In 1991, my father died in what seemed like an instant. He had an aneurysm, it burst, and that was the end of that. I was in Virginia and my mother was with him, hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania. Before she called to tell me the excruciating news (with her brother there with her to help), she called one of my friends so I could have someone to be with me if I wanted to.

I didn't want to. It was the most stunning and devastating news I had ever received, but I did not want to turn to anyone else for comfort - not at first. I wanted to start processing it myself. Later, I would very much want to tell the story to people who cared about me. My first inclination, though, was to turn inward.

I feel that way about other difficult news, too, and even about extremely good news. I want to process the bad stuff or savor the good stuff, then turn to the important people in my life.

It never occurred to me until yesterday that my initial reactions to important news could have anything to do with attachment - or at least not anything good. Then, in my role as long-distance committee member, I read a dissertation by Carol S. Kahn on attachment among single people. Not just any single people - Carol Kahn recruited people who were older than 45 (they ranged from late 40s to late 80s), had always been single, had no children, and had not been in a committed romantic relationship for at least the past five years.

This was a qualitative study, based on in-depth interviews, of 14 people. So it is unlike the kinds of studies I most often do myself and review in this space - studies with relatively large numbers of participants, sometimes with experimental manipulations, rigorous hypothesis-testing, and lots of statistical analyses. This is the sort of research that goes deep rather than wide, and produces plausible accounts (rather than definitive explanations) of psychological processes, to be pursued in future research with a more diverse set of participants.

According to traditional attachment theory, an attachment figure serves as a "safe haven" and a "secure base." She or he is someone you often want to be near, and you resist long separations from that person. "Safe haven" means that the person is someone you turn to for support, comfort, and reassurance, especially in difficult times.

Some Questions and Answers from Single People

Among the questions Carol Kahn asked her interviewees about attachment were the following:

  • What do you turn to when you're stressed? Excited about something? Worried?
  • What or who do you feel will always be there for you if/when you need them?
  • If you got really good news or really bad news right now, what would you do?

In response to that last question, 8 of the 14 participants said that the first thing they would do would be to sit with the news on their own. My feelings exactly.

Also similar to my own inclinations, the participants did not keep the news to themselves beyond that initial period of working through it on their own. They reached out to friends and all sorts of family members - members of their family of origin (parents, siblings), extended family (such as cousins), and people they thought of as family.

Answers to the question of who will always be there for you included the same kinds of categories, such as friends, siblings, cousins, parents, nieces and nephews. (Two said no one - maybe they were the people in their late 80s who had outlived their friends and relatives.) One person said that he would always be there for himself "and not in a cliché way."

Asked about reactions to stress or worry, six participants again said that they mulled it over themselves. They were not restricted to just one answer, though. Seven of the 14 said they called friends. Six said they indulged in comfort foods. Another half-dozen said that they turned to exercise or other passionate pursuits, including work that they loved, such as writing or other creative interests. Interestingly, four said that they don't get stressed anymore. (I think those four also included some of the older people in the study.)

Another source of comfort for some of the single people was their pets. (Carol Kahn had so many interesting things to say about that - perhaps the topic of a separate post.)

A Broader, Bolder View of Attachment

Attachment theory was initially about infant attachment, particularly in the mother-child relationship. As the field developed, the topic of adults' attachments to other adults attracted interest. Predictably, that research has focused overwhelmingly on adults' attachments to romantic partners. With both the infant and the adult, the attachment figure was most often construed as just one person. More recently, that is beginning to change.

In answer to her question of how single people get their attachment needs met outside of the context of a committed romantic relationship, Carol Kahn points not to one attachment figure but to an attachment community. Singles may have both friends and family in the community of people they can call on for comfort and reassurance, and who call on them. Some singles have attachment communities in the more familiar sense of the word community - for example, some religiously-inclined singles find comfort and support in church communities. If future research shows that singles are in fact more likely to have an attachment community than a sole attachment figure, then that community may actually offer them resilience (in contrast to the vulnerability of relying exclusively on just one person).

Even more outside of attachment theory traditions than the notion of an attachment community is Carol Kahn's suggestion that adults (and not just single adults) can turn to themselves for comfort and security. The boundaries of the field have been expanding. Scholars have argued that entities such as religious figures and pets can serve as attachment figures. But ourselves?

Based on her intensive interviews, Kahn wonders whether people who are in their late 40s (or a lot older) and have always been single have gotten to know themselves in particularly deep ways. She sees that self-knowledge not as an alternative to turning to other people but as an enhancement of the attachment process. In her words:

"The attachment community is made fuller and more meaningful by the interdependence of turning inward for self-care and connection to self with turning outward for connection to others..."

The ideas from this dissertation are in need of further testing and I will be curious to see how the more traditional attachment researchers evaluate them. What I love about the work is that it is grounded in the experiences and voices of single people themselves. Kahn does not start with the norms for couples (as so many researchers do), then ask whether singles measure up. Instead, she tried to get inside the worlds of the single people she talked to in such depth. What seems to work for them?

Now researchers can add new dimensions to their thinking about attachment processes. Sure, it is great to have someone who will always be there for you. But is it just as good, or better, to have a community of such people? In stressful times, is it just as good, or even better, to turn first to yourself before reaching out to others? Are single people especially inclined to look inward before seeking comfort from others?

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