Divorce is a traumatic experience for most couples and their children. It involves the dissolution of the most significant connection between 2 adults and often their children. Understanding this connection and the meaning of its termination from an Adult Attachment perspective can assist couples, spouses, lawyers and therapists in untangling the mess and confusion of divorce and in understanding each spouse’s reaction to the divorce process.
Attachment is a lasting connection between a caregiver, usually a mother, and an infant. This connection has life-long affects on the child and adult, including sense of self, trust in relationships, ability to regulate emotions and generally success in life. Infants instinctively communicate their needs to a caregiver to ensure their basic needs for physical and emotional care are met. Without the availability of physical care such as food, cleanliness and sleep, an infant will die. Without the availability of affection, love, emotional nurturing, and comfort an infant will fail to thrive emotionally. Depending on the response of the caregiver to the infant’s signals and needs, infants develop secure or insecure attachments. Such attachments are internalized in the infants/child’s brain and continue to impact on the child’s sense of self and expectations in relationships for life. They become the template for relationships at an unconscious level. By adulthood, these templates are deeply imbedded and influence the adult’s choice of partner and spouses, their behavior in relationships and their way of parenting.
Adult Attachments serve the same function as child attachments: to find comfort, safety and nurturance in a close relationship. Adult Attachments evolve from early childhood experiences and the successes or failures from relationships in adolescence and early adulthood. Adults have the same attachment categories as children have. Dr. Mary Main developed the Attachment Categories I will be using in this article.
What You Should Know About Adult Attachment
Adults with an Autonomous Attachment generally had loving and caring parents who were emotionally available. They have good self-worth, trust in relationships and have the capacity for both closeness and independence. They tend to be resilient, adaptable, accepting of difference in others and successful in life.
One can have an insecure early childhood and develop an Autonomous or Earned Secure Adult Attachment through later positive relationship experiences or therapy.
Preoccupied/Anxious Adult Attachment
Adults with Preoccupied Adult Attachments had caregivers who were inconsistently available and absorbed by their own needs, leaving the child anxious and angry. As adults, they remain very anxious and mistrustful of the other’s availability and often are demanding and angry in their adult attachments. Their sense of self is based on other people. They tend to be very dependent on others, hypersensitive to abandonment and unavailability, have poor control of their emotions and believe they must escalate their demands to be noticed.
Such adults had parents/caregivers who were unavailable or rejecting or demanding of certain behaviors and performance. They tend to avoid close relationships by keeping busy, focusing on activities and their careers and pushing away any feelings of vulnerability or neediness. Such adults may look strong and secure, but they deactivate their needs for intimacy. They often need to be the best at what they do. Workaholics and perfectionists tend to be Dismissing Attached people. They may be caregivers but have a difficult time receiving care and nurturance.
Such adults had parents/caregivers who were neglectful or emotionally, physically or sexual abusive. Such adults tend to remain unresolved about the traumas they suffered as children. They perceive relationships as unsafe, are emotionally disorganized and may be victims or perpetrators as adults to cope with their childhood traumas. In severe cases they may be dissociative or have other severe psychological problems.
The category of Adult Attachment a person develops strongly influences their choice of partner, their trust in relationships, their behavior in their marriages and their reaction to divorce, if the marriage dissolves.
Dynamics in Relationships
People with Secure/Autonomous Attachments value close relationships, can share feelings and needs in close relationships, are able to be empathic to their partners, are able to resolve disputes with mutual satisfaction and balance closeness with autonomy. They are also able to be reciprocal, at times being the one to receive comfort and support at other times delaying this need and giving to the spouse. Adults with Autonomous Attachments typically choose secure healthy partners/spouses and have a low rate of divorce. If Securely attached adults do partner and marry an Insecure Individual, there is the possibility that the Insecure partner may develop more security by the ongoing acceptance and non-judgement of the Secure partner. There is also the possibility that in time the Secure partner will become more aware of the troubled behavior of the Insecure partner and initiate the separation/divorce. If couples who both have Secure Autonomous Attachments do divorce, such divorces are usually reasonable with minimal conflict, each partner able to be reasonable in their financial settlements and custody and access agreements. Each partner values the other’s relationship with the children and minimizes that conflict for the sake of the children.
People with Preoccupied/anxious Adult Attachments are extremely dependent on a partner/spouse for their sense of worth and most of their emotional needs. They are intense in the expression of their emotional needs and can be demanding and rageful. They are hyper vigilant to unavailability and abandonment often distorting their partner’s/spouse behavior. They often chose partners with Dismissing Attachments initially being attracted to the strength of such people, their success in their occupations and what initially appears to be a calm and safe demeanour. Preoccupied Adults believe that someone with a Dismissing Attachment will take care of them, be consistently available, trustworthy and protective.
Dismissing Attached Adults are attracted initially to a Preoccupied Attached Adult because such people present as emotional, warm, fun and more spontaneous. They believe consciously that such people will meet their emotional needs, create a social life, and bring life and sexuality to the relationship.
