National Post

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Saturday, April 24, 1999

Failing relationships? Blame mom
For the first time, nasty relationship behaviours -- cheating, jealousy, bed-hopping -- have been linked to a person's early relationship with their primary caregiver, usually their mother. Two U.S. sociologists have identified five partners to watch out for

Elena Cherney
National Post


Agence France-Presse / Monica Lewinsky exhibits the characteristics of a Clingy woman.


The Associated Press / Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom character epitomizes the Skittish man, researchers say. He's shown with former girlfriend Shoshanna Lonstein.

If you cheat on your mate, it's probably because you did not get the attention you needed in infancy.

The excuse may not salvage your relationship, but it's the conclusion drawn by two U.S. sociologists who have studied the dark side of romantic and sexual relationships.

Using a model of human relationships called "attachment theory" the two academics have decided that a person's sexual behaviour can be explained by the relationship to his or her primary caregiver -- usually a mother -- in early childhood.

"People have patterns of behaviour that they carry around forever," said Cookie White Stephan, a sociologist at New Mexico State University, who wrote the study along with her student Guy Bachman.

"What we found is that attachment predicts the kinds of sexual behaviour and sexual relationships a person will have."

The two academics took the existing attachment model of relationships and then did something new, said Mr. Bachman, who is now working on his PhD in Arizona.

"We went into a different area which hasn't really been studied -- the nasty behaviour," he said of the study, which was published in last month's issue of the academic journal Personal Relationships.

Cheating, fantasizing about strangers, lusting after your best friend's lover, and having one-night stands are all destructive behaviours, Mr. Bachman and Prof. Stephan found, and everyone, they say, engages to some degree in one form of it or another.

For example, a baby whose mother is attentive without being overprotective, who comes when he or she cries but sometimes leaves the baby to play and explore alone, will grow up, according to attachment theory, to be a Secure type, and engage in few forms of destructive sexual behaviour.

"Secures," as they are tagged by psychologists, engage in healthy relationships because they are able to handle both independence and closeness."They tend to have long-term success in relationships," said Prof. Stephan.

In their study, Prof. Stephan and Mr. Bachman compared the "destructive" sexual tendencies of Secures with those of five other types: Clingies, Skittishes, Fickles, Casuals, and Uninteresteds.

Each of the study's subjects, all of whom were New Mexico State University undergraduates, filled out a questionnaire designed to gage their "attachment style," and each was classified as one of the six types.

While Secures are the most likely to foster stable, long-term relationships, Skittish men and Clingy women are the most destructive.

A child may turn into a Skittish if his or her mother was inconsistent, said Prof. Stephan. An inconsistent mother is sometimes attentive, sometimes negligent, sometimes overprotective, and never reliable; as a consequence, the baby's cries sometimes go unanswered, and the child grows into an adult who is afraid of attachment.

According to the new study, Skittish men admit to a high level of fantasy involving women other than their partner, and also score alarmingly high on a test designed to measure their "Bad Lover" potential.

Skittish men told the researchers they were "usually unfaithful" to their partners and said their relationships "usually involve game-playing and deception."

"An avoidant person is some who is not going to be there for the relationship," said Mr. Bachman. "They don't show much concern for their partner. They'll say, 'my partners are cool, I want to sleep with them, but once there are conflicts, I'm outta there.' "

The serial-dating character played by Jerry Seinfeld on the hit sitcom Seinfeld is a classic example of the Skittish man, said Mr. Bachman. "He always comes up with a relationship, but he always finds something wrong with his partner."

While Secure women might want to avoid Skittish men, men looking for stable relationship should avoid Clingy women. While appearing jealous and dependent on their mates, Clingy women are actually constantly on the lookout for their next partner -- "I would be tempted to say victim," said Mr. Bachman.

Clingies, both men and women, become needy and anxious about their attachments because their mothers were not there for them, said Prof. Stephan.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Bachman said he would personally steer clear of Clingies. "The Clingy people [of both sexes] were obsessed with love," Mr. Bachman said. "They were pretty bad lovers. They did a lot of fantasizing."

But while neither Clingy men or Clingy women are prizes, female Clingies are worse than male ones, he said. "I would say Clingy women do a lot nastier behaviours," he said. While Clingy men express their neediness by becoming jealous and possessive, Clingy women do all that and more. "They seem to be on the lookout. They're fantasizing more than anybody, for example. They're fantasizing about their best friend's lover."

Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose unconsummated affair with Bill Clinton, the U.S. president, almost ended his presidency, might be an example of a female Clingy, said Mr. Bachman.

Ms. Lewinsky displayed several key Clingy traits: she was obsessed by her love object; she was dependent on him; and she threw a now famous tantrum when Mr. Clinton was meeting with another woman and could not see her.

A person's willingness to engage in casual sex was also studied, and the researchers concluded that Secures, both men and women, are not interested in "emotionless" sex, but Fickles and Casuals are perfectly happy to jump into bed just for the physical satisfaction.

Overall, men engaged in more destructive relationship behaviour than women -- a finding which is not explained by mothers' behaviour, both researchers said.

That men tend to be more damaging in relationships -- they cheat more, commit less, fantasize more about others -- is explained by their socialization as both children and adults, said Mr. Bachman. Women are taught how to make relationships work.

"Men are taught to be less expressive, to be in control," he said. "Women do all the relationship work. They get the men to talk. They make social plans. If there's something to fight about, they bring it up."

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