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Attachment theory
Elizabeth Foss

I still remember it vividly. They seemed the perfect family: one girl, one boy, both darling. Mom and Dad were together at swim meets and ballgames. They lived in a lovely house. Their children went to great schools. And then, the day after the younger graduated high school, her mom up and left. Walked out. At least that’s the way it looked to those of us watching from a distance. Just like that: marriage over; family dissolved.

Research indicates that most divorces happen between ages 40 and 52. It’s not that they’re failing in those first five years of getting to know each other. It’s not the infamous seven-year itch. It’s a slow dying of essential emotional connection over the course of 15 or 20 years. And it seems that men and women are the initiators in almost equal proportion.

It’s nearly impossible to be a well-read parent and not to know about attachment theory. I remember being a student at the university where Mary Ainsworth taught and thinking myself the luckiest girl in the world to sit at her feet. Her work made sense of life for me. Attachment theory is built upon the premise that mothers who are available, sensitive and responsive to the needs of their children establish a vital sense of security in them, which becomes the strong foundation for a healthy emotional life. I learned that children need a safe haven and a secure base; they need the mother to stay close. They will be distressed upon separating. Of course, there is much, much more to know about this theory and I’ve spent more than 20 years exploring it and doing my own field research, so to speak, with my nine children.

But what does attachment theory mean to marriages? Could attachment be the key to divorce-proofing? Could it be that just as a child who grows up unattached is likely to spiral out of control into the destruction of himself and others when he hits the teen years (if not before), so too does a marriage when the spouses come to midlife?

No one wakes up one morning and recognizes that she’s 45, her kids are nearly grown and she’s just ready to leave home and marriage and start anew somewhere, anywhere but the place she’s called “home” all these years. Instead, marriages die the slow death of emotional distance over time. Marriages fail because spouses are not attached to one another. Marriages fail because couples reach out to one another and find no one there.

We know that even healthy couples argue. It’s not the arguments that kill a marriage. It’s what we do with them. Like a child’s temper tantrum, an argument is a plea for help, for attention; it’s the clumsy and often poorly worded expression of a need. An argument is a call to come closer, to take a deep breath, to draw in and dress each other’s wounds. It’s an alarm for the need for sacramental grace, for the couple to pour out themselves for one another in mercy and love.

Just as children thrive when the bond with their parents is strong, spouses thrive when the marital bond is what God intended. They need to know that when the winds blow, they can find safe harbor in each other’s arms. They need to know that God has brought them together to be ministers to one another and that He won’t abandon them in their earnest seeking to shelter each other’s souls.

Matrimony is defined as "the sacrament by which a baptized man and a baptized woman bind themselves for life in a lawful marriage and receive the grace to discharge their duties” (Baltimore Catechism). A sacrament is an outward sign that confers an inner grace. In the sacrament of matrimony, the outward sign is the exchange of marital consent on the part of the man and woman. In other words the bride and groom administer the sacrament of matrimony to each other. With this act of grace, a lifetime of acts begins. The couple heads back down the altar after the exchange of vows spiritually stronger. They can have full confidence that God will provide the graces necessary for whatever may come. If they call upon it, God will shower them with the grace necessary to forge a secure attachment to one another over a lifetime of love.

A secure attachment means that when the inevitable arguments arise, one spouse doesn’t sit the other in a corner and walk away. She (or he) doesn’t push away at the sounds of emotional despair. Instead, she identifies the wound behind the angry words and she tenderly cares for it with the grace of genuine love. She responds in a way that assures him that home is a safe place, that he matters, that he is cherished.

So often, men and women try to communicate from a place of disconnected “argumentation.” In trying to win a fight, they lose the grace of emotional connection. They fail to see that we are still and always ministers to one another in the sacrament. We are called to draw each other close, to bring healing, not to score a victory over one another. Husbands, what she needs in that moment of tears and angry words is to be held close and assured that she is loved.

We believe that the sacrament of matrimony confers grace. We also believe that it forges a bond between husband and wife. With this bond, a moral change occurs in our very souls. We are called to cling to one another. To attach. Sacramental marriage is attachment at its healthy best. In addition to unity, the other property of the sacrament is indissolubility. The sacrament says that we are forever securely attached. In His wisdom, God gives us the assurance of enduring love, if only we call upon Him and cooperate with the grace of the sacrament.

We often think of the attachment between mother and child as the deepest human attachment. Perhaps we should reconsider. In marriage, God calls a man and a woman to a deep and permanent union where they can cooperate with Him to bring new life into the world. They are called to grow ever closer to one another and to God as they live sacrament day to day in their homes, secure in the knowledge that marriage itself is a channel of divine grace. They create an enduring domestic Church, a haven of secure love, and together they are a testament of faith to the world.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

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