennon sang in “God” in 1970. “I just believe in me. Yoko and me. And that's reality.”) It is work, the kind of work that is really helped along by insight into, understanding of, and making allowances for your self, your partner, and the relational dynamics between you. It is helped, too, by communication, not just in words but feelings; by generosity; by play; by laughter.
Love is not a destination. It is not some kind of heaven. Because heaven, as the song goes, is a place where nothing ever happens. If you ever find yourself there, there’s one thing you’ll know for sure: the game is over.