The Attachment Cycle
by Barbara Nicholson
Learning about our early attachment relationships with our parents can give us insight into our own adult relationships, and especially into our marital relationship. It can also shed light on how the relationship that we strive to foster with our children now will help to provide a solid foundation for their future adult relationships. This "attachment cycle" is brought out by two authors who have linked the patterns of adult relationships to the earliest relationships we form: baby and parent. In his article "Will Your Child be Happy in Love?" which appeared in the February 1995 issue of Child magazine, Robert Karen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Becoming Attached (Warner Books, 1994), states that attachment theory offers some answers to this question. He states, "Researchers now know that 'secure attachment' between infant and mother (or father, or other primary caregiver) is crucial to a child's psychological development, and that a certain style of caregiving - one that's warm, responsive, and dependable - is the key to bringing this about."
What is "secure attachment?" To a child, it is the feeling of confidence that his or her needs will be met consistently, sensitively, and lovingly. It is the knowledge that he is loved and appreciated for who he is, not on condition of how well he is behaving, or other conditions of approval. In most families the primary attachment figure in the early years is the mother, but the father also has a critical role. Children who are securely attached to both parents grow up with an emotional advantage as they grow into adult relationships. The father is a role model for his son, and in an innocent way is also the first romantic figure for his daughter. The father is the first stepping stone to the outside world for his child and his relationship with the child's mother is a powerful model for choices the child will make when picking a spouse. According to Karen's article, as adults, children who were securely attached are "more likely to love, trust, and open up to romantic partners. They will feel comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. They have a free range of feelings and memories, both positive and negative."
Susan Johnson, Ed.D., writes on this subject in the March/April 1994 issue of Psychology Today in an article entitled, "Love: the Immutable Longing for Contact." As a therapist, she has come to believe that "Attachment is the best lens for viewing adult love...attachment theory goes a long way toward explaining what goes wrong in relationships and what to do about it." She sees that our needs in adult relationships are very similar to our needs in childhood, the need for eye contact, touching, stroking, and holding give the same security and comfort we sought from our parents.
She explains: "Our personality evolves in a context of contact with other people: it doesn't simply arise from within. Our attachment needs make dependence on another person an integral part of being human. Self-sufficiency is a lie." She warns that the "John Wayne" stereotype of the self-contained man who never needs anyone is a myth. The essence of intimate contact is being vulnerable and putting contact before self-protection. In marital distress the opposite happens: self protection comes before contact.
Both authors end on a hopeful note. Even if we do not have the best relationships with our parents, we are not condemned to repeat the past. As we integrate new experiences, and build secure relationships as adults, we can grow and change. As most of us know, parenting our own children can be the most healing impetus for changing our old patterns. We often find that attachment parenting provides amazing depth to our relationship with our spouse. As we educate ourselves to the long-term benefits of attachment parenting, we become motivated as a couple to overcome the short-term inconveniences that can sometimes occur when implementing an attachment style of parenting. Then, we grow in our marriage through shared adversity and challenges, as well as through our love and understanding.