31 January 2023 By Guest writer Dr Jonathan Lloyd
My name is Dr Jonathan Lloyd. I am a psychotherapist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups, businesses and schools. I’m also a director of the International Attachment Network (IAN) a charity based in over 40 countries with a purpose of promoting Attachment Theory training.
I’ve been asked to write a few words on attachment and retirement. These are just some of my thoughts on this subject and do not necessarily represent IAN’s views. I have taken a simplistic view on a complicated topic to highlight that your attachment style underpins all your behaviours and choices, including work, relationships and …. retirement.
If I was to ask you what was your best day so far? My guess is that, for most of you, the answer would be: the day you got married, the day your child was born, or the day you met your partner. Conversely the worst day is likely to be the time you lost someone you loved. We humans are social creatures and thus our happiness is based upon the quality of our relationships.
Back in the 1940s John Bowlby developed the idea that the quality of our early relationships would set up a way of relating to others which stays with us (in general) to our graves. This was a revolutionary idea at the time as he was opposed to the then prominent Freudian & Kleinian models of sexual and death instinct drivers. It makes sense to us now (and is based on significant research) that we have a biological drive to be relational. When we feel unsafe we have the need to seek proximity to those who we feel safe with. Before Bowlby, babies were removed from the mothers after birth and children spent extended periods in hospital with only infrequent visits from parents.
Further research has identified 4 different ways of relating to others dependent on how the primary care-giver (usually the parent/s) responds to meeting the young person’s needs. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon with minor adaptations. It was also found, not unsurprisingly that the parent’s way of caring is usually based on the way they were cared for as children.
Around 50% of the world’s population has a secure attachment style. The primary carers of these children have provided good-enough care and responded consistently and timely to appropriately meeting the needs of the child and included reflective discussion so the child can understand and make sense of their (and others’) feelings. Secure individuals can explore the world in a resilient way as they know they can return to a safe individual who understands them and ‘has their back’. This is my definition of resilience.
Approximately 20% of us have an anxious attachment. This occurs when the young person receives inconsistent care giving. The anxiety is based on the uncertainty of whether or not their needs were going to be met. Sometimes yes, sometimes not. These individuals grow to be insecure and quite clingy. Needing lots of connection and relational reassurance. Anxious adults fear that they are not going to be loved back as much as they love.
25% of the population have an avoidant style. As babies and children these individuals were consistently not attuned & responded to. They lost trust that others can care for them. They become autonomous, not relying on others and relish space in relationship. As humans they still have a biological drive to connect although this is tempered by a need to keep safe and not to rely on others to offer relational safety. Avoidant adults fear being taken over by the other.
5% of us have a disorganised style due to an abusive upbringing. The person who was supposed to care for you and make you feel safe was also the source of danger. This creates a chaotic way of relating to others, not knowing who to trust, particularly yourself.
I am adding another style here. Even though we adopt a certain style, we can change. The brain isn’t fixed and has some plasticity to it. For example, you may start with an insecure style and then get into a relationship with a secure partner or therapist which builds up a level of security and a trust in all your relationships. At times of high stress and change you are likely to revert back to your default style. This is a 2-way street and secure people can become insecure if their relationships become difficult.
It must be noted that none of these styles are negative or positive. They are adopted as a way of survival.
Well my answer, as alluded to earlier, is everything. We unconsciously build a life around our attachment styles. For example, in romantic relationships anxious and avoidant people get drawn to each other or take those positions in a sort of connecting and disconnecting dance (maybe another paper on this subject). This can intensify when you are spending a lot of time with your partner post-retirement.
If we are lucky, we find jobs that suit our ways of relating. I have a friend who was quite far down the avoidant scale. He was a therapist and would only see his clients for four sessions, which he made very solution-focused. He was also married 4 times and ended up living on his own. Being a therapist, I would suggest, suits avoidant people. We can have intense relationships with others where we can find out all about them and give little of ourselves away. The relationships are boundaried in that we meet for 1 hour a week or a fortnight and have no contact outside of the agreed time.
I notice a lot of my clients are similar. I describe them as social avoidants. They make many (if not all) of their friends through work, enjoying boundaried relationships meeting up 3 or 4 times a year for business or business/social events. This suits them as they don’t feel invaded and overwhelmed with too much connection. Work offers a wonderful opportunity for boundaried (non-threatening) relationships. As humans we need to find connections with others that suit our style of attaching. Forging those connections in a way that feels safe is essential to our mental and physical health.
I think the big question here is how do we maintain those connections when we retire? Especially when we have placed all our eggs in the one (work based) basket.
There is research (The Blue Zone research) showing those who live the longest, healthiest, active lives are those who have close relationships and also are socially integrated into their local communities. So what do the different attachment styles need to think about in retirement?
Can we find new non-work friends who will be happy to meet up with us in a way that works for both parties? Do we need to re-contract with our work friends?
If you lean towards the anxious style, then perhaps you need to find lots of connections through volunteering or hobbies? If you are disorganised, then you may prefer to find one or two individuals who understand you and you can feel safe with.
Whatever your style, I would really think about how you will make new connections – or reconnect with existing ones – at this stage of life to have a happy and successful retirement. But think about your style and the best way to suit you, as an individual. I really encourage everyone to maintain relationships throughout their retirement in a way that suits the individual.