The psychology of love

Published Feb 10, 2016


Cape Town - Many consider Valentine’s Day simply an elaborate ploy by greeting-card manufacturers to cash in on our soft spot for cheesy schmaltz.

Be that as it may, its arrival does inevitably have us pondering the age-old question: why do some relationships last while others don’t?

While no one seems to ever have truly figured out the formula for lasting love, research suggests that our individual attachment styles may heavily affect the success rate of our romantic relationships.


Attachment theory

“Attachment theory is a concept that describes how children emotionally bond with the significant caregivers in their lives. It also explains how that style of attachment carries over into their relationships as adults,” says clinical psychologist and SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology) educator Carey Bremridge. Bremridge explains that the theory, initially conceived by British psychotherapist John Bowlby and later expanded on by Canadian developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, identifies three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant.


Early attachment

According to Bowlby, early attachment is an innate evolutionary mechanism that serves to keep the infant close to the mother, thereby enhancing his or her chances of survival. The central theme of his attachment theory then, is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow that child to develop a firm sense of security.

However, those who are inconsistent in their availability, on the one hand, or neglectful on the other, produce children who are either very anxious when separated from their caregivers or who tend to avoid them altogether.

Ainsworth then went to on to reveal how the profound effects of attachment patterns established early in life can lead to a number of outcomes later on. For example, children who are “securely attached” as infants tend to develop a stronger self-esteem, are more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety.

However, children who have learnt that they cannot depend on their primary caregivers are far more insecure and often become demanding and “needy”. And those who were “punished” for relying on their caregivers are taught that they cannot turn to others for comfort or security and grow up finding it very difficult to trust other people.


Attachment styles

And here’s the rub, says Bremridge: we tend to carry those learned attachment behaviours into our adult relationships. “Securely attached partners will have fewer insecurities and enjoy expressing and receiving love with ease,” she explains. “They are able to trust easily, they believe in true love, and they have the most success in romantic relationships.”

But while they yearn for love, people with an anxious attachment style are insecure in relationships, and often labelled “needy”, says Bremridge. “You’ll find that they continually demand ‘proof’ or some ‘sign’ of their partner’s love,” she adds.

And because individuals with an avoidant attachment style find it difficult to open up to others, they often prove unsupportive partners. “These people will likely approach Valentine’s Day cynically. Any gift, no matter how genuinely intended, will be received with a lack of emotion and dismissed as meaningless,” she explains.

It follows then, the attachment styles learnt by both you and partner during (an often less-than-perfect) childhood could just determine the future course of your relationship.

However, as Bremridge explains, simply being aware of your “attachment style” as well as that of your partner can be a significant step in the right direction: “Understanding that you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style can help you see how this may be causing problems in your relationship, and, hopefully, take measures to correct these behaviours.”

Find your attachment style. Take the online quiz, developed by R. Chris Fraley, to determine whether you’re secure, anxious or avoidant in your relationships.

IOL, adapted from a press release.

The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a wide range of psychology courses, from a Higher Certificate in Counselling and Communication Skills to a professional Bachelor of Psychology Degree.

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