Attachment Theory tells us that we instinctively seek out relationships to provide us with security and a safe haven to return when there are stresses in our daily lives (find part one of this two-part article here).
Adult Attachment and Reactions to Divorce
Attachment theory also predicts that our early childhood relationships will determine if we choose partners/spouses who can provide this secure base or pick spouses who will confirm that relationships are not secure and safe places to find love and protection. Attachment Theory can also help us predict which marital relationships will not bring mutual satisfaction and are vulnerable to separation and divorce. Adults with insecure attachments will either pick a spouse who is not capable of closeness and is not trustworthy or who, themselves, will not be able to maintain a healthy reciprocal, trustworthy relationship. There are many studies to indicate that Attachment categories are strongly predictive of relationship dynamics and therefore marital dissolution.
Attachment Theory also offers a useful paradigm for understanding the reactions of each spouse to the divorce and which category is more vulnerable to maintaining the conflict, not accepting the demise of the marriage, remaining angry and vengeful and involving children in harmful ways. Divorce is a stressful event and challenges humans’ primary needs for a secure base in a relationship.
“Insecure Individuals are particularly likely to break down after loss or separation because the separation confirms their worst fears and expectations. The divorce is likely to reactivate earlier unresolved separations from attachment figures and because insecure individuals lack the inner resources and coping strategies needed for adjusting to divorce, they are likely to have difficult dealing with the loss.”
Although people with Autonomous Adult Attachments are most likely do remain in long term marriages such marriages can end. Such couples can develop separate needs and interests and recognize that the present marriage does not fulfill them as once it did. Such couples may have tried to reconcile such differences but both members of the couple agree that separating is the best option. Even if one party in the marriage is not wanting the divorce, they are able accept this reality without harm to the other party of the children.
Secure people may feel devastated by the divorce, betrayed and angry at a spouse and concerned about the affects on the children. However, they can be thoughtful and introspective, so use rational thinking when developing a separation agreement. They are able to acknowledge their feelings, not allow such feelings to determine what is best for their children and in time move on to create another meaningful adult relationship.
Preoccupied Attached Adults
People with Preoccupied/Anxious Attachments are often devastated by the divorce although the couple has discussed it, tried to reconcile differences and agree the marriage is unsatisfactory. For Preoccupied Adults, the divorce activates all the fears of abandonment and the desperate need to reengage and pursue the divorcing spouse. They will use many manipulative tactics to engage the leaving spouse, including seduction, charm, promises of self-control, engaging relatives, and children to pressure the leaving spouse to remain in the marriage. Once it becomes clear to the Preoccupied spouse that the husband or wife is leaving, feelings of anger, revenge and jealousy are activated and the divorce will become a conflictual and spiteful process.
Some Preoccupied individuals who recognize the marriage is in jeopardy will have engaged in another intimate relationship, so another partner is in waiting. This can minimize the fear of abandonment, but not the hurt by and anger at the leaving spouse and preoccupation with how and why the marriage ended.
Such individuals are the most challenging in divorce proceedings and even after the divorce may remain angry and vengeful, causing ongoing conflict with access to children and other issues. They have great difficulty adjusting to the loss of the marriage, mourning this loss and creating other satisfying life choices.
Dismissing Avoidant Adults
People with this category of Attachment may have the easiest adjustment to divorce since they were not fully emotionally invested in the relationship. They are more invested in deactivating their attachment needs and focusing on success in jobs and professions and other activities. They may be successful at the executive functioning aspect of marriage and parenting but avoid any emotional intimacy in these relationships. They also may present as more reasonable in any divorce proceedings and it is easy for those professionals involved to be more sympathetic and supportive of the Dismissing member of the marriage.
Dismissing adults are more likely to initiate separation and divorce, particularly if they married Preoccupied Attached spouses. They may have felt deprived for many years and eventually recognized that their needs will not be met in the marriage. Such people tend to be more rational and even removed from the normal emotional turmoil of divorce. They may feel relieved to be free of the emotionally reactive and overly dependent spouse.
Dismissing adults will try and remain calm and reasonable in the divorce proceedings. Their brain is functioning optimally in the rational section of the brain but not integrated into their emotional brain. This allows them to focus on a separation agreement and the decisions regarding parenting with more rationality and practical solutions. They may be unable to be sympathetic to the feelings of loss for their spouse or the children.
