Academic journal article Family Relations

The Ties That Bind: Attachment between Former Spouses

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Ties That Bind: Attachment between Former Spouses

Article excerpt

A context-process-outcome model was proposed to investigate the influence of selected variables on post-divorce attachment to a former spouse for custodial mothers (n = 219). A path model was tested using a series of multiple regression analyses. Coparental support, parental difficult, and length of marriage emerged as significant predictors of attachment. Of particular interest was a positive relationship between coparental support and attachment, supporting the contention that attachment may be a natural outcome of shared parenting. Implications for intervention are discussed.

Key Words: attachment, coparental, divorce.

Scholars have suggested that an important variable influencing the post-divorce adjustment of individuals is their ability to develop an identity that is separate from the former spouse and the marriage. Although divorce legally terminates the spousal relationship between partners, redefinition of the emotional relationship shared by the two individuals is often a more prolonged process, especially for couples who continue to share parenting responsibilities. This ongoing emotional attachment between former spouses has been identified in both the clinical and empirical literature as a primary source of increased emotional distress during the post-divorce time period (Berman, 1988a; Kitson, 1992; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Yet, little is known about the factors that contribute to levels of attachment between former spouses. Such information is necessary to determine the most appropriate foci for clinical interventions. The purpose of the current study is to begin to gain some insight into this issue by investigating specific contextual and process variables that may trigger an attachment response to a former spouse.

Background and Significance

Attachment between former spouses has often been explained within the framework of attachment theory (Berman, 1988). Bowlby (1969) initially discussed attachment behaviors as they related to the tendency of infants to seek and maintain proximity to and contact with a primary caregiver. This proximity seeking behavior provided the infant with a sense of safety and security. According to Bowlby, attachment responses are likely to be triggered in situations where the infant feels threatened. The perception of being threatened on the part of the infant could result from an internal condition of the child (e.g. fatigue or frustration), a change in the environmental condition, or the absence or distance of the attachment figure.

Although Bowlby's work primarily focused on infants, he believed that adults continue to demonstrate a tendency to form enduring emotional attachments. Expanding on this suggestion, other scholars and theorists have discussed the development and role of attachment behaviors in adult relationships (Ainsworth, 1991; Sperling & Berman, 1994; Weiss, 1976, 1991). Attachment in adults has been characterized as a relatively stable and enduring bond that exists with a specific, unique individual. These relationships are thought to offer a person the possibility of security and safety (Berman & Sperling, 1994). In instances where the attachment relationship is threatened, the natural response is to seek contact with the attachment figure (Weiss, 1991).

Situations involving marital separation and divorce result in the ironic circumstances where the emotional withdrawal of the marital partner, the necessary changes in family structure, and the required redefinition of spousal and parental roles often highlight the loss of the attachment relationship with the former spouse, triggering an attachment response. This emotional attachment can be manifested in different patterns of attachment behaviors. In particular, scholars have identified two distinct, yet related, behavioral indicators of attachment: preoccupation with the former spouse and hostility towards the former spouse (Tschann, Johnston, & Wallerstein, 1989; Masheter, 1997; Weiss, 1976). …

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