Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Secure Child/Parent Bond Affects Adult Romance

April 14, 2003

Which of these statements best describes your feelings?

A. I find it relatively easy to get close to others. I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

B. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust people completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close. Often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

C. I find that others are reluctant to get close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person and this desire sometimes scares people away. Sometimes I would really like to be taken care of, but no one is willing or able to do it well.

The above statements represent three different patterns of how people relate in romantic relationships. The first pattern "A" is called "secure," the second pattern "B" is called "avoidant," and the third pattern "C" is called "anxious/ambivalent."

Psychologists Phillip Shaver and Cindy Hazan found that 55 to 60 percent of adults endorse a secure style while the remaining 40 to 45 percent of adults split between the avoidant and anxious/ambivalent styles of relating. The relationship style adults had in romantic relationships was determined, in part, by the quality of their relationships with each of their parents and by their parent's relationship with each other.

Secure parental attachment. Children whose needs have been consistently met with warmth and care exhibit an ability to give care to others at an early age. They are more empathic with their peers. They give the kind of care that others want when they want it. They read other's signals and moods accurately.

In their friendships, they help each other out. They spend time together. They don't let the negative overshadow the positive. They are more accepting and approving. They are quick to make up or resolve conflict.

As young adults, with the additional element of sexual attraction, they are prepared to enter romantic relationships. They desire their partner's interest and attention. They desire to share discoveries, feelings, opinions, support and understanding. As courtship partners, they are more relaxed, less worried, less defensive, more creative, more spontaneous and courageous.

Secure people are described by others as socially competent, charming, cheerful, likeable, happy, friendly and trusting. They are not afraid of closeness. They are easy to get to know. They are comfortable with giving and receiving care. They are accepting of their partner despite their partner's faults.

People who are secure in their relationships with romantic partners:

- believe their childhood was happy

- feel they had a warm relationship with parents and siblings

- are content with life and work and feel self-fulfilled

- see others as generally well-intentioned and good-hearted

- are ready for love and the risks it will involve

- are confident about their own worthiness to be loved

- continue to feel strong physical attraction and express it both verbally and tactually

- are open and honest

- strive for sincerity and trust

- share development and control of the relationship with their partner

- elicit reciprocal feelings from their beloved but do not demand them

- enjoy intense emotions

- may be exclusive but are not possessive or fear rivals.

How secure adults remember their parents. Shaver and Hazan found that adults who had a secure style in their romantic relationships remembered their parents as affectionate, caring and happy. The parental marriage was seen as stable and rewarding. Their relationship with their parents was remembered as supportive, helpful, soothing and protective.

Mothers were described as respectful, confident, responsible and accepting. They were not seen as intrusive, critical, rejecting or demanding. Fathers were remembered as caring, loving, humorous and affectionate. Furthermore, father were described as being fair in their judgments.

How romantically insecure adults remember their parents. Anxiously romantic people overly invest his or her emotions in a relationship. He or she attempts to get their romantic partner to respond and to stabilize the relationship by extensive contact and by declaring their affection. Often their affection is not returned. Their relationships have roller coaster mood swings and end despite their wishes.

These individuals often perceived their parents to be inconsistent with their love - with the usual pattern being that one parent was possessive of the child while the other one was unpredictable in giving parental affection.

How romantically avoidant adults remember their parents. Adults who have trouble with emotional intimacy view others as generally untrustworthy and undependable. They often see themselves as unlovable, "too good" for others, and relationships threatening their sense of self-control.

Adults who are fearful or dismissive of intimacy and emotional support in their romantic relationships often remember their parents as cold, controlling, rejecting, judgmental or punitive.

Attachment and love. It is remarkable how powerful the connection is between attachment bonds formed in early childhood and how adults approach love relationships. The prospect for happy lives depends on loving parents meeting their children's needs with great warmth and consistency.

Material for this column was taken from "Attachment in Adults" edited by Michael B. Sperling and William H. Berman.