Attachment Theory and Your Spouse

I have been busy and have not posted for a while as we are selling our house. We have outgrown it and need to move to a larger home. It has been hectic, cleaning and presenting our house, viewing others, accepting and making offers, dealing with estate agents and solicitors. It all seems to be sorted, we have sold and we have somewhere to move to which is not bad given our house went on the market at Easter!

Moving house is cited as one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, beaten only by a death of a close one and divorce. Stress does funny things to people, I get butterflies in my stomach and find it hard to eat but I also find it quite energising. My husband gets very anxious and feels it somatically in his body as a pounding heart, tense shoulders and headaches. Anxiety is something he suffers with in many spheres of life. Looking at his relationship with his NPD mother helps explain why.

John Bowlby was a British psychotherapist who after the second world war researched the effects of being orphaned on children who were victims of the war. He developed a very influential paper on maternal deprivation for the United Nations and expanded this to a full theory of the emotional and psychological attachments formed by young children and the effects that they have on the child into adulthood. This is, hardly surprisingly, called Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory Basics

The basic assumption of attachment theory is that a child needs to form a single, secure attachment to a loving and responsive caregiver (usually the mother) for the child to develop healthy emotional structures and ways of relating to others. Things that can disrupt this attachment would include being orphaned or separated from one’s mother, like during the war, or having an emotionally unavailable or abusive mother. You can see where I am going with this right?

Children form a particular pattern of behaviour as a result of the type of attachment they have with their main caregiver, I’ll just use “mother” from now on as I’m assuming like my husband your spouses were mostly cared for by their mum.

The most common attachment is a secure attachment that forms with a good enough mother, 60% of adults have this sort of attachment. The good enough mother hugs the child when they are distressed, mirrors their smiles and grimaces, makes lots of eye contact, strokes them, responds to their interactions and carries them close when they’re little. There is an approach to parenting babies called attachment parenting advocated by William Sears and others which encourages the key interactions that foster close, secure attachments. He advises skin to skin contact with newborns, lots of carrying and cuddles using slings if necessary, breastfeeding and eye contact and cuddles if bottle feeding, having the baby sleep close to the mother for 6 months, next to her bed within touching distance.

There is a lot of evidence that shows these sorts of interactions ensure the healthy, secure attachment forms. This then means the child grows up expecting their interactions with others to similarly be secure and they feel comfortable expressing their emotions and needs and responding to others emotions and needs. Thus the securely attached child forms healthy adult relationships and friendships with a good balance between independence and intimacy.

But not everyone has this secure pattern. There are other sorts of mothers with other kinds of interaction styles which lead to less healthy attachment patterns. There is an anxious pattern, an avoidant pattern and a fearful pattern. Some research has suggested a final ambivalent pattern of attachment formed by inconsistent caregivers. Mary Ainsworth carried out several experiments with children aged around 1 year old, small toddlers, which extended much of what Bowlby had described in war orphans.

The patterns of attachment in small children are best observed when they are confronted with new situations or their mothers leave them temporarily in a play group or similar setting. The securely attached child goes freely forwards and back to the mother, touching base and venturing forth. If the mother leaves they are upset and cry for her then show they are comforted when she returns.

An anxious child has a different reaction. They are clingy, find it hard to cope with their mother not there and need constant reassurance. Without the presence of their main attachment they are panicky and have no real security in themselves. What sort of behaviour from the mother creates this type of attachment? An excessively controlling, over-involved mother who doesn’t allow or encourage risk taking or the independence of the child.

An avoidant child doesn’t seem upset when their mother leaves and doesn’t show much comfort or pleasure when she returns. This child may even ignore their mother or turn away from her, not responding to being picked up by her. The child doesn’t feel much of a bond to the mother. The mother in this case is unresponsive to the child if they cry, in fact even discourages them from showing upset or distress and pushes them to be independent of her.

The fearful or disorganised child freezes or rocks when their mother returns, they try to approach her for comfort but are so unsure of the response they do this with their back turned or creep round the room to get to her. This is a hallmark of an overtly abusive mother. The child wants comfort from the person they fear.

Now there is a theory, not espoused by Bowlby himself who worked purely on children, but developed in the 1980s that adults can exhibit similar patterns of attachment in their adult romantic relationships. Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver spotted similarities between the ways adults react to the presence or absence of their romantic partners. In both situations the relationship with a person, the mother or lover, provides an opportunity for bonding and the enactment of expectations about the nature of close bonds that the adult has internalised through their previous close relationships. The most influential relationship in forming ideas and expectations about close emotional ties is the one we have with our main carer when we are small children, i.e. our mothers.

