Family Holiday Survival Guide

The New Marriage - Part Three of Four 

By Dr. Linda Miles

Harry Stack Sullivan, in The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry , argues that human beings have a biological drive to develop and establish interpersonal relationships. In Biological Basis for Human Social Behavior , R.A. Hind suggests that a person’s “attachment style”—the way in which they relate to other human beings and form relationships with them—is developed mostly during childhood. The attachment style tends to persist into adulthood but is not fixed and can be modified either positively or negatively as the result of further interactions.

I have had the joy of seeing countless adult clients consciously change their attachment style. This is a practice that takes time and is not easy to do. However, I have seen many people move from a victim stance to living more fully by changing their attachment style.

Helen was a lovely, dark-haired young woman, the adult child of an alcoholic. Her attachment style led her to be attracted to what she called “bad boys.” Helen told me she “had radar for the bad boys in the room,” those who would treat her with indifference and ultimately disappoint her. She had been married for five years to Paul, who was extremely critical of her, had multiple affairs, and was also an alcoholic.

We worked hard on her attachment style. Like many clients, she could not trust her unconscious processes to choose an appropriate partner. I had her make a list of the characteristics that she was looking for in a partner and had her carry it around with her in her wallet. One bright November morning she came in to tell me of her triumph with another bad boy situation.

“I was consciously able to make a choice to not follow my attraction,” Helen explained. “I was at a party and was approached by a very attractive and charming man. My radar went up immediately, because I felt a strong attraction to his good looks and charm. However, I also started looking for indications that he was the type of man that I had been attracted to in the past. I did not have to consider this for very long because I realized that he had a date who was over getting something for both of them to drink. I decided on the spot that I did not want to go out with him when he asked me out on a date, when he already had a date.” So began a real change in Helen’s attachment style. She has since married a conscientious, devoted husband.

An attachment style is not simply made up of behavior we have learned at our parents’ knees. An attachment style is a way of thinking and feeling as well, and shapes not just what we do, but the meaning we give to the things that happen between our partner and ourselves. The way we think as children can persist into our adult lives.

Despite the learning we do later that develops rational thinking and professional skills, there is a tendency to hold onto child-like ways of thinking in our long-term and intimate relationships. Our professional skills are things we learn as adults, but as H. Stadtman Main points out, love and attachment we learn as children.

We think of the period when the child is learning about love as the individual’s beginning of the journey that will lead him or her to the heights of rapturous love and then, all too frequently, into the valley of faultfinding and blame-gaming. One’s attachment style lays the groundwork. Foster parents frequently report the lengths to which an abused or neglected child will go to protect and defend their birth parents, frequently blaming themselves rather than the abusive parent. Also well documented is the “cycle of abuse,” whereby abused children become abusive parents. Such behavior patterns are difficult to break, no matter that after each episode the abuser is remorseful and promises never to do it again.

The work of Harry Stack Sullivan and others has many implications for couples. While it identifies the existence of pre-formed attachment styles as a possible cause of interpersonal difficulties, it also contends that problematic attachment styles can be addressed and changed.

Copyright 2005 Linda Miles Ph.D

Author, Dr. Linda Miles, is deeply committed to helping individuals and couples achieve rewarding relationships. She is an expert with a doctorate in Counseling Psychology, and has worked in the mental health field for over thirty years. She has been interviewed extensively on radio, TV, and in newspapers and magazines. Find more relationship ideas and relaxation techniques on her web site and in the award-winning book she co-authored, The New Marriage: Transcending the Happily-Ever-After Myth, and Train Your Brain: For Successful Relationships, CD.