It is the unconscious dynamics that make the partnership between Preoccupied people and Dismissing people more vulnerable to divorce. In time the Preoccupied Attached spouse begins to feel her spouse is emotionally unavailable and even physically not present. This awareness activates the insecure attachment dynamics and the Preoccupied spouse may become more threatened, jealous of other people in the life of her spouse, more emotionally dysregulated and more demanding of her spouse. She becomes preoccupied with thoughts about her spouse being involved with other partners and distorts the reality about other relationships her/his spouse may have. Her unconscious beliefs about relationships are confirmed. No one is consistently available to her and she continues to feel angry and anxious.
The Dismissing spouse in time begins to feel that his needs and wants are not considered in the relationship with the Preoccupied spouse. Although Dismissing people are often caregivers and able to deny their own needs and feelings, in time the Dismissing Adult may begin to feel resentful that none of his needs and wants are being met. This feeling will activate the Attachment belief that no one is available, and the Dismissing adult may deactivate his/her attachment needs and become more distant and more involved in other activities and possibly other relationships. Such distancing arouses the abandonment feelings of the spouse who becomes more demanding and angrier, needing to have proof of her/his spouses’ whereabouts and possibly becoming abusive, stalking his/her spouse.
In time the dynamic between the two types of attachment becomes destructive, leading to separation and divorce.
Melissa and Frank met at a party. She was very attracted to Frank but was surprised when he approached her and then pursued her. Melissa was a little overweight, did not think she was attractive or smart. Frank was fit, handsome, successful in his career and extremely ambitious. When they dated Frank organized all their activities, often involving fitness. Melissa was happy to do what Frank chose and welcomed his encouragement for her to lose weight and get fit.
After they were married, Melissa began to feel that Frank was not available. He worked long hours, then went to the gym, came home late and had his dinner on his own. Melissa tolerated this with much anxiety and anger, until she blew up. She accused Frank of abandoning her, maybe having another woman in his life and not caring about her. Frank assured her he loved her, was working extra hours to improve their financial situation and welcomed her to join him at the gym. He promised to be more available. Melissa calmed down but Frank returned to his previous behavior. The pattern in their relationship became more extreme with Melissa becoming enraged, crying and then withdrawing to her room. Frank accused her of being crazy. Her emotionality was intolerant for him. He felt more deprived and became more resentful. Despite the difficulties in the marriage they had a child.
Neither could leave the marriage. Melissa was too dependent, and Frank could not bear the sense of failure. Eventually Melissa initiated the separation. She had met someone else and felt this person could meet more of her needs. Frank felt relieved but was concerned about Melissa’s parenting of their child. The divorce was conflict ridden. Frank was insistent on joint custody but Melissa wanted sole custody. She remained angry and resentful toward Frank. She acknowledged he was a good father but was prepared to fight him on joint custody. They eventually settled but after much conflict and expense.
Melissa is a person with a Preoccupied Attachment, who married a man with a Dismissing Adult Attachment. Each confirmed for the other their unconscious expectations that no one was fully emotionally available. This dynamic posed serious problems in their marriage, in their parenting, in their divorce proceedings and probably continues to play out in their co-parenting post-divorce.
Avoidant/Dismissing Adults may choose each other to guard against emotional intimacy. Such couples may have shared values, interests and intellectual pursuits but lack emotional generosity and empathy. The relationships between 2 Dismissing Attachment people may work well until one of the members suffers some event that requires the emotional support and nurturing of the other or involves the betrayal of the other spouse. When the care and open communication is not forthcoming the injured spouse may feel betrayed, neglected and hurt. He or she may try and communicate this pain but the unspoken agreement between these spouses is to maintain emotional distance. The injured spouse may then become more aware of the emptiness and emotional vacuum in the marriage and want to leave.
Such marriages are rare since Anxious/Preoccupied people will avoid another person who is also needy and demanding. If such marriages occur, they usually entail a deep enmeshment so neither spouse is capable of autonomy, independent decision making and boundary making. Each partner feels the other will meet all their needs and always be fully present. These marriages are very vulnerable with one of the partners usually feeling neglected and disappointed. There is no place for reciprocity which means each spouse expects the other to deny their own needs and always meet the emotional needs of the other. Although there is a deep fear of abandonment and separation triggers such fear and loss of self, one or the other partner or both will ensure another person is available before separating.
I am not going to focus on this category of Attachment for this article. A couple, in which one spouse has suffered from a childhood of trauma is more complicated. Divorce may occur because the non traumatized member can no longer cope with the emotional turmoil of the other. Or the traumatized member becomes so triggered by the actions of the spouse that he or she leaves impulsively, may require hospitalization, or cannot function. Such marriages are often unstable with a number of separations and unpredictable behavior.
Find part two of this article here.
Annette is a registered Social Worker, registered Marriage and Family Therapist and advanced
attachment focused therapist. She has worked in children’s mental health as a therapist, supervisor,
manager and clinical director. She was the owner/director of the Leaside Therapy Centre, a multi-
discipline clinic in Toronto until 2012. www.annettekussintherapy.com