Why some people are 'cold', others are 'clingy', and some just can't let go

April 4, 2014

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Why are some people 'cold' and distant in relationships while others are too 'clingy'? Why do some people have trouble letting go, and others let go too quickly? Attachment theory, one of the cruxes of social psychology, has many answers for us.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Why are some people 'cold' and distant in relationships while others are too 'clingy'? Why do some people have trouble letting go, and others let go too quickly? Attachment theory, one of the cruxes of social psychology, has many answers for us.

Attachment theory, the brain child of John Bowlby and hugely developed by Mary Ainsworth, is one of the foundations of interpersonal psychology. It's extraordinarily important because it is thought to shape and influence every one of our relationships: the motivations and behaviours of people when they come together. While it is predominantly a story about parenting, the work by Cynthia Hazan and her colleagues has demonstrated that it may be one of the key influences on the development, success, and failure of romantic relationships.

The theory is fairly straightforward and can be viewed in two parts: parents will create for their children an (in)secure base, and an (un)safe haven. Each of these determines how a person acts in relationships, and to what degree they'll flourish in the world.

Secure base: are we loveable?

When children are infants they are given a certain amount of attention from their primary caregiver. This attention will shape their expectations of relationships, love and trust. There are three main attachment styles:

  • Secure Attachment: The caregiver will regularly, promptly and attentively respond to their infants' cries and needs. Securely attached people develop the idea that they are 'worth' loving and people can be trusted to look out for them.
  • Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment: The caregiver irregularly responds to their infants' cries and needs. Anxiously attached people develop a fearful view of love, believing that they are only worth loving infrequently. As a result, people are seen as unpredictable. The anxiously attached will seek to 'cling' to ensure their needs are met.
  • Avoidant Attachment: The caregiver is harsh, or cold. They will rarely respond adequately to their child's needs. As a result, these people become fiercely independent and have trouble trusting anyone. Love equals pain and is not worth it in their eyes. They'll just take care of themselves, and display a cold face to the world.
“When a child is in infancy, the way we respond to it’s cries determines whether it will trust love or shun it; trust people, or avoid them.”

So, when children are in infancy they will develop a view of people that effects every one of their interpersonal relationships. These views are expectations (or schemas) of how other people will view them.  It's easy to see how problems could arise from these thought patterns:

  • Anxiously attached people are often pushed away, seen as too 'intense' at times. Romantic relationships can suffer, because partners can feel smothered.  This is obviously heartbreaking, because it reinforces the idea that love is unreliable.
  • Avoidant people suffer from a host of emotional problems. Not being able to let others in means they can't fully embrace the human experience. As social animals, close human contact is exceptionally important and Avoidant people often miss out on this. Also friends may drop these 'distant' people, thinking them cold and lovers can often feel rejected and alone in the partnership.

The reason Bowlby referred to these styles as the 'secure base' is because he believed that without a secure attachment style (i.e. the secure base), we grow up constantly seeking the security we don't think we deseve. Abraham Maslow discusses the importance of this more, but to be sure, without the security of knowing we deserve love and knowing that love can be found, we can't possibly turn our attention for any length of time to our other aspirations. Without a secure base, we are set up to fail.

Safe haven:

Humans, like all mammals, are thought to seek security in the basic characteristics of a mother (or caregivers). These being warmth and comfort; a sense of living shelter and implied protection if you will. This is best evidenced by Harry Harlow's experiments with macaque monkeys: the 'cloth mother' experiments. In these experiments, baby monkeys were placed into a compound with a wire 'mother' (a wire figure with milk and food attached) as well as a cloth 'mother' (a heated terrycloth figure with NO milk or food).

image Harlow's horrible looking wire and cloth 'mothers', and the smile painted on the cloth one just adds to the grimness.

The theory was that if mothers are only useful for their ability to provide nourishment (as some evolutionary psychologists would have had us believe), then the monkeys would have no reason to hang around the cloth mother. What they found of course, is that the baby monkeys would spend all their time on the cloth mother seeking what Harlow called 'contact comfort', only hopping over to the wire mother for a brief bite to eat and a drink. We're talking 23 hours of the day were spent with the cloth mothers on average.

Now this type of experiment has been replicated many times in various formats and the implications are clear. For most mammalian infants (humans included), a 'safe haven'; something that provides living shelter and contact comfort is actually MORE desirable than nourishment. This isn't all that surprising really. Again, we refer to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In the hierarchy, shelter and security of the body is listed as one of the most important needs for a person to grow and develop. Maslow tells us that without the fulfilment of our primary needs (food and shelter being key among these), and without a sense of love and belonging, we can't possibly flourish, but instead seek to secure those things.

“Our success as humans often depends on whether we have faith in those around us to support us in times of stress and trouble.”

Bowlby expanded on these ideas in his development of the 'safe haven'. Drawing on these ideas above while observing parent/child relationships, he determined that one of the key influences on our attachment style was the availability of a safe haven that we can turn to in times of stress, threat and distress.

For humans, this means that if our primary caregivers lacked this ability to provide 'contact comfort' and other forms of security, our ability to grow and develop will be stunted. Moreover, we will lack a 'safe haven' to turn to in times of fear and distress which will leave us seeking other methods of coping. Perhaps you can see how this would feed into our attachment style profiles:

  • Anxiously attached people are constantly seeking this 'safe haven' (even when they don't need to), trying desperately to ensure stability in this domain.
  • Avoidant people have simply learned to deal with their distress by themselves, having little ability to turn to others early on and consequently take the world upon their shoulders without the ability to share distress (leading to all sorts of mental health problems).

Securely attached people however understand that benefit of turning to others in times of stress and do so, but trust in people enough not to constantly seek them out. If you can't trust in others to support you in times of need, then as Maslow tells us, we are almost powerless to achieve our maximum personal growth. In addition, we will constantly be either desperately seeking our haven (and in doing so, pushing others away), or we'll shoulder our burdens too often and likely crumble under the weight.

Thus, without a secure base of love and knowing we are loveable, and without a safe haven to turn to in times of stress, our capacity for growth is stunted. We spend our time instead seeking these things in those around us, with strategies that cause more harm than good.

I do not want to have you
To fill the empty parts of me
I want to be full on my own
I want to be so complete
I could light a whole city
And then
I want to have you
Cause the two of us together
Would set it on fire

Rupi Kaur

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