What Makes Us Stay Together?: Attachment and the Outcomes of Couple Relationships

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In recent years commentators have speculated on the "collapse" of the couple and the family, highlighting the increasing fragility of couple relationships making them vulnerable to crises and break ups. Now, more than ever, and prompted by changes that have shaken our assumptions about socio/cultural context, the reasons that make couple relationships unstable are sought in the negotiations and redefinitions required by the changes themselves. New types of families are emerging and consequently new issues are being raised about the dynamics of family relationships.This book underlines the role of attachment as a central motivational system in couple relationships, and focuses on the relationship between past and present experiences in determining choices, perceptions, and feelings in couple relationships. It considers what other motivational systems interact with attachment in constituting a couple's dynamics, and looks at aspects more directly experienced by couples: in particular, how they feel about their relationship, especially in terms of the degree of intimacy between them (something that attachment theorists might look at in evaluating how "good" a relationship is). The authors focus their attention on the outcomes of relationships as seen from the perspective of attachment theory and after a brief overview of the main conclusions reached on this topic, a new view of the couple dynamic is proposed in order to identify various possible outcomes.

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Chapter One: Attachment Perspectives on Couple Relationships

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Attempting to understand the nature of love involves embarking on a very complex undertaking, one that risks appearing banal if not carried out with sufficient care. If we were to ask why a person sets out to form a relationship with a particular partner,1 the answer would entail listing numerous elements pointing to what that person looks for in the other. These elements would affect not only the choice of relationship—for example, opting for a stable relationship—but also the kind of evolution the relationship will have (Clulow, 2001; Cutrona, 2004; Diamond, Blatt, & Lichtenberg, 2007).

Love has been defined as “a dynamic state involving both partners’ needs and capacities for attachment, caregiving and sex” (Mikulincer, 2006, p. 23). This is precisely the premise that we adopt and shall be looking at in this book: the interplay between a person's search for protection and comfort in a partner, their capacity to offer protection and support, and whether they are and remain sexually attracted to that partner. Studies from an attachment perspective offer a fundamental contribution to understanding couple bonds, showing the importance of attachment as a motivational system that deals with the needs humans have for ensuring the physical and affective availability of a meaningful person (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008; Hughes, 2007).

 

Chapter Two: Understanding Couple Relationships by Comparing Attachment Perspectives

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The concept of the “internal working model” (Bowlby, 1969) is fundamental to understanding different theoretical approaches to the study of couple relationships from an attachment perspective. It refers to the set of representations about the functioning and meaning of attachment relationships for an individual. Repeated patterns of experience with attachment figures are registered in implicit memory in the form of scripts, or mental models, which are used throughout life to predict and relate to the environment (Bretherthon & Munholland, 2008; Zimmermann, 1999). Internal working models may also be considered as a “knowledge base”, enabling the assimilation of new experience through the stable reference points they provide. Thus, the stability of internal working models offers consistency. At the same time, they have a degree of plasticity, allowing them to be updated by new or different attachment experiences.

The content of internal working models consists of procedural information about who the attachment figures are, how they can be approached and how they are likely to respond (Lyons-Ruth, 1998, 1999). An important function of this information, as we mentioned in the previous chapter, is to appraise the availability of the attachment figure in terms of their potential for regulating emotion. Such information will influence the expression and communication of the attachment needs of an individual (Zimmermann, 1999).

 

Chapter Three: The Interplay of Motivational Systems

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The study of couple relationships entails evaluating interplaying dimensions and motivational systems that create complex patterns. So it is important to examine the interactions between the attachment system and the other motivational systems that contribute to relationship functioning. This interactive focus is necessary for a full understanding of the couple bond (Berscheid, 2006).

It should be noted that when Bowlby referred to attachment as a behavioural system, he was emphasising the contributions of ethology and the theory of systems, rather than the Freudian model of motivation. According to Freud, behaviour was activated by internal drives, which he considered to be the motor of human behaviour (Freud, 1915). In contrast, Bowlby (1969, 1973) highlighted the motivating role of activating and terminating behavioural systems, which he considered had the evolutionary function of promoting the survival of the species.

The concept of motivational systems has now become central in psychoanalytic thinking. Motivational systems can be defined as those that promote the realisation and regulation of basic needs (Lichtenberg, 1987). In this conceptualisation, the motivation of human behaviour is seen to be internal as well as external. Lichtenberg used the term precisely to underline the characteristics of change and elasticity inherent in motivation. Using results from research into early childhood, and the contributions of self psychology, he proposed a theory based on five motivational systems driving individual functioning:

 

Chapter Four: Couple Functioning

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Up to now, we have examined the couple relationship by looking at the interaction between the three main motivational systems of attachment, sexuality, and caregiving. However, couple functioning can be explored from many other perspectives. For example, socio/cognitive theorists use dimensions such as communication, marital success, satisfaction, adjustment, wellbeing, conflict, commitment, and attributions (Santona & Zavattini, 2009a; Vangelisti & Pearlman, 2006; Velotti & Ronconi, 2007); whereas developmental psychologists pay more attention to the micro-processes of the relationship that might account for the partners’ well-being or relationship difficulties.

Attachment theory supports various hypotheses on the links between partners’ attachment styles and their experience in the couple relationship. On the one hand, extensive research on the quality of marital bonds associated with the partners’ attachment styles has significantly enriched current knowledge on the functioning of couple relationships. On the other hand, developmental approaches have shed light on aspects of functioning that romantic relationships and mother–child dyads have in common (despite there being many differences, notably the symmetry of adult dyads compared with the asymmetry of the mother–child relationship).

 

Chapter Five: The Outcomes of Couple Relationships

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In studying couple relationships, three major factors have particular importance. First, the role of the past—garnered through the representations that each partner has of their attachment experiences with their own caregivers. These “generalised” representations, as we have seen, influence the sense of trust, intimacy, autonomy, and general functioning of the relationship, including the ability to reconnect to the other following ruptures in their relationship. Second, there is the dyadic interaction between representations: each partner's attachment representations of their childhood experiences encounter and “interweave” with those of the other to satisfy specific emotional needs and requirements. Lastly, there is the importance of the present: “specific” attachment representations of relationships with current partners influence how the relationship is perceived, how it functions, and its outcomes.

We have hypothesised that “specific” representations of relationships are built through a process that reviews internal working models on the basis of the micro-processes of repairs to interactive ruptures characterising exchanges between the partners. We have stressed the importance of keeping in mind the dyadic nature of this process, which results from a co-construction of experience in the relationship and takes account of the fact that, over time, both partners build attachment representations containing aspects of self and other from their specific ways of interacting. Thus, in these “patterns”, it is possible to find different balances between past and present influences on current relationships.

 

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