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

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

Dorian Minors • April 4, 2014

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

Why are some people 'cold' and distant in relationships while others are too 'clingy'? Why do some people never let go of people, or move on when they should? 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 cruxes 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:

“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:

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:

Biologically humans (and many species of mammal) 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).

In my opinion, it's all about the smile. How could you resist that! Harlow's wire and cloth 'mothers'. In my opinion, it's all about the smile. How could you resist that!

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:

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

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.