What if you are married or in a close relationship with a person whose mother has NPD? What sort of attachment behaviour will they have and how will it show itself in your relationship?

Attachment Theory and Adults

Having a mother with NPD means you could have any attachment pattern expect the secure one. Unless of course you weren’t actually raised by your mother but by another, psychologically normal person like an aunt or grandparent. You are reading this blog because your partner has a difficult (to say the least) mother who exhibits a lot of unpleasant and abusive behaviour. Your partner will not be fully secure and confident in their adult relationships unless they have done a lot of work on themselves in coming to terms with their family and its effects on them.

Hazan and Shaver described 4 patterns of adult attachment similar but not identical to the patterns of attachment in tiny children. They called them secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and dismissive-fearful.

Now my husband and I did an online test of adult attachment patterns which is free and asks a series of questions where you choose your response on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree. I came out with a secure attachment style, not surprisingly as my main caregiver as a child was my good enough mother who gave hugs, played with me and responded appropriately to any distress or upset I showed. My husband has the anxious-preoccupied style. I am absolutely sure if my SIL did this same test she would be dismissive-avoidant.

How do these patterns show themselves in adult behaviour? My husband needs constant reassurance that we, our relationship, is OK. He needs me to act in ways that reassure him and he resists anything that makes him anxious, things that may hint at a distance between us or possible conflict or separation, not just physically but of ideas, views, aims and emotions. He cannot argue or tolerate my showing anger as this makes him so anxious. So he diverts the conversation away from the difficult topic onto something else, like my tone of voice (unpleasant) or blunt talk (can’t you phrase that nicely). He finds it very hard to deal with if I am unable to be there emotionally for him due to a crisis of my own. Postnatal depression a couple of years ago for a few months was the worst thing ever to happen to our relationship as far as he is concerned because I was not there for him.

The underlying dynamic involves his expectation that I will soothe his anxiety by modifying my behaviour or he will try to change my behaviour through control of some kind including passive aggressive acts, sulking, withdrawl, blaming, diversions etc. He sees his emotional regulation as being the job of an external person, the person he is bonded to. He is not clear where he ends and I start. This is entirely due to having an engulfing, controlling mother who expected him to cater to her moods and change himself for her. She dictated what emotions he could show and how he showed them. He people-pleases to ensure the continuation of the relationship thus avoiding his extreme anxiety at being abandoned or rejected.

His sister is dismissive-avoidant in her behaviour. She has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with unsuitable partners and works extreme hours, in a job involving extensive overseas travel making herself unavailable for long periods of time. When confronted with an emotional situation she shuts down. Told some upsetting news she failed completely to react, got down on the floor to play with her nieces as if nothing had been said. She avoids her own emotions and other peoples. Keeping others at arms length is normal for her. Her emotional regulation is to suppress and deny her emotions and needs for intimacy acting in a very independent and self-sufficient way.

Of course she had the same mother as my husband but she was the second child and so had less of her NPD mother’s attention, much less if her behaviour is anything to go by. She comments on how much fewer photos there are of her as a child compared to my husband and how she was given all his hand-me-down clothes. She was not the substitute spouse in the same way as my husband, my MIL was clearly overly involved with her son alternately infantalising him to keep him close and using him for emotional support.

Both these patterns have been described as pseudo-independent by Robert Firestone. True adult independence requires a complete sense of yourself as separate from others combined with a capacity to be fully able to emotionally connect with another at an appropriate time. It is all about balance. These two attachment patterns are unbalanced.

The final adult attachment pattern is dismissive-fearful and is shown in people who want, often desperately want a close bond but are scared of being hurt physically or emotionally by the object of their attraction. They fundamentally do not trust their partners and have doubts about their intentions as they have negative views about themselves. They ask “why are you attracted to me, what do you really want?”. This form of attachment in an adult can stem from sexual abuse as a child or teen or from a childhood with significant losses through the absence or rejection of a parent. Unlike a dismissive-avoidant person they are aware that they want closeness and intimacy but like dismissive-avoidant they act in a way that restricts intimacy and don’t share their emotions.

Which pattern does your spouse exhibit? I am interested to hear what sorts of attachments your spouses seem to have and how you think this may be related to their mother’s behaviour towards them.


Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Controlling behaviour, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL

11 responses to “Attachment Theory and Your Spouse

  1. Mandy

    Wow, this nugget of information provided amazing insight! I have a secure attachment style, my husband is dismissive avoidant. All of this makes so much sense, any marital problems we have ever had come down to our attachment styles.

