Ever seen the movie The Perfect Storm? The movie portrayed what happened in 1991 when a commercial fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, got caught in a legendary Atlantic storm. The “perfect storm,” as awed climatologists dubbed it, was caused by the unusual alignment of three powerful weather systems that mixed over the Atlantic.

Although much evidence suggests that we are becoming a better world with increasing prosperity and health, I worry about some large, dark clouds on the horizon. Left unchecked, the trends on the horizon threaten to become a perfect storm in such a way that the vessel of society has some serious difficulty staying on course or even afloat. My worries arise from three basic assertions, which I’ll list and then explain:

1. Attachment is an unalterable, important human need and reality, and the formation of attachment systems in individuals dramatically affects their ability to have healthy relationships throughout life.

2. With an ever-greater amount of family instability for young children, I believe we must be raising the greatest number of children ever who will grow up with serious attachment issues.

3. The cultural systems and structures that always have helped couples clarify, form, and maintain strong commitments have been steadily eroding.

I’ll take these assertions in order.

Starting in the late 1950s, psychiatrist John Bowlby and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed a compelling system of thought about the importance of attachment in human relationships. Their work started an immense literature on the way children’s early interactions with caregivers (usually their parents) set up powerful dynamics of security and insecurity in relationships. In a paper that became a watershed, Hazan and Shaver (1987) showed how attachment dynamics have important implications for not only childhood, but for relationships throughout adulthood, both romantic and otherwise.

To summarize a large body of work, the theory of attachment describes what happens in human relationships when children begin life by developing either (1) confidence in the dependability and availability of others or (2) a sense that there is little security in important relationships. Those in the second group, who started life with an insecure basis of attachment, are more likely to later demonstrate either avoidance of deeper attachment to others or anxiety (and clinginess) about attachment to others. Those who begin life with secure attachments to others are less prone to these problems and more likely to develop healthy relationships, including durable commitments, as adults. It is widely accepted that the early development of healthy attachment dynamics (as well as ongoing quality parenting) is crucial both to the future of each individual and to the overall functioning of society.

Over 40% of children born in the U.S. are now born to unmarried women.

My second assertion builds on the first. In this age, an ever growing number of young children are experiencing family instability, and this may be especially common early in life—a period in which, attachment theory warns, it could do lasting damage to kids’ internal sense of security about relationships.

Over 40% of children born in the U.S. are now born to unmarried women. Some of the unmarried couples having children are seriously committed to a future together, including the task of childrearing. They are not my worry. I’m more concerned about the number of children born to parents who never planned to raise a child together in the first place.

When a baby’s parents do not have enough commitment in their own relationship to sustain it as a parenting relationship, they will break up (if there was a relationship in the first place). For the child, I call this being born in a low-commitment context. After that break-up, the child is in the primary or sole custody of just one parent. Most often, that’s the mother, but it does not matter which parent for the rest of my points.

The single parent with whom a child lives is fairly unlikely to suddenly lose interest in having a romantic life. That parent will become attracted to, and involved with, one or more other partners over the course of time.

One scholar who has studied the patterns of families like these is Sara McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton. She had done a great deal of analysis of the large, influential Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The word “fragile” was well chosen: McLanahan found that children born to unmarried parents are much more likely than other children to experience changes in the romantic partners of their parents in the first five years of life. McLanahan is careful to note that the real issue may not be marriage as much as the fact that “marital status at birth is a pretty good proxy for children’s long-term family structure.”

‘Marital status at birth is a pretty good proxy for children’s long-term family structure.’

Let’s give this brewing storm the face of a child. Imagine you are two years old, and your mother and biological father broke up when you were one. You were not old enough at the time to recall the loss of your father, but you’ve registered this attachment disruption. Seven months after the break-up, your mother falls in love with another man, and he moves in three months after they first met. This relationship lasts for another seventeen months and then ends when you are just over three years old.

