Back in the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth conducted what may be the most important psychological study ever. It was the Strange Situation Study and this link describes it clearly. Basically, Ainsworth and her associates observed mothers and babies in the first year of their lives and then brought them into her lab where a room was set up for them – a chair for mom and toys on the floor for baby. There were a few steps to the procedure, but basically, mom would leave the room and then return. Ainsworth noted the reactions of the babies when mom left and when she returned. Those reactions varied, but could essentially be classified into three categories, each of which described the “attachment” bond that existed between mother and child. The great majority of babies were “securely attached” and they responded with great distress when mom left the room, but were able to be comforted by her upon return. A smaller group were termed “avoidantly attached” and these babies didn’t display outwardly any distress at mom’s exit and seemed to be engaged more with their toys than her, so it seemed like they hardly noticed when she came back in the door. Another group of babies were “ambivalently attached” and they, by far, showed the greatest distress, both upon their mother’s leaving and upon her return. When mom came back to the room, she could not calm her child. The baby would lean into her for comfort and then arch away from her, crying intensely. The child would kick at her and be very hard to comfort. Observations of these ambivalently attached babies also reflected that when mom was sitting in the room, they were often preoccupied with her continuing presence, making sure periodically that she was there.
Ainsworth and her associates found there to be a connection between the highly activated, anxious and distressed behavior of these babies and the quality of parental care and “attunement” they had received at home. More specifically, what they had observed in the previous year of spending hour upon hour in each parent’s home was that the “ambivalently attached” babies experienced very inconsistent attutnement. Sometimes they would be lovingly cared for when distressed and other times ignored or even rebuked.
Now comes a New York Times article which describes numerous current studies that demonstrate that the same inconsistent care and connection in marriage results in ongoing baseline, high levels of anxiety and distress. It turns out that inconsistent, trustable, love correlates to high blood pressure, lowered immunity and other indicia of a chronic keyed-up, insecure state. What we find so painful as babies is the same thing that undermines our well-being as adults, as we relate to our primary care-giver – be it a parent or an adult intimate partner.