    • Thank you Mandy. I was beginning to think this post on spouses was step too far outside what you all as my readers were looking for. I’m glad someone has found it useful. Once you have an insight into a habitual way of responding in your relationship you are on your way to addressing and correcting it 🙂

  2. My god.. My husband is anxious – preoccupied.. I can never hav a genuine argument with him.. Its always me in d end consoling him and apologising for having a problem.. I never understood y that happened.. Sometimes i thot id always react wrongly.. Never knew that such a behaviour is actually a type.. Nd of coz i hav a NMIL so i guess this article is exactly for me.. 🙂

  3. Sez

    Oh my god – my partner sounds so similar to your husband.
    I have been seeing him for 2 and a half years and his neediness is incredible.
    He absolutely projects his emotions on to me, completely disassociating himself with his own feelings but pinning them on me, I still find this bewildering, I let him know that what he is expressing are his own feelings.
    He doesn’t have boundary control / recognition, the need for alone time, the need for individual time, he relies entirely on me for all of his social outlet, he doesn’t spend any time with friends and doesn’t respect my time with my friends and family.

    I honestly question whether I can actually remain in the relationship because my outside world has been completely shut down.
    My love for sport, running, gym, walking
    Socialising, bbq’s, dinners, movies.
    I always feel like I’m putting him out if I want to do anything for myself.
    It’s making me miserable.

    He doesn’t absorb my feelings or thoughts, he has his own and believes he is right- always.
    He rejects my feelings and explains them away with his own perception, it makes it very difficult to speak to him about my honest feelings and thoughts, he also questions the motivation behind conversations had with friends and questions why certain topics are discussed.
    His anxiety is incredible and is directly and obviously his mothers helicopter controlling parenting.
    Critical, judgemental and opinionated.

    I’m losing my mind with these people.
    The thing is they are ‘helpful’ both of them.. Kind, caring, loving, supportive.
    I have 3 kids and I feel trapped, suffocated and losing myself …

    • Sez I really hear your frustrations, I know this situation and I know how bewildering it is. You have a strong sense of yourself to be able to see everything going on with your partner, especially if he is invalidating your perceptions and projecting his emotions onto you. What helped me was reading, journalling and talking to outside parties in order to gain insight and keep in touch with my core self. Ultimately you need to decide if the dysfunctional behaviour with your partner can be addressed within the relationship with the help of a therapist or if you are best leaving. It does need to be sorted and I don’t think it will get better by itself. Try reading When He’s Married to Mom” by Kenneth M Adams. Keep strong.

  4. Penny

    OMG: the constant reassurance got me, along with clingy, panicky & insecure. My DH absolutely MUST have me stop whatever I am doing and look at what HE has done. Whether is is his latest haircut, washing the car, doing laundry, or making coffee, he needs me to marvel over it, admire it, oooh & ahhh about how lovely it is. Did he NOT get this from mommy dearest when he was a child? Is he really that insecure? Was mommy so engulfing/controlling that all the reassurance flowed in her direction rather than to a vulnerable child? I must admit he is getting worse, mummy is getting worse, & I feel like I have a child for a spouse. It is making me completely crazy: all the demands for “excessive admiration” point to his own narcissism, and three people in a marriage designed for two. I have already divorced mummy via NC, but DH has not, and cannot live w/o her. I am close to leaving.

    • Penny I feel your pain! Yes he is really that insecure. The problem with an engulfing mother is that the child grows up without an internal sense of who they are because mummy is defining that from the outside in. So they do constantly look to the outside for validation and confirmation that they are OK. You are being put in that role in your marriage and he is unconsciously treating you as the reassuring mummy figure. It is very unsexy to be in that situation and a lot of people who find themselves being put in the role of a parent in a relationship just get fed up and leave. You want an equal adult partner not a little boy whining at your knee. Tell him that. Bluntly, over and over again. Refuse point blank to play the reassurance game and explain why you are not going to do it.

      I think you may be jumping the gun in assuming this is narcissism on your partner’s part. Without the other aspects of low empathy, grandiosity, entitlement etc he would not be seen as clinically narcissistic just through this behaviour alone. It is anxious insecurity. If you have tried counselling and have exposed him to books, articles, websites and very honest conversations about his behaviour and how it affects you and he still won’t see it then leaving is your option. It will not get better by itself.

  5. Male in his 40s

    Hi Penny,
    I felt compelled to respond to your post. What you posted resonated with me and has been something that I have discussed with other friends who have spouses with Narc mothers. You are also in the same space as me with your emotions, like ‘I am so close to leaving’. Yep!

    Because I feel like I have a broken heart. And I love someone that I don’t think really knows how to love me. And I feel drained…

    I have thought long and hard about the child thing, I have a ton of research and I believe that from what our partners experienced from an early age, and probably what their mother’s experienced at an early age, prevented part of their brain from developing. So what you are saying ‘It’s like having a child for a spouse’, yep, I have said that so many times.

