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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Smothering or Standoffish, People Can Be Happy With Their Emotional Opposites

Chuck Ford tells his wife often how much he loves her. He likes to hold hands when they walk, cuddle when they watch TV and hug—a lot.
His wife has learned to like it. "I don't like to sit on the couch and cuddle for two hours," says Judy Ford, a 66-year-old retired high-school counselor from Carmel, Ind.
[BONDS-JUMP] Robert Neubecker
Does your partner expect you to pick up subtle cues about whether he or she is upset? A partner who isn't great at communicating their feelings directly may hope you'll be quick to notice when they are upset and make things right. This tendency points to an Anxious attachment style.
Of all the ways that opposites attract, the thorniest may be when emotionally giving types pair up with types who are emotionally reserved.
Givers love to show affection: Hugs, kisses, flowers, skywriting—there's no such thing as too much. They crave receiving displays of love, as well.
Reserved types certainly may love deeply, but they are uncomfortable showing it. Often, they rely on their partner to initiate a display of affection. Sometimes, they don't even enjoy receiving expressions of love.
Initially, emotionally giving types are attracted to emotionally reserved types, and vice versa, because they are so different, experts say. Giving people often find reserved people intriguing; they like to elicit affection from someone who doesn't express it easily. And deep down, reserved types often like to be drawn out.

Over time, though, the two types can bring out the worst in each other. The giver starts to seem needy. The reserved partner reacts by pulling away. This makes the giver give even more in order to elicit attention; the reserved one backs away even further.
Early in their 20-year marriage, Mr. Ford, a 61-year-old retired social-studies teacher, began to feel his wife didn't fully reciprocate his affection. She rarely initiated hugs and kisses. And while she let him hold her hand sometimes, Mr. Ford says he could tell she didn't really enjoy it. He began to pull away. "I didn't want to waste my time," he recalls. "If the marriage isn't working so well, I can go fish or hunt or work on my studies or business relationships." He worried the relationship wouldn't last.
Then Ms. Ford asked her husband what was wrong. He told her, "I need more physical closeness, and not necessarily sex." She reminded him that she had been raised in a German-American household that wasn't "huggy-kissy." She told him she prefers to show love through actions—making a nice home, planning vacations, setting up get-togethers with his family. "I was raised in a very bonded family that showed their love by spending time together," she says.
Robert Neubecker
When your partner is away, are you afraid that he or she might become interested in someone else? Constant worry about the relationship points to an Anxious attachment style. But if your partner is an Avoidant type, there may be reason to worry: Research indicates Avoidants are more likely to cheat in the long run.
In the psychology field, these different ways of relating are called "attachment style," and they are partly learned and partly genetic. Attachment is believed to be a basic human need with an evolutionary basis. Many children, such as orphans, who aren't held or given physical affection fail to grow at normal rates.
Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York, identifies three types of attachment styles: Secure, Anxious and Avoidant. Secure people make up more than half the population and are typically warm, caring and comfortable with intimacy, he says.
Robert Neubecker
Does your partner act out when things go wrong in the relationship, or even threaten to leave? A partner may engage in 'protest behavior' to get the other to pay attention and later regret things they said or did. This behavior may be typical of an Anxious attachment style.
Those with an Anxious attachment style, about 20% of the population, often worry about their relationship and whether their partner loves them, says Dr. Levine, co-author of the book "Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love." They typically are emotionally giving. Those with an Avoidant attachment style, about 25% of the population, tend to think intimacy leads to loss of autonomy and try to minimize closeness, he says.
In the mid-1960s, a Johns Hopkins University psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, developed an experiment known as "the Strange Situation": A young child plays with her mother in a room. Her mother leaves, and a stranger remains. Then the mother returns. Most children were distressed when their mothers left the room, says Robert S. Marvin, director of the Mary D. Ainsworth Child-Parent Attachment Clinic, in Charlottesville, Va.
[BONDS-JUMP] Robert Neubecker
Do you find it difficult to be emotionally supportive when your partner is feeling down? Supporting someone in times of need is a big opportunity to be close. An Avoidant attachment style makes it difficult for some people to deal with closeness, and they tend to pull back.
Dr. Ainsworth examined what took place during the mother-child reunion. Some children rushed to their mothers and were easily consoled; Dr. Ainsworth concluded they secure. Other children were unable to be consoled by their mothers; these she called "anxious-resistant." Some didn't rush to their mothers, or they started to approach but then turned away; these she called "anxious-avoidant."
Another experiment, "the Still Face," conducted by Edward Tronick, now a developmental psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, demonstrates that a child can experience a mother's emotional withdrawal at an early age. Dr. Tronick videotaped a mother engaging lovingly with her approximately 1-year-old baby. Then the mother makes her face immobile. The baby notices and tries to re-engage with her by smiling, then by pointing, then shrieking and finally crying.
The good news, Dr. Levine says, is that attachment style can change. Experts say couples need to tell each other what they need and be specific. For example, they can say, "I know it's difficult for you to be affectionate in front of my friends, but at home I really need a hug every day."
Does your partner or spouse make you feel that your well-being is your own responsibility, and not his or hers?
'You take care of your needs, I'll take care of mine,' is the credo of the Avoidant attachment style.
Do you often worry that your partner will stop loving you?
People who think relationships are immensely fragile and any wrong move can trigger the end tend to have an Anxious attachment style.
Do you dislike being dependent on your spouse or partner?
'Dependency' is a dirty word to Avoidants, who believe they should be self-reliant.
Displays of love don't have to be 50-50, as long as both people show something. "Each partner will need to make some slight movements in the opposite direction from which they are comfortable," says Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, a Mount Kisco, N.Y., marriage and family therapist. She says she is more emotionally reserved than her husband, and he asked her to give him a kiss when he comes home.
The Fords worked on their differences, and now Ms. Ford gives her husband hugs when he comes home and before bed. She has become more comfortable holding hands and often initiates it. Mr. Ford has altered his expectations and doesn't take his wife's lack of verbal or physical expression personally. He also pays attention to the other ways she tells him she loves him: planning special weekends together, washing his hunting clothes, preparing and freezing meals before he goes camping. "We've moved to a mutual center," Mr. Ford says. "It comes from communication."
—Email Elizabeth Bernstein at or follow her column at Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at 

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