Mind and Body

Why we pair up with our emotional opposites and how to make it work

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," said Judy Ford, a 66-year-old retired high-school counselor from Carmel, Ind.

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, 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, 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 recalled. "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 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 said.

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 said.

Those with an Anxious attachment style, about 20 percent of the population, often worry about their relationship and whether their partner loves them, said 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 percent of the population, tend to think intimacy leads to loss of autonomy and try to minimize closeness, he said.

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, said Robert Marvin, director of the Mary D. Ainsworth Child-Parent Attachment Clinic, in Charlottesville, Va.

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. 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, Levine said, 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."

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