    Now the parts of the brain I am talking about affect cognition, memory, morals and emotions. Think about a 5 year old. They are usually self centred, couldn’t give a toss about any thing apart from their selves, they throw toys to one side that no longer work. Do they ever ask you how you are?


    They throw tantrums if they don’t get what they want. One minute they might tell you they hate you, next minute they are asking if they can watch TV.

    But we don’t take it personally if they are really 5, and little and look like children…

    Five year old’s don’t look where they walk, they step in dog poo or knock over the cup of tea that’s next to you. They drop crumbs all over the floor, etc, etc. But that’s being a kid. Awareness comes later.

    So I do think that they may actually have a brain defect. A bit like autism, or torrets… However it does not make it easier for us…

    I am just wondering, Penny, if you have children?

    If you don’t, if I were you, I would probably be thinking exit strategy…


    • Thanks for your thoughts MIH40s, growing up with a disordered parents can really affect a child’s socio-emotional development. That is how NPD manifests in the first place, as a primitive defence of the psyche of a child against the onslaught of dysfunctional interactions with a disordered or abusive parent. Some but not all children of NPD parents go on to develop similar personality disorders and your wife does sound like she is on that end of the spectrum.

      Not all children of an NPD mother will be so irreversibly affected. The tricky thing with spouses in this situation is knowing what behaviours are reversible and if there is any prospect of change on their part. Donald Winnicott the British psychotherapist has a model of the psyche as a True Self and False Self which nicely summarises what happens to kids with NPD parents. They stuff their True Self so far down they can’t see or feel it and live out from a False Self which is usually defined by the NPD parent. If the NPD parent wants their child to stay acting like a child so that they maintain control over it then the adult child will grow up and still act out that childish dependent role. They have to break out of the False Self and discover their own identity free from the family system that has thus far dictated who they are to them. Then they start to act and feel like adults.

      How do we know if our partners can change? How do we decide when enough is enough? These are questions I struggle with and have no answers other than to say if you take your relationship seriously you have to give it a chance to change and become healthier. Outside support from a therapist will be needed in all likelihood and your partner has to want to work it out with you. But giving it a chance doesn’t mean putting up with an unsatisfactory and hurtful marriage for years and years. You have only one life. Trust your gut instincts.

  6. Penny

    Thank you MIH40s, FCW, etc: yes, I agree that DH is not narcissistic in a “diagnostic” sense it rather in the 5 year old sense. Being engulfed/enmeshed by a mother who used her own child to meet her needs rather than meeting the needs of her child certainly produces some narc behaviors. I do have compassion on DH, but it is not enough: he needs to also have compassion for his “true self” and not the false self mummy fashioned for him. Also, I DO have children, my youngest is disabled and vulnerable, and will always need support. My MIL exploited him in the past and when she threatened in several emails her intention to alienate him from me (undermining me, specifically) I went NC. No emails, phones, cards, gifts….nothing. Blocked her phone numbers, gave her the boundary to not call him, so when she figured it out, she bought a new cell phone (which,of course, I didn’t know thus could not block that number) and she called him anyway. She then raged, telling us how terrible we were & how “God answered her prayers” to give her a way to contact “her own grandson” (note the possessive, objectified comment, she “owns” her grandson). Anyway, I finally told DH I couldn’t live like this any longer & did not want to be married anymore b/c he’s married to his mum. THAT got his attention and he finally saw a counsellor who specializes in enmeshment. I am glad he is scared enough to get serious about this but I am cautious to not get too hopeful. He has a lot of work to do & I am tired. I cannot spoon feed him the truth of the damage his mum has caused, & I have no intention of EVER allowing her to see our son. He doesn’t quite get that, but I no longer care. If he cannot protect his own son from being damaged like he was, then what the hell? I also will not agree to “supervised” visits with mum b/c she is so clever, subtle and skilled in her attacks that he won’t see it (and thus cannot protect him) even if he is in the same room. So, we are at a crossroads. Painful, but DH needs to feel the pain and want to cure it, not just tolerate it. He needs to change if he wants to save our marriage. He needs to do the hard “soul work” to recognize what she did to him, to refuse to be a surrogate husband for his mum, and to get away from her intrusions into his psyche. I can’t do it for him, and will no longer enable him. He accepts it as normal. It is not normal.
    Sorry but I had to vent. Sick of this.

  7. Blaise

    Husband is Anxious- Preoccupied and I’m Fearful Avoidant. Horrible combination and has led to some serious problems in our relationship.
    I’m working with a therapist and she’s been very helpful so far.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s