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Attachment theory has generated a lot of press attention recently. But Couple Fits is the first book to apply the principles to building healthier relationships and reducing conflict. Our first attachment relationship—as infants to our mothers—remains with us throughout our lives, and determines our future relationships with others. This book describes the three styles of attachment and provides a self-test so readers are able to determine their own style and their partner's. The authors then give tips for each ...
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Attachment theory has generated a lot of press attention recently. But Couple Fits is the first book to apply the principles to building healthier relationships and reducing conflict. Our first attachment relationship—as infants to our mothers—remains with us throughout our lives, and determines our future relationships with others. This book describes the three styles of attachment and provides a self-test so readers are able to determine their own style and their partner's. The authors then give tips for each possible combination of attachment types. Readers will learn:
• The identity of the three attachment styles: Secure, Avoidant, and Ambivalent
• How to communicate with your partner more effectively about your wants and needs, and encourage him/her to do the same
• How to "read" arguments correctly, by recognizing the issues at stake
• How to give negative feedback in a positive way, so that disagreements don't escalate into major fights
Ways of Connecting:
Introducing Attachment Theory
A man and woman—we'll call them Bill and Mary Smith—came to our office for help. After four contented years together, their marriage was shaky. Bill and Mary loved each other, they said; they just weren't liking each other much anymore, and they didn't seem to be able to talk without starting a fight.
Over the course of several sessions, we learned a lot about the Smiths. Like most newlyweds, these two had begun their marriage with a reservoir of goodwill, loving feelings, and high hopes. They enjoyed a lot of the same things, they said, like football, hiking, and going out to restaurants and movies. They disliked the same things, like Thai food, country music, and the Republican party. Back then, sex was frequent and satisfying. They worked hard, made nice money, and hoped to buy a house and start a family. Back then, they rarely argued about who should throw in a load of laundry or take the car for an oil change.
Despite these shared interests and compatible drives, Mary and Bill were not carbon copies of each other. Mary tended to be emotional, voluble, and happiest when she was involved in all the details of her husband's life. Bill was laid back, a man who didn't enjoy initiating conversation and preferred to take care of business on his own. Bill, generally, was delighted that Mary showed so much interest in him and did most of the talking. Mary, generally, found that living with such a relaxed and apparently cool and confident partner madeher feel reassured and calmer than she used to be.
These were two people seemingly meant to be together. But lately, life had thrown them a few curves, and the differences that had seemed complementary were causing them pain. The past several months had been a rocky patch for Bill, who lost his management job in a downsizing purge. Being unemployed, a new and corrosive experience for him, made Bill moody and restless. The Smiths weren't hurting for money, but tension between the two was thick and mounting. They were getting on each other's nerves.
Whenever Bill came home from a job interview, for example, Mary peppered him with questions before the door was even closed behind him. When he received a phone call, she hovered nearby, making little hand gestures in an effort to find out who was calling or to suggest what he should say. The more she hovered, the more he withdrew; his responses to her overtures and questions became more and more perfunctory. The more he withdrew, the more agitated and argumentative or sullen and hurt she became.
Mary started to perceive her husband's laid-back attitude as indifference to her. "It's like pulling teeth to get this guy to tell me the simplest thing," she said. Bill was too far away for her comfort.
Bill started to perceive his wife as intrusive and demanding; her interest felt to Bill like nagging. "I wish she'd just get off my back—or out of my face all the time," he said. Mary was too close for his comfort.
Often these days, spats over nothing much flared up between them. As Bill sat reading his newspaper one evening, Mary suddenly charged in from the kitchen and yanked the paper out of his hands. "You're not even reading that, are you?" she shouted. "You just like having a physical barrier up so you don't have to talk to me." Personalizing her partner's behavior, she took it as an attack on her. The next morning as they walked toward their car, which Mary had left on the street the night before, Bill had a comment to make about her parking job: "Did you pay off the guy to skip the parallel parking part of your driver's test? It's nothing short of a miracle that we still have a left fender." Angry at his partner for being perpetually in his face, he came up with an unrelated complaint and a bit of sarcasm to put her down.
Privately, each sometimes wondered whether the marriage had been such a great idea in the first place.
In this time of stress, Bill and Mary Smith were demonstrating different attachment styles, or different ways of behaving in order to stay comfortably close to (or distant from) each other. Bill pulls away from his partner and constrains his feelings, both to himself and to Mary. Trying to keep everything under wraps, he wishes Mary would settle down and leave him alone. Bill is avoidant.
Uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy, the avoidant's behavior is uninvolved and withholding. Emotionally distant relationships feel best to this individual, who believes that conflict should be averted at all costs.
Mary lets her feelings run away with her; she's either all over her partner, plucking at him for reassurance and connection, or silent and fuming ominously. Much of the time she connects with Bill by fighting with him, which only makes her more disquieted. Her darting-in/darting-out behaviors signal an anxious or ambivalent style.
The ambivalent feels unsure about the availability of others, and is very worried about being abandoned. This individual's relationships are typically feisty, characterized by a lot of arguing or a lot of needy loving.
Unless those styles could be reconciled, Mary and Bill were on a collision course.
Happily, we can report, that crash never happened; the marriage survived and then thrived. Bill will always be avoidant. Mary will always be ambivalent. Attachment styles don't go away. But two people can move toward a deeper understanding and acceptance of each other's style, and discover how to act in ways that do not threaten the heart of the relationship. For Mary and Bill, that meant adapting and putting into practice some of the reactions that typically characterize a secure style, one that allows for more open communication, more rational confrontation of issues, and eventual adjustment and moving on. They learned over time to identify each other's attachment patterns, make sense of them, and proceed to modify and renegotiate many ways they responded to each other. They recognized those elements of each one's style that had brought them happily together in the first place—Bill's relaxed, aloof manner and Mary's passionate, noisy manner—and could appreciate that such behavior was neither all good nor all bad. They learned how to forge a more successful couple fit.
Attachment styles have a simple function: They are the behaviors we all use to feel the greatest degree of emotional comfort and security in intimate interactions, most especially with a love partner.
Each of us acquires a particular style in infancy, as mother and baby give and receive comfort in their own unique ways, based on a combination of factors—baby's temperament, genetic wiring, and overall health; mom's temperament, child-raising beliefs, and psychological "baggage"; socioeconomic and other family characteristics, and so on. (We refer here and in the following chapter most often to mothers because, obviously, mother/child is the significant early pairing for the great majority of children. But an attachment style will evolve between a youngster and any primary caregiver or caregivers.)
Even before an infant is old enough to start toddling around on his own, he has developed a strategy for managing his most important relationship—with Mom, his first love object. He's learned how to handle his emotions—affection, anger, anxiety, fear—in ways that make him feel okay. He's worked out his first, most primitive and most powerful survival mechanism.
Like the baby bear in the old nursery rhyme, our youngster is determined that life be not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft, but just right. He wants to be attached to Mom in a way that feels close enough and distant enough. He doesn't want to be asked for more than he can give or expect more than he will receive. He wants to feel comfortable.
Much substantial research has revealed this surprising fact: Those most-comfortable behaviors can be clumped into just three patterns or primary attachment styles: secure, avoidant, and ambivalent. Our baby has learned to handle his emotions by dealing with them head on, or by denying and dodging them, or by feeling anxious and overwhelmed by them.
As that child grows up, his primary style sticks with him, functioning as his central organizing system for getting along with other people and the predominant way he identifies himself in relationships. But as he goes to school, makes friends, becomes an adult, gets a job, and in other ways moves ever outward and onward, he learns what works and what doesn't in the world at large. And what works best most of the time, he may discover, is essentially secure behavior—to be pleasantly responsive and adequately responsible, to take appropriate actions, to try to be tolerant and understanding, to face up to conflicts constructively, to not call people nasty names.
With classmates, pals, bosses, or co-workers, then, the avoidant's or the ambivalent's primary style is not always front and center. Distance, maturity, social graces, and workplace savvy all help her to accommodate to the life around her—to behave acceptably within the many interactions she encounters, showing her true attachment colors only in insignificant bits and pieces. A born avoidant, for example—an individual who's constitutionally uncomfortable expressing her needs, displaying emotions, or asking for help—may behave quite forthrightly on the job: acknowledging and working out differences, offering personal opinions, being confrontational when the occasion warrants. The dyed-in-the-wool ambivalent, whose instinct is to charge into battle, may be perfectly capable of keeping a lid on rash behavior at work.
Even the level-headed secure may be given to the occasional irrational outburst or head-in-the-sand reaction in the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day business of life. Indeed, any avoidant, ambivalent, or secure will display a sprinkling of behaviors from across the styles.
