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COL Attachment bonds and marriage

Children seek physical and emotional closeness with their parents. When children experience distress or threat, they turn to their parents for safety and comfort. Most of all, when children feel secure in their parents' availability and willingness to respond to them, they explore the world and other relationships.

These three functions -- proximity-seeking, a safe haven and a secure base -- form the basis of attachment. Psychologist Cindy Hazen and her colleagues at Cornell University have studied how these three attachment aspects gradually shift from parents to romantic partners. Peer friendships provide the transition experiences for learning the social skills needed to sustain adult relationships.

How do children develop the ability to be reliable and responsive care providers as required in adult relationships? How do they transfer their dependence on their parents to an attachment with a romantic partner?

Proximity-seeking. How willing children are to seek and make friends and playmates depends on how secure they feel with their parents.

Secure attachment is the springboard to social and nonsocial learning.

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By the age of 3, children usually like to play with others their age. They can play games and engage in complex social action for long periods.

By ages 5-7, children showed a slight preference (52 percent) for spending time with their friends than with their parents.

By ages 8-10, children still rely on their parents for comfort and security while preferring to spend time with friends (61 percent).

Safe haven. Beginning around age 10 through age 16, children add the safe haven type of attachment to their relationships. During this time, teen-agers do not become more independent. They trade dependence on parents for dependence on peers.

By age 11, most youngsters not only prefer to spend time with peers but are beginning to turn to their friends for emotional support and comfort. Girls start doing this earlier than boys.

Among 11- to 13-year-olds, the majority sought proximity and comfort from peers. However, they still turned to their parents first when they wanted to share positive news. During these ages, 81 percent saw their parents as their base of security.

A peer was named by three-fourths of 17-year-olds as the person they preferred to be with, and to whom they turned for emotional support. This was usually a best friend or romantic partner. The majority still considered their parents to be their base of security. By age 17, there was no difference in whether they shared positive and negative events with their peers.

The process of letting go starts early and it happens gradually. Friendships during childhood and adolescence are a vital part of growing up.

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Secure base. Through high school, parents serve as the base of emotional security for most teens. By late adolescence and early adulthood, the three types of attachment are gradually transferred to peers, with the base of security the last to go. Relationships need time, trust and commitment to take the place of the certain commitment and security parents have provided over the years.

More then 90 percent of the adults named a romantic partner as their base of security.

None of the adults studied preferred to spend time with parents or reported being bothered by separations from parents.

Only 4 percent reported that a parent was their primary source of comfort and emotional support. Ten percent considered their parents to be their base of security.

Hazan also feels that romantic relationships progress in the same sequence: proximity (sexual interest, mutual attraction) to safe haven (comfort and care) and finally to a secure base.

Attachment and new marriages. Even within the early years of marriage, the relationship shifts from attraction and mutual enjoyment to meeting each other's needs for comfort and security. The attraction phase of a relationship has been estimated to last two to three years.

Not letting go. If a couple hasn't established a pattern of being emotionally available and responsive to each other's needs, then breakups are likely. This may explain why there is a peak in divorce after four years, even while rates of divorce change. The new bond doesn't get established because the old ones take precedence. Upset spouses sense they are not the source of confiding, trust and comfort and feel like third wheels in their own marriages.

Not feeling safe. Some of the disputes young couples have occur when one partner continues to use parents as a safe haven and secure base for confidential conversations. This may occur because in the process of trying to resolve conflict in a new marriage, one partner may come to doubt the empathy, care and concern the partner has for him or herself.

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Angry outbursts, selfish demands or disrespectful judgments violate the attachment bond and create a feeling of not feeling emotionally safe in expressing one's opinion.

Feeling betrayed or abandoned. Some attachment wounds -- being betrayed or abandoned in a situation of threat or loss -- may have occurred and haven't been resolved. Their marriage is perceived as no longer secure.

Walls go up. One partner shuts down emotionally as a way of protecting him or herself from further hurt.

In either case, the unhappy spouse may turn to their former secure base for advice and comfort. Counseling is needed to re-establish the marital relationship as a secure base for comfort, confiding and affection.

For more information on how to resolve attachment injuries, you can visit Val Farmer's Web site at www.valfarmer.com.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist with MeritCare in Fargo, North Dakota.

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