Our capacity to belong to others is shaped by our early experiences of security or fear in the big relationships of our childhood. John Bowlby began attachment theory with an accumulation of insights, starting in the 1950’s. This perspective has progressed enormously in both developmental psychology and in its application to individual and marital therapy (emotionally focused therapy). The basic insights are well within the grasp of ordinary people, and by observing the patterns of those they are close to (parents, siblings, friends, co-workers) they can get a sense of the different styles and then begin to reflect on what their own might be. Though there are many subdivisions, the three main styles are:
- Securely attached
- Insecure Anxious
- Insecure Avoidant
The securely attached are at ease with appropriate intimacies with family and friends. They are easy to confide in and are at ease confiding in others. They are not driven nor constrained by unfounded fears of the other in front of them. The two basic forms of insecure attachments are ways of handling fears provoked whenever someone is getting “too close”. Some call the Insecure-Anxious the “Protestor” because their anxiety often takes a slightly angry form and they “protest” a lot. The Insecure-Avoidant type is sometimes called a “Withdrawer”, for they pull back a lot.
Naturally, it is much better for a boy to have a father who has the capacity to be securely attached to his son, shows affection with ease and delights in affirming his son’s development. A father who protests his son’s behavior a lot is likely either to drive his son away in avoidant withdrawal or to make him anxious and defensive (protestor). Neither does the father who is withdrawn and fearful of expressing his affection or affirmation generate a sense of security in his son. However, many fathers, given their own upbringing are protestors or withdrawers, through no fault of their own. What can they do about it? First, they can become aware of what a “protestor” looks like and what an “withdrawer” looks like by observing or recollecting those they know well: their mother, their father, their individual brothers and sisters; their wife and their wife’s family members. (It will be wise not to comment on what they deduce but just learn quietly so that they can figure out what their own pattern is. Insecure patterns were created to guard against the pain expected or feared. It is best to tread lightly here and stay silent.)
Another way fathers can learn what their style is, is to ask trusted friends or relatives what they observe and think. Of course, this assumes enough security to approach that friend. But overcoming the fear is worth it. Whatever our styles and the early relationships that molded them, as adults, we have the power and chance to deliberately alter the pattern with our children (and with our spouse). A son needs to be at ease with his father if he is to accept what his father says on matters sexual as he goes through adolescence. Sexuality is designed for intimacy and creativity, so the son’s rating of his father’s capacity for intimacy will color his receptivity (probably subconsciously, but powerfully). Thus, a protesting or withdrawing father needs to deliberately adopt a new style (which takes study and effort) at least with his son and for his son’s sake. The earlier, the better.
How can a father change? If his marriage is in decent (“good enough”) shape but he spots things he would like to change, his wife can help him (and benefit herself) by the study and discussion of a few books. One to explore, first on the marriage front: Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage by therapist Jesse Gill. By “looking inside” on Amazon, one can read most of the first chapter and decide whether to follow through. Another good read is the well-told, autobiographical story of Jed Diamond, also a therapist, “My Distant Dad”. It details his own trials and disasters as he groped his way towards healing a deep wound, though not before causing many wounds along the way. But he has helped thousands since. If your own life is “good enough” these books go beyond your needs but are a good way to see the basics in action. Another, less discriminating way is to pick and choose videos on “attachment” on You Tube. The objective is for all is to become sensitive to how easy or difficult we are to be close to, and how that is shaping our children’s capacity for a happy marriage, and our sons’ abilities to trust their father on sex and marriage. It is a basic knowledge we all need. Everyone benefits.