A new study suggests particular kinds of attachment experiences may cause some adults to avoid long-term relationships.
In the investigation, researchers sought to resolve an ongoing debate on the genesis of “avoidant attachment.” Psychologists have questioned if the behavior is due to innate personality traits, such as being more of a loner, or is a delayed reaction to unmet childhood needs.
In the study, Tel Aviv University psychologist Dr. Sharon Dekel and Barry Farber, Ph.D., of Columbia University, studied the romantic history of 58 adults, aged 22-28. They found that 22.4 percent of study participants could be categorized as “avoidant” when it came to their relationships.
The “avoidant” behavior was characterized by demonstrating anxiety about intimacy, a reluctance to commit to or share with their partner, or a belief that their partner was “clingy.”
Overall, they reported less personal satisfaction in their relationships than participants who were determined to be secure in their relationships.
Dekel and Farber believe the roots of the commitment reluctance stems from adults trying to meet childhood needs. They found that while both secure and avoidant individuals expressed a desire for intimacy in relationships, avoidant individuals are conflicted about this need due to the complicated parent-child dynamics they experienced when young.
The premise of their study, Dekel said, is based on attachment theory, which posits that during times of stress, infants seek proximity to their caregivers for emotional support. However, if the parent is unresponsive or overly intrusive, the child learns to avoid their caregiver.
The researchers believe that adult relationships reflect these earlier experiences. That is, when infantile needs are met in childhood, a person approaches adult relationships with more security, seeking intimacy, sharing, caring, and fun, Dekel said.
This relationship perspective is called a “two-adult” model, in which participants equally share desires with their partner.
Avoidant individuals, however, are more likely to adopt an “infant-mother” intimacy model. For this group, when they enter relationships, there is an attempt to satisfy their unmet childhood needs, Dekel said.
“Avoidant individuals are looking for somebody to validate them, accept them as they are, can consistently meet their needs and remain calm — including not making a fuss about anything or getting caught up in their own personal issues.”
The tendency to avoid dependence on a partner is a defense mechanism rather than an avoidance of intimacy, she adds.
Researchers believe this is an area that deserves future study as individuals may have problems in obtaining satisfying romantic relationships. As a consequence they are also less happy in their lives and are more likely to suffer illnesses than their secure counterparts, said Dekel.
Psychologists need a better understanding of what these insecure individuals need, perhaps through more sophisticated neurological studies, she suggests.
There is also the question of whether or not these attachment styles are permanent. Dekel believes that there are some experiences which can help people develop more secure relationship styles.
One clue to this capacity is a study Dekel performed that observed the experience of a traumatic event is often associated with survivors showing a greater ability and desire to form closer relationships.
Source: Tel Aviv University