There are several varieties of love – only one of which makes people happy.
Being in a good relationship in which you and your partner are meeting one another’s needs is tremendously satisfying. But sadly, only 30% of couples are very happy in their marriages, according to Emily Esfahani Smith writing about “Masters of Love” in The Atlantic.
Recently researchers have provided an understanding of how an unhealthy pattern of parent-child love adversely affects an adult relationship.
The attachment between a parent and child has been well researched. But until the last few years science has not had clear answers about how to help adults with a history of dysfunctional relationships to have a healthy loving connection.
The research has revealed three patterns of parent-child attachment. Children have two basic drives – exploration and safety – which govern their behavior.
Kids need to explore in their playful pursuits to gain the skills they need for mastering their environment. But children also need to stay safe in order to survive.
These two basic human drives work in opposition to one another, such that the further the child goes away from the safety of the mother the more vulnerable he feels.
Because these two needs are always in opposition, they are regulated by a kind of internal thermostat that monitors the level of security the child experiences. When the safety level is adequate, the child plays and explores.
But if a child feels threatened, it’s as though a switch were thrown and suddenly safety needs become paramount. The child stops playing and moves toward the parent.
If the parent is unreachable, the child cries until the parent returns. The child must receive reassurance before the system can reset and play can resume.
Attachment patterns grow gradually during thousands of interactions. A child with a particular (genetically influenced) temperament makes bids for attention and protection.
A mother with a particular (genetically influenced) temperament responds, or doesn’t respond, based on her mood, or how overworked she is, or what childcare guru she has been reading. (All of this is true for fathers too, but many children spend more time with their mothers.)
Usually no one event is particularly important. It’s over thousands of interactions that a child builds up what’s called an “internal working model” of himself, his mother, and their relationship.
If that model says that your mom will always be there for you, you’ll be bolder in your play and explorations. Round after round, predictable and secure interactions will build trust and strengthen the bond.
But a child with a challenging disposition or an unhappy mother will probably develop an insecure attachment pattern. Certain situations will fire off fearful reactions in the child, and some moms won’t be able to soothe themselves or their child.
Their habitual fight, flight, or freeze reactions will create a pattern of relating that’s contaminated by anger, anxiety, or depression.
Researchers have developed a test to determine how these patterns of parent-child connections are at work when adults try to form relationships. Some people learn to change their pattern as they mature, but the great majority of people report that their adult relationships matched the model of attachment they developed in childhood.
You can identify your pattern by seeing which of the following descriptions (from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt) best describes your adult relationships:
- I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
- I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, and difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
- I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
These three patterns subconsciously guide people in their adult relationships. The good news: couples who struggle to maintain a positive loving connection can learn how to build dependable patterns of meeting each other’s needs. By consciously and consistently engaging in interactions that produce satisfying emotional and physical intimacy, interspersed with periods of independent activity, couples develop secure loving attachments.