Strange Ideas about the Strange Situation

workshop_6933-1_edited-1A mother enters a room with her eighteen-month-old child. Neither have been there before. There’s a few toys on the floor. The mother leaves the child with a stranger for a few minutes. The mother returns. White-coated researchers are standing behind a one-way mirror with clipboards, recording everything that happens.

The experiment has been called the Strange Situation, but it’s not a strange situation at all. It happens all the time in the natural world. Nonetheless, it’s been a very important experiment in the history of psychology. Out of it has arisen theories of attachment.

Most kids are upset when their mother leaves the room; but, soon they play with the toys. When she returns, they go to her, and are easily comforted by her. Psychologists have pronounced that group of kids securely attached.

Others raise holy hell when their mothers leave and are too busy crying to play with the toys. When their mothers return, they are not be soothed. They’re called the anxious-resistant.

The third group of kids don’t seem too upset when their mothers leaves and act unconcerned when she returns. They’re more interested in the toys on the floor. When it’s time for both the mother and the kid to leave, they don’t want to be parted from the toys. You might think this third group would the called adventurous, independent, or, simply, more mature than the others; but, no. Psychologists call them avoidant.

The reason they are called avoidant has to do with the observations the white-coated researchers are making on their clipboards behind the one-way mirrors. They are noting how attentive and consistent the mother is to the child. They have found strong correlations. The secure children tend to have parents who are responsive to their needs. Both the anxious-resistant and avoidant ones often have parents who are insensitive, inconsistent, rejecting, or themselves, anxious.

The so-called avoidant kids seem to have made a good adjustment to bad parenting. But no, say the white coated researchers. Those kids are going to have problems down the line. Their seeming lack of concern with relationships will cause no end of lonely heartbreak for them and the people who try to love them.

Researchers have hooked up monitors to the kids and found the readings confirm their theory about the avoidant kids. While they appear to be cool and well-adjusted, their heart rate and blood pressure is secretly going through the roof. They are insecure, but don’t want to show it.

Attachment theory is as rock-solid a body of research as you ever get in psychology, as long as we’re just talking about children. But, when we use attachment theory to understand adult behavior, that’s when we start to run into problems.

Some will have you think that the quality of attachment to your primary caregiver at an early age will determine the quality of your relationships later in life. Of course, it has an effect, the same way the footprint of a building’s footings will limit the architecture above; but, just as the same foundation may be underneath a ranch house, in one case, or an ornate Victorian, in another, there is a lot more that goes into an adult’s behavior than what his mother was like when he was a child.

If your partner seems clingy; sure, it might have something to do with her neglectful parent; but, it probably has more to do with you withdrawing every time she wants your attention; your avoidance is causing her clinginess, in other words. You could trace your own avoidance back to an abusive parent; or it could have something to do with your partner being so suffocatingly clingy.

The white-coated researchers could clear this up by running some longitudinal studies. They could see whether the very people who were, say, avoidant at an early age are still avoidant at age forty-two. To my knowledge, there’s only been one: Steele, Waters, Crowell, & Treboux, in an unpublished 1998 study, found that one out of seven (17%) insecure 1-year-olds in the strange situation are insecure in their adult relationships twenty years later. That’s not a strong correlation, at all.

Other researchers have found that, even when you run repeated strange situations with the same kids and the same mothers, you get similar results only 25 to 39 percent of the time. (Fraley, 2002) Either, the strange situation is not a reliable measure of attachment, or the quality of attachment changes dramatically throughout childhood.

I believe that these studies show that the quality of attachment to a caregiver in childhood is not a strong determinant of the quality of attachment to romantic partners in adulthood. That is not to say that the way you get attached in adulthood is not the same as the way you get attached in childhood. In other words, when you have a partner who is insensitive, inconsistent, rejecting, or themselves, anxious; you will be insecure about your relationship. Well, duh.

Where does this leave us? Well, let’s say you have a husband who is preoccupied with his work as an engineer. The moment dinner is done, he’s on his computer, face-timing clients in China. He won’t come and sit with you on the couch and watch Game of Thrones. Unless you’re going to have sex, he never wants to cuddle. You never know how he feels and, when you tell him something about yourself, he doesn’t know what to say.

You read a book about attachment, and, voila; you have diagnosed the problem. You know his mother and what she’s like, so he must be one of those 17% who were avoidant in childhood and still are today, no matter what you do. You think he’s playing the role of the kid who is so busy with the toys, he doesn’t come when his mother calls, only now you’re playing the role of his mother. It must be he needs psychotherapy, to excise those demons, somehow, and set things right between you.

At the risk of driving off a good portion of the people who call me to set up appointments for their husbands, wait a minute here. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and simpler. For starters, he’s not a child and you ain’t his mother.

What does this mean? It means that:

a) As an adult, he will not have just one indispensable figure that he’s utterly dependent on. He can have a bunch of things he’s attached to, including his job. He has to juggle them.

b) He can feel more secure about his relationship with you than his relationship with the clients in China. Therefore, he spends more time with them, so he can keep things right, while he knows you’re not going anywhere.

c) His attachment to his job may really be a manifestation of an attachment to you, wanting to earn a lot of money and be successful so he can get you the things you’ve said you wanted.

d) If anyone is the kid in this scenario, maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re the one screaming bloody murder when your mother goes out the door, leaving you in the strange situation.

e) Or, maybe you’re right. Maybe having a toxic mother caused him to play so much with the toys, that he mastered them, and went on to more fascinating toys, which is what we call engineering. Basically, he gets a lot more satisfaction out of playing with toys, than he gets from relationships.

So, let’s see what you can do with these possibilities:

a) You’re going to have to accept that you aren’t the one indispensable figure that he’s utterly dependent on. You should be glad of that; for if you were, he wouldn’t be your husband, he’d be a big baby.

b) You can make him feel insecure about his relationship with you, so he’ll watch TV with you because he’s afraid you’ll leave if he doesn’t. But do you really want someone to watch Game of Thrones with you who doesn’t want to be there?

c) It’s time for you to examine your own attitudes about money and, if you don’t want him showing his devotion to you that way, show him what you really want.

d) You’re the one who needs to grow up; which means, find some toys of your own to play with.

e) If his mother did damage his ability to maintain relationships and you do send him to see a shrink, we could help; but, let me tell you how counseling can help him. We shrinks don’t perform any hocus pocus that changes what his mother was like. No, we show him so much empathy, acceptance, and sincerity that he starts to believe that relationships could be at least as satisfying as the time he spends with his toys. That’s what we do, but you could do it so much better than us.

In summary, attachment theory gives us some powerful insights into child development, but should be used with caution when applying to adults. Attachment is not as mechanically deterministic as all that. The best treatment for adult problems with attachment is simple empathy, acceptance, and sincerity, and for everyone to feakin’ grow up.