Through this series of relationships, your attachment securities are impacted in two ways. First, when your mother first fell in love again, a tremendous amount of her emotional and physical energy went into the new relationship. The biological, chemical, and psychological forces of new infatuation are powerful, and your mother, though she is a very good mother, could not help but divert some emotional energy from you to the new partner. Second, you attached strongly to this new man in your home because he was kind and attentive to you (let’s assume this better case). But he originally fell for your mother, not you. Once he and your mother split up, he pretty much disappeared from your life.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Think about a child experiencing that scenario two or three or more times by the age of five. If there is anything widely agreed upon by family scientists, it is that family instability is not good for children. Many children of parents who are unmarried at the time of birth do not experience as much instability as I’ve described (and others experience more). And I refrained from mentioning other common complexities that would impact attachment dynamics, like adding another child by another father.

Humans are amazingly resilient and many individuals cope with or even thrive through all sorts of suboptimal conditions. But, overall, I believe that we must be raising a generation of people who will have serious attachment issues throughout life.

As Sara McLanahan and others point out, many other factors (like education and income) help determine who is and is not on the path I just described, and those selection effects can make it hard to determine just how great a role family stability plays in outcomes. Clearly, I believe that family stability impacts the beliefs of children about attachment.  Further, while important, selection may not reduce the concern I’m raising about this perfect storm as much as it makes it easy to predict which coast is going to be hit first and hardest.

If there is anything widely agreed upon by family scientists, it is that family instability is not good for children.

My third assertion requires some assembly. First, I believe that the fundamental role of commitment in adult romantic relationships is to secure attachment for both the adults and their children. Second, I believe that, as a society, we have been steadily eroding or dismantling the cultural systems couples have used historically to clarify, form, and signify commitment. We used to have much more cultural machinery that pressed people to declare levels of commitment in developing relationships, from going steady to wearing class rings to being pinned (a more outdated form for the college set). We, of course, still have engagement and marriage, but these are fading, especially among those with less education and resources.

I am not the only one to make this observation about changes in customs. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of the famous Atlantic article “Dan Quayle Was Right,” makes a similar point in her book Why There Are No Good Men Left (2002). The late sociologist Steve Nock, the economist Robert Rowthorn, and others have written in a related vein about the large but diminishing ability of marriage to signal commitment. The Facebook relationship status is a new form of cultural signaling that helps the development of commitment, but it may already be fading for complex reasons. (To download a paper that explores the complexity of commitment and its importance in securing attachment, and also addresses the issue of signals in union formation, click here.)

Back to storm generation. My third assertion is that even as we may be producing the greatest number of individuals ever, in this country, with serious difficulties in forming attachments, we’ve been steadily dismantling the cultural and societal customs for forming clear commitments. I believe that these two changes in our culture co-occurred for complex reasons, but that is the subject for another piece. As we steam ahead into the future, even people who want to achieve stable and healthy marriages as the context for raising a family may have a hard time pulling this off.

I am not an attachment theory expert. Commitment theory is more my bailiwick. However, I don’t imagine Bowlby, in his time, could even have contemplated the scale of the changes we’re seeing now in how families develop. And it is not too hard to imagine the negative outcomes that these trends portend. Maybe our society will make immensely successful adaptations to the powerful forces I am identifying here, but I do not see how it all blows over. Grab something to hang onto.

Sources

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Collins, W. A., & Sroufe, L. A. (1999). Capacity for Intimate Relationships: A Developmental Construction. In W. Furman, C. Feiring, & B. B. Brown (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives on adolescent romantic relationships (pp. 123–147). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511–524.

McLanahan, S. (2011). Income instability and complexity after nonmarital birth: Outcomes for children in fragile families. In M. J. Carlson & P. England (Eds.), Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America (pp. 108–133). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nock, S.L. (2009). The Growing Importance of Marriage in America. In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities (pp. 302–324). New York: Columbia University Press.

Rowthorn, R. (2002). Marriage as a signal. In A. W. Dnes and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (pp. 132–156). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Collins, W. A. (2005). The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood. New York: Guilford Publications.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.