Feel Insecure in Relationships? Healing the Roots of the Problem.

Last week we had a vigorous discussion (here and here, in particular) about the pseudo-scientific claims of the “cry-it-out” method of sleep training.  Specifically, I challenged the junk science that claims that letting a baby cry-it-out works  because it teaches a baby to “self-soothe.”  We discussed the absolute absence of any evidence whatsoever from developmental psychology and neurology that an infant or toddler has any ability–or even potential ability–to self-soothe (a skill requiring a level of brain maturation that does not even begin to occur until, at earliest, age 4 or 5-ish).  We discussed how the mechanism behind the cry-it-out method is actually learned helplessness, a neurological and psychological state that is associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders as well as host of relationship and, yes, even problems with spirituality and moral reasoning later on.

I had planned on leaving the matter alone, but a new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships highlights the long term psychological and relational consequences of the cry-it-out method.  In particular, the new study looks at the tendency of insecurely attached adults to feel threatenned by otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.   The study is one of hundreds that look at the effects of insecure attachment in childhood on adult relationships.  In order to understand how the two connect, a little background is in order.

Three Types of Attachment

Previous research shows that there are three, basic attachment styles; Secure, Anxious-Ambivalent, and Avoidant.  Secure attachment is just like it sounds.  It represents a child (and later an adult) who is confident in interpersonal relationships, someone who knows how to be intimate and vulnerable (in a healthy way) without losing himself.   The anxious-ambivalent-attached child (and later, adult) is insecure in relationships, tends to be clingy and nervous of being abandoned or failing to connect successfully with others.  The avoidant-attached child (and later, adult) wants to be in relationship, but tends to act as if he or she could take you or leave you once in a relationship.

What determines which category a child (and later, adult) will fall into is the consistency and response time with which moms and dads respond to infant cries.  Children who’s cries are responded to promptly develop secure attachment.  Children who’s cries are responded to inconsistently (i.e, time to response or consistency of responding at all varies) develop anxious-ambivalent attachment.  Children who’s cries are consistently ignored develop avoidant attachment.  This it not a theory.  These findings (both how a child comes by their attachment style and the long term relationship effects) have been established by hundreds of studies conducted over decades and, in some cases for decades (as with some of the 30year + longitudinal research done on attachment styles and adult relationships.)

Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy

Now, we flash forward.  According to research from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style (the ones who’s cries were inconsistently responded to in childhood) can expect to be fearful in otherwise healthy, intimate relationships as adults.

…insecurely attached individuals, compared to the securely attached, perceive potential close relationships as socially threatening vs. rewarding. Although we all evaluate what we will get out of our interactions with others, anxiously attached people are more likely to perceive social interactions as threatening. “Anxious attachment seems to revolve around concerns for negative evaluation and rejection,” MacDonald notes.

So should anxiously attached individuals fear rejection when initiating a new relationship? Is their perception of threat justified? Not exactly, says Dr. MacDonald. In the beginning of a new relationship there is no objective evidence that others view anxiously attached people as less attractive or of lesser value. MacDonald goes on to explain, “The problem is when people with anxious attachment start acting on their fears of rejection, for instance asking for reassurance over and over and over again. Those kinds of patterns can create self-fulfilling prophecies where the partner starts to tire of providing that kind reassurance.” In other words, anxious individuals are not inherently more likely to be rejected that anyone else. Unfortunately, their constant fears of rejection lead to behaviors that make it difficult to sustain a satisfying relationship for everyone involved.

So what do you do if you recognize this behavior in you or your partner? MacDonald says it’s important to realize that your own fears about rejection are just that: fears. But they are fears that can be overcome if you step back and reinterpret what’s going on in the interaction. Further, although a relationship with a secure person can help an anxious person resolve some of these issues, the best advice, according to Mac Donald, is to deal with these issues in therapy. “Spending time with a therapist is in many ways a way of resetting your attachment system,” said MacDonald. He goes on to explain that the therapeutic relationship is set up in such a way that people can explore and reevaluate the root of these emotional insecurities in a safe environment.  (read a summary of the research here.)

Attachment and the Catholic Parent

So, let’s pull this all together.  What does Jesus tell us is the fulfillment of the law?  “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.”  Likewise, what does the old catechism tell us we were made for “to know God, to love him and serve him in this life and be happy with him in the next.”  Both of these classic truths teach that we were made for intimacy with God and others–first and foremost.

The Theology of the Body further asserts that we were made for love and that even our bodies were created to support and encourage the call to both be loving persons and create “communities of love” in our families and in the world.  In short the Catholic vision of love teaches us that we were created to live in intimate communion both in this life and in the next and that God not only gives us the grace to do this, he even creates our bodies to serve these ends.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that there is only one Catholic way to parent.  Catholic parents are free to do what they think is best and they don’t need my approval one way or the other.  What I am doing, though, is presenting data that would appear to show that there are some ways that parents can do a better job of cooperating with God’s grace and the way God actually constucts their children’s brains and bodies so that their children develop their full capacity to be intimate–both with God and the people God places in thier lives.

Sadly, it would also appear that many of the common parenting practices that Catholic parents buy into cause them to work at cross purposes with the radical call to intimacy that our faith challenges us to take up, to the degree that a simple thing like letting a child cry it out in infancy could lead to that child becoming an adult who is suspicious of otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.  No doubt this news is shocking to many parents, but literally hundreds of studies over decades of research back up these claims.  Parents who are interested–and even parents who are irritated–would do well to read up on both attachment theory and the theology of the body.  By all means, make up your own mind. But at least do your homework before writing this off.  The stakes–your ability to facilitate your child’s capacity to love God and others–are just too high to take this stuff lightly.

–For more information on creating a family around the principles of the Theology of the Body, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.