Dismissing Adults are able to move forward from the divorce in less time than preoccupied adults. They may become more involved in their work, their extracurricular activities or develop another relationship to avoid feeling the loss, pain and sense of failure involved in the demise of a marriage. Their avoidance of their needs and feelings will allow a more pain free divorce but they are likely to repeat this pattern in other close relationships.
Adult Attachment and Parenting During and After Divorce
Secure/Autonomous Attached Parents
Parents with secure attachments will be aware of and empathic to the affects of divorce on their children. They will assure their children that both parents will be available to them, that parents will make the major decisions related to the custody and access but include the feelings, needs and wants of their children in decisions. They will be respectful of the other parent’s relationship with the children and support easy access to both parents. They will create a parenting plan that will meet the developmental needs of their children and attempt to implement this with as little conflict as possible. They are sensitive to the difficulty for their children leaving either spouse and try to minimize the pain and sadness in creating a new life for the children.
Generally secure divorcing parents minimize conflict, even when one ex-spouse is not supportive of the divorce. If only one parent has a secure autonomous attachment, this can mitigate against the harm that the other insecure parent can inflict on children. The Secure parent will try to avoid conflict, keep their children removed from the parental conflict and be positive and realistic about the personality of the other parent. This will be challenging if the Insecure parent is determined to create havoc post divorce but even one secure environment is helpful to children of divorce.
Parents with Preoccupied Attachments
Parents with Preoccupied Attachments will continue to be inconsistently available to their children, more focused on their own needs and their preoccupation with their anger, hurt and disbelief that the marriage is over. They may continue to contact the ex-spouse, try to entice them back into the marriage or interfere in the parenting arrangements. In their highly emotional state, such parents are not attuned to the needs of their children and are not able to support their children having a healthy relationship with the ex-spouse. They will engage their children in their anger at the ex-spouse, bad mouthing the ex-spouse, blaming him or her for the end of the marriage and creating obstacles to access. They may demand that their children be loyal to them and reject any relationship with the other parents.
In their neediness preoccupied parents may create enmeshed relationships with their children, expecting their children to take care of them and not develop autonomous relationship with the other parents or even friends and grandparents. Such children’s sense of self will be enmeshed with that of the Preoccupied parent and they will remain dependent, needy and poorly self-regulated.
Dismissing Avoidant Parents Post Divorce
Dismissing parents may not have developed a close relationship with their children or the relationship may be based on the child’s success at school or in activities or in ensuring a self-centered parent’s needs are met. Dismissing parents may continue to be involved with their children post-divorce in taking their children to activities or in having them visit without providing an emotionally close relationship in which children can express their feelings about the divorce. Dismissing parents may also move on and re partner or remarry and create another family. The minimal emotional connection to the children from the first marriage may become less significant and contact may be minimal or not at all.
Employing Adult Attachment Knowledge
If you identify with the category of Preoccupied Adult Attachment, divorce will bring out your worst insecurity, that no one is consistently available to you. You will experience extreme anxiety and anger but will have to learn how to regulate this. You will also have to try and distract yourself from your preoccupation with the thoughts of how this could have happened and how your spouse could have abandoned you. The greatest challenge for you will be letting go of the marriage, developing more autonomy and valuing yourself more. If you have entered a new relationship before the divorce you likely will repeat the pattern of your marriage.
If you place yourself in the Category of Dismissing Adult Attachment, you may be relieved to dissolve your marriage. You may avoid the feelings of loss, sadness and failure by staying busy and focusing on your profession or occupation. You may enter into serial relationships or another relationship before you are emotionally available to make this meaningful. Your ex-spouses’ intense emotional reactions may reinforce your distancing and repression of your feelings of pain and mourning. You will need to mourn the ending of your marriage and the hopes and dreams you had for it before developing a new relationship.
Both types of Adult Attachment have negative effects on the children of divorce. Understanding your attachment with compassion for yourself, may allow you, as a divorcing adult, to focus on the needs and feelings of your children without allowing your insecurity to dominate how co-parenting can proceed post-divorce. Understanding your Adult Attachment with compassion may help you to accept the ending of your marriage, examine your part in its problems and demise and seek therapy to work at earning a Secure Autonomous Adult Attachment.
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