According to Chris Fraley from the University of Illinois, there is an ever-increasing body of evidence to suggest that adult, romantic relationships behave in a very similar way to infant-caregiver relationships (Fraley 2010). By infant-caregiver relationships we mean demonstrating one of the following behaviours on a consistent basis: a) following a separation from the caregiver and then reunion the child is initially upset but is soon calm and demonstrates positive wellbeing once again (this is called secure attachment); b) following separation from the caregiver and then reunion the child approaches the caregiver with ambivalence and resistance finding it difficult to settle, remaining 'on edge' and remaining upset (this is called defensive attachment); c) following separation from the caregiver and then reunion the child withdraws (this is called avoidant attachment. Incidentally, further testing has shown that while the child shows withdrawal and apparent coolness their attentional capacity is diminished, their heart rate is increased and there is a rise in their stress hormone levels). Whether the child's behaviour is a, b, or c it is known as attachment-related behaviour.
Using supporting evidence from Fraley & Shaver, 1998, Fraley explains that adults separated from their partners at airports demonstrate behaviours that are attachment-related and that those behaviours are more evident than those associated with non-separating couples. Fraley argues that those attachment-related behaviours show remarkable consistency with the infant-caregiver relationships explained in the previous paragraph.
To that end, I would like to suggest that there are two styles of behaviour on behalf of the caregiver, as well as an adult in a romantic, or indeed any, relationship, that promote secure attachment behaviours with others. They are:
1. Demonstrate that you are available
2. Demonstrate that you are attentive
The overwhelming evidence supports that having secure attachment relationships in childhood (where the child tends to develop resilience, good relationships with others, are happy, well liked and well adjusted) go on to further develop those attributes in adulthood (Feeney, Noller & Callan, 1994). Demonstrating that you are available and attentive appears to support two responses. Firstly, distressed partners are more likely to seek help from their partners and they are also more likely to give support to others (Simpson et al. 1992). Secondly, insecure individuals generally exhibit exaggerated insecurities in conflict situations with their partner (Simpson et al. 1996).
Why might those responses be the case? I suspect that the fact that someone has made themselves available demonstrates itself by their willingness to listen to the other person, to offer advice if asked for, to provide a 'sounding board' for the other person in an environment that is a safe place to express their feelings. After all, you're much less likely to express your feelings and emotions if you don't believe that you're being listened to when you express yourself.
Availability is one thing; attentiveness is another. Attentiveness, as a construct, is receiving considerable - dare I say - attention - in recent times. Mindfulness places considerable importance on giving attention. The word attentive derives from the old French word: attentif from which we then had the word: atendre - to give one's attention to. Attention costs the giver. The evidence supports how important it is that the giver makes themselves available and attentive to the receiver.
It pains me when I see, sadly repeatedly in the modern world, a parent on the phone while their child walks along. Of course, there will be times when the parent needs to make an urgent call. But one doesn't need to be listening in on the conversation to reliably establish if the phone call is urgent. There are sufficient body language clues to reliably indicate that the phone call is non-urgent. Invariably, it's the modern-day scourge of social networking on the mobile that is taking available and attentive behaviours towards the child and the adult away. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who has observed adults 'on the phone' while the child or other adult is left to their own devices (however, in this case, not electronic ones).
Further evidence is necessary but surely this is a case of the obvious. The more we reduce our availability and attentiveness towards others, the more damaging the relational impact. As adults, one would hope that we're mature enough to 'walk away' from such toxic relationships and seek to build or further build secure attachments with others. Even better: as adults why not seek to change your own behaviour and make yourself available and attentive to the needs of others? If everyone were to do this what a positive difference that would make. Yet, there are many adults in toxic relationships. There are many adults who are victims of caregivers in the b) and c) categories identified earlier. While the evidence currently is moderately related at best adults who, as children, were on the receiving end of defensive or avoidant attachment continue to be influenced in terms of behaviours, thoughts and feelings in adulthood (Fraley & Shaver, 2000). Conversely, adults in secure, romantic relationships were more likely to identify their experiences as a child as receiving care, affection and acceptance (Feeney & Noller, 1990).
Am I calling then for the removal of mobile devices? Of course not. But I am calling for adults to stop using them out of habit when they're with their child. I want adults to spend more time attending to their child and less time to the outside world. And they can only do that if they make themselves available to engage in the first place.
What about adults with other adults? I'm calling for adults to stop using their mobile devices out of habit when they're with other adults and spend more time showing attentiveness to the other adults, whether they are your friends, your family or your partner. Spending time together, with everyone on their devices, it not spending quality time together because the time lacks attentiveness to anyone for large blocks of time; it's the device that gets the lion's share. I've written before that you can't attend to more than one thing at a time. It's neurologically impossible. So, spend more time attending to the people who you are with and less time to the outside world. And you can only do that if you make yourself available in the first place.
How might you make yourself available and attentive today, and every day?
Fraley, C (2010). A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research. University of Illinois