Love through the mass media
What do Ross & Rachel (Friends), Chuck & Blair (Gossip Girl), JD & Elliot (Scrubs), and Ted & Robin (How I met your mother) have in common?
Besides being the main characters of really successful tv shows, those couples are perfect examples of what the English psychoanalyst John Bowlby defined as avoidant attachment type. Among those stories, love is distinguished by the repetition of a very precise pattern: one of the characters suddenly feels rejected/ wounded and, as a response to this feeling, he/she distances him/herself from the other. Romantic love is pictured as a happy -but not always – ending to a repetitive series of escapes and reconciliations – not only in tv shows, but also in movies (e.g. When Harry met Sally, Notting Hill, One day …), songs, and novels.
Among Hollywood love stories, between a reconciliation and an escape, we can often find a break made of inappropriate jealousy displays, aggressiveness, stalking behaviours, late-night calls, and harassment in general (e.g. Fifty shades of Grey, Vanilla Sky, Twilight …) which are typical features of the preoccupied attachment type. Those behaviours that could be marked as dependent and abusing ones in real life, are easily idealized and treated as heroic acts and demonstrations of ‘real love’. However, what should we think if we crossed paths with such behaviours in real life, instead of a movie? What interpretation could we give to these kinds of relationships?
A possible one is contained in the theory of Bowlby.
A perspective of love: Attachment theory
Attachment theory was introduced by Bowlby (1973) as an effort to explain the reasons for human bonding. It affirms that human beings have a natural predisposition for developing meaningful relationships with some specific individuals. Those relationships would serve the purpose of guaranteeing safeness and protection from danger, and are called ‘attachment relationships’.
Since early infancy, thanks to the relationship with his/her caregivers, the individual would develop a series of implicit thoughts regarding him/herself (“Do I deserve being loved?”) and the caregivers (“Can I trust him/her if things go wrong?”) (Bowlby, 1973). Those expectations are enclosed in the subconscious of every human being, and represent what Bowlby defines as internal operating models, which regulate the way people communicate with others about their own needs. In a condition of stable support against difficulties, the child learns that his/ her signals (e.g. fear signals) are perceived and cause responses in others.
This learning will lead to an effective and clear way of communicating. Such infant will become an adult able to communicate and express feelings in a clear way: that is, a person with secure attachment.
Alternatively, a person whose caregivers were unable to respond adequately to his/ her own needs (e.g. by ignoring them) will probably adopt less effective strategies of communication (e.g. shutting oneself in instead of openly talking about one’s own anger) which are representative of insecure attachment patterns. (Seedall & Wampler, 2016). Not only these ways of relating to others survive the passage to adult age, but are widely affective on couple relationships (Wampler, Riggs, & Kimball, 2004). Specifically, two types of insecure attachment are widely shared among various authors and theories, and are easy to spot in movies and tv shows plots.
Insecure Avoidant attachment style
This style of interaction is caused by a detached relationship between mother and child. A child experiencing a physically and emotionally distant mother (e.g. avoids eye contact; leaves the crying child alone for a long time before intervening) will develop the belief that an explicit request for help will not only be response-less, but also hurtful because of refusal.
Therefore, an adaptive behaviour in such condition will be – by any means – to avoid asking for things, and show self-sufficiency.
Avoidant adults display a rigid attitude towards their own emotions and therefore appear to be poorly empathetic with others. When confronting conflict or emotional pain, they may react by “disappearing” for a long time and keeping isolated from the partner. Their ‘escape’ might not necessarily be physical: avoidant adults might simply show indifference to emotionally intense situations – this does not mean they’re not feeling anything, it means their tendency is to privilege rational points of view to affective ones. Another ‘avoidant option’ is to have frequent and affectively detached sexual intercourse with a multitude of people, who appear to be interchangeable for the avoidant person. This is not only a prerogative of men – attachment styles are not gender-related – but movies and tv shows often show it as such – think about Chuck and Barney’s characters, from Gossip Girl and How I met your mother.Many other examples may be found among movies: the main characters in Hitch and What women want well represent this stereotype.
Insecure Preoccupied attachment style
An unstable and contradictory parenting style might lead to this kind of attachment: the caregiver might ignore the child’s requests, and other times become overprotective and intrusive, also by offering help even when it’s not needed. (Baldoni, 2010). In this case, the baby – and progressively, the adult – will feel extremely worried at the moment of separation from the attachment figure, and – due to an acquired sense of unpredictability – won’t be easily comforted.
‘Preoccupied’ adults tend to obsessively reach for others’ attention and try to persuade them of their point of view. They may lie systematically, and their affectivity often overcomes their rationality. Moreover, insecure preoccupied individuals may try to control other people (e.g. privacy violations, continuous texting) in order to avoid abandonment, which is the thing they fear the most. During conflict, they tend to only consider their own standpoint, and to emphasize their negative experiences – play the victim role. Across cinematographic plots, this role is generally attributed to women. Preoccupied characters might act their anger and jealousy out in extreme ways, like intentionally causing a car accident involving the beloved one (Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky). The inability to tolerate separation is also represented in movies, through some phrases that might, at a first sight, seem romantic declarations of love: in Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey brings the unconscious Anastasia back to his home, and tells her “You’re here because I’m incapable of leaving you alone”.
It is plausible to say that insecure attachment has dramatic effects on couple relationships. However, it is an odd habit of the media to avoid treating the subject of secure attachment. People with this kind of attachment have good empathetic qualities and are able to express emotions in a way that is adequate to the current situation. ‘Secure couples’ are distinguished by emotional balance and mutual trust; therefore – they lack of all the series of abandonments and psychological abuse which cause pain to the partners, in movies and in real life. The stories we see in movies could, however, support the belief that love has to be an extreme emotional rollercoaster, in order to be called as such. Bandura (1997) said that -during our lives- some of our learnings happen in an indirect way, that is, through the observation of what other people do. Therefore, what we see in movies may severely influence our idea of a ‘desirable’ relationship. It might be desirable to be repeatedly disappointed by someone’s behaviour, if we get a big, public declaration of love – maybe after a frantic run at the airport – as a repayment.
Would it be so sterile to use the idea of secure relationships in a movie? Are secure attachment and stable love (that is, lacking frequent threats) so plain, when compared to obsessive control and abandonment?
One could leave those questions without answer, but ‘ seeing is believing’. The good news is, according to some studies, insecure attachment is not a sentence, but might be changed as a consequence of positive couple experiences and/or psychotherapy. Patricia Crittenden (2000) described one type of attachment, earned secure, as the one owned by those people who did find themselves in situations of danger during infancy, but were able to reorganize their own interpersonal expectations thanks to personal improvement and adult experiences.
A secure attachment allows people to communicate: that very piece, which the most dramatic and theatrical stories of our times seem to have forgotten about.
Graduated in Psicologia Clinica at Università di Bologna
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Baldoni, F. (2010). La prospettiva psicosomatica. Bologna, Il Mulino.
Bandura, A. (1997). Autoefficacia: teoria e applicazioni. Tr. it. Edizioni Erickson, Trento, 2000.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol.2. Separation. New York: Basic Books.
Crittenden, P.M. (2000). A dynamic-maturational approach to continuity and change in pattern of attachment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Seedall, R.B., & Wampler, K.S. (2016). Couple emotional experience: Effects of attachment anxiety in low and high structure couple interactions. The Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice, 38, 340-363.
Wampler, K.S., Riggs, B., & Kimball, T.G. (2004). Observing attachment behaviour in couples: the Adult Attachment Behaviour Q-Set (AABQ). Family Process, 43, 315-335.