Then one day our grown-up falls in love. He joins forces with the person who will be his lover, best friend, partner, soul mate, spouse; he is once again linked to a principal attachment figure. Emotionally, it is as if he is back in the cradle. He feels, as he did when his life began, "I can cope with the world because I have you."
And he will tend to handle the emotions that flow between lovers according to the primary style he developed as an infant—by meeting, dodging, or being utterly overwhelmed by them. His partner, meanwhile, is doing the same. This is by no means necessarily a prescription for disaster. As two people figure out ways to handle conflicts, their attachment styles may work well together and even account for a lot of the juice between them.
But the path of any relationship, as we know, is never everlastingly smooth, and love does not conquer all. Stress comes from without (somebody loses a job, a baby is born, a child needs special help, somebody gets sick, somebody has an affair) or from within (one partner starts feeling ignored or senses that she and her lover have drifted apart or wonders why she isn't getting as much out of this union as she expected to). Then each partner's predominant attachment behavior surfaces in its purest form, with good or damaging results.
Listen to Bill and Mary Smith again, as they recalled some childhood memories.
Mary remembered her parents as being "preoccupied," caught up in their own interests and concerns. Her father was a professional illustrator, a naturalist, and an ardent fly-fisherman; her mother was an accomplished artist who sketched landscapes. When they went on outings to pursue those passions, Mary always longed to go with them. She would beg and plead, or throw an occasional temper tantrum, or promise to be good. Sometimes her parents gave in to her pleadings and took her with them; many times they didn't. Mary never knew when her requests would be heeded or why. Her parents' reactions seemed to be based on how they happened to be feeling that day, and had little to do with Mary's attempts to influence them.
Mary's mother alternated between over- and underinvolvement in her daughter's schoolwork. Mary remembered this incident: "When I was in fourth grade, we had to produce a drawing of some living creature. My mother made the drawing for me, a sketch of a butterfly with gorgeous wings that looked as if they were stained glass. I didn't want her to do this, but she told me I should say I made the picture. She said, `You could do this yourself if you had more time,' although I knew that wasn't true. So I handed in the drawing, and the teacher raved about it and asked me how long it had taken. I had no idea so I said ten minutes. That night my mother was furious with me and said I had to go in the next day and say the drawing had actually taken me an hour. So I did that, feeling like everybody knew I was a total fraud."
During that same year, Mary struggled mightily with her arithmetic homework. Although her parents were aware of the hard time she was having, neither offered assistance.
Here's Bill: "My parents prized independence. They still do—they're kind of free thinkers, they don't follow the expected paths." Bill, the oldest of three siblings, was allowed a lot of latitude from an early age. He was never told when he had to be home from school, for example, and he spent many hours exploring in the woods around his home and amassing elaborate rock and leaf collections. Bill was often reminded he was "a big boy" and should keep an eye out for his younger brother and sister.
Bill said, "One of my mother's favorite expressions, if I started to tell her about some problem or something, was `Cut to the solution.' Long-windedness is not encouraged in my family! My folks always conveyed the message that you don't dwell on what's happened—you figure out what to do and get going." This message, he thought, accounted for a lot of his proud and fiercely self-reliant nature.
Mealtimes were often quiet: "My mother and father are huge readers, and they always had a book going. Either of them or sometimes both would be reading during dinner. We could read too if we wanted to, and we had these little metal stands you could prop your book on." One evening, Bill remembered, he was happy to have his book up there in front of him. Still hurting from a friend's rejection earlier that day, he felt on the verge of tears, and didn't want the others to see his face.
From her parents' inconsistent reactions to her wishes and her need for support, we might guess Mary picked up early on a notion that she could do little to affect the behavior of others. She had to keep pressing to get her way, but her efforts to pull them to her or keep them a little further removed from her affairs sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.
From his parents' reluctance to put much store in the emotional side of life, Bill learned not to ask for or expect attention to his feelings. He adopted the belief that to succeed with others it was necessary to keep one's problems to one-self and take independent action to solve them.
We'll explore this intriguing matter of how attachment styles take root and grow a little more thoroughly in the next chapter.
Posted March 11, 2000
I was at first astonished and then delighted to recognize myself in Cohen's examples of marital attachment styles. So clear are her examples and so sensitive her insights that I felt as though I had my own personal marriage counselor right there with me. I am grateful for the illumination I gained and this book has inspired me to pursue more personal therapy so that I can enjoy this kind of relevant self-knowledege throughout my life. I wish Evelyn Cohen was my therapist!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.