Cultural Influence On Attachment Styles And Behaviours

I’ve been helping exes navigate interracial and cross cultural breakups for decades and I’ve found that not all exes behave according to their attachment style. Culture changes how an avoidant ex behaves and treats you, and in some cases, the same behaviour can have different meanings in a different cultural context.

If you are not aware and educated on the influence of culture and religion on attachment styles, it can be baffling and even overwhelming when an ex doesn’t behave according to their attachment style. You can’t figure out if they’re securely attached, anxiously attached, avoidant or all of the above?

Here’s what’s going on. As much as we want to reduce attachment styles to simple secure, anxious or avoidant behaviours, we can’t escape from the fact that the culture we are born into or our parents were born into can change the way our attachment styles manifests and the way we view, approach and are in relationships. It even affects the strategies we choose to breakup, how we treat an ex after the breakup, whether we maintain contact with an ex, ask for a cool-off period or go no contact, the stories we tell ourselves and others about the breakup and how we go about trying to get back together.

That’s why when working with exes from different cultural and religious backgrounds, I ask questions to try and understand if besides their ex’s expressed attachment style, there are cultural nuances that are skewing how an ex is thinking, feeling, and processing the breakup.

The role culture plays in attachment theory and attachment styles

Attachment theory as you should know by now is based on the premise that parenting styles and early interaction between the child and the child’s primary caregiver forms beliefs about the self, others and ones’ relation to others that are internalized as internal working models which determine and predict the way we think, feel and process relational information and our experiences as adults.

But some of the critics of attachment theory have pointed out that the caregiving practices or parenting model that attachment theory is based on are of middle-class Americans and therefore not universal.

They specifically point to Dr. Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiment which started what we today know as “attachment styles”. Critics have focused on the fact that there’s not enough data on the parenting or caregiving practices, values and expression of care and love in different cultures, and in some cases attachment styles framework as we know it is inconsistent with non-Western middle class rural child-rearing philosophies and practices. They also argue that the kind of emotional regulation observed in the Strange Situation experiment is only mother-child interaction predominant in North America, and not father-child interaction or multiple caregivers predominant in African cultures and multi-generational households predominant in Indian cultures.

There are also differences among cultures in socialization goals (individualistic vs. collective), utilization of the secure base, communication of attachment needs and even the concept of autonomy and independence. For example, where the interdependent sense of self is highly valued over independent sense of self, avoidants in these cultures coordinate their needs with others’ needs. Even when they go out and “do their own thing”, there’s always a sense of responsibility to others and concerns about being a “good” mothers/father, son/daughter, uncle/daughter, friend etc.

The extent to which culture shapes attachment styles is still being studied, but it’s generally agreed based on new research that different cultural caregiving models provide very different experiences that shape a child’s self-concept, concept of others and concept of their relation to others, and that these differences can affect how an individual thinks, feels, processes relational information and experiences, approaches relationships and behaves in relationships.

In this article, I’ll discuss two examples of the ways relationships are experienced by people from different cultures, and how these differences not only challenge the way we know attachment styles, but also makes it hard for two people who genuinely care about each other to make the relationship work.

1. Romantic passion and intensity

In some cultures, it’s normal, expected and even considered a sign of attachment security to be able to love “out and loud”. One is seen as a “passionate lover” even if the other person doesn’t fully reciprocate.

In these cultures, men and women feel they are “in love” largely based on the emotional intensity and obsessiveness experienced. Even the hot-and-old and pull-push and sometimes volatile dynamic that is considered signs of a disorganized attachment, in some cultures is considered normal and even encouraged as it can bring great pleasure to the pursuer and the pursued.

If you are not from a culture that accepts “obsessive love” as the normal way someone in love behaves, you will conclude that they have an anxious or fearful avoidant attachment style. you ma even think your ex broke up with you because you are “secure” and don’t bring the “chaos and drama”, don’t chase people or don’t act needy, clingy and jealous, but to your ex, they broke up with you because you’re not showing them that you are all-consumed with desire for them.

Avoidants in these cultures will not have the same fear of intimacy and/or closeness. They are comfortable showing affection and with physical closeness because that’s what everybody in their culture does. Even after the breakup, they’ll see you across the street and run up to you and hug you and even hold you close. If you are not aware of cultural difference or are from a culture where people cut off their exes from their lives, this will be very confusing and even make you think your avoidant ex wants to get back together. But to an avoidant in this culture, showing affection is something their culture does and in some cases, it’s a way of saying they don’t hold resentment against you. They’ll react negatively to you pointing out that they treat their exes with care and affectionate because to them you’re implying that they’re cheating with an ex and/or still “stuck on their ex”.

2. Emotional expression and restraint

In the attachment styles definition as we know it, discouraging a child from expressing distress and expecting them to self-regulate on their own will result in an avoidant attachment, but in some cultures the socialization goals is to produce an “easy child” who is calm, respectful and not dependent on the caregiver to “show feelings” in order to feel love and care. Parents in these cultures don’t often use verbal expressions of love (e.g. I love you) or excessive displays of emotional affect but instead show love by encouraging the child to participate in the social life and the everyday activities of the parent or caregiver, which include extensive body contact and synchrony with the caregiver. These interactions allow the caregiver to notice, correctly interpret and promptly and appropriately respond to the child’s signals for love, care and support.

This parenting style provides a very different experience of love and care from cultures where parents verbalize love and care, emotions are labelled and body contact is reserved for showing of affection. Someone raised in cultures where expressing distress, misery, worry, or any type of difficulty regulating negative emotions and not making emotional demands on others is considered healthy and a sign that one is emotionally secure and has an easy-going attitude will not understand why them not talking about their feelings or sharing their feelings bothers you so much.

If you are not aware of the cultural values and expression of care and love of someone from culture where love and care is expressed differently, you will conclude that they’re a dismissive avoidant or “some type of avoidant” when they actually have an anxious attachment.

An anxious attachment in these cultures is expressed differently. “They’re more concerned about doing something, or presenting an appearance, that will offend or embarrass the other person rather themselves (Hofmann1 and Hinton 2014).

After the breakup, they do ninstead pressuring an ex to get back together, they may instead act very nice and go out of their way to do things for an ex to cover up the fact that they’re very anxious, or they may completely avoid you so as not to make you uncomfortable.

Be aware and educated on the cultural nuances in your ex’s attachment style

These are just two examples of how some behaviours we consider as having an anxious attachment or avoidant attachment are considered normal and even secure attachment in other cultures. And these are not just superficial differences, but differences that are so deep that asking someone to change what they’ve known and believed as normal and secure all their lives and probably everyone around them acts and behaves the same way feels insulting and disrespectful.

I’ve met and spoken to hundreds of men and women from other cultures who completely reject attachment theory and attachment styles because it does not reflect how they think, feel, act and treat the people they love and care about.

Asking them to change and/or how you go about suggesting your ex go to therapy may be triggering to your ex if they come from a culture with negative attitudes towards seeking help from strangers. In the majority of non-Western cultures, most issues are supposed to be solved on your own or within the family, and seeking help for emotional issues from someone outside of the family unit or community is seen as a sign of emotional weakness and failure of the family to provide support, which then brings shame to the family and the individual.

To successfully get back with an ex from a different culture, it’s absolutely important to be aware and educated on the cultural nuances in your ex’s attachment style that may be hindering your efforts to get back together.


Interracial Love – So Different But Want The Same Things

Why I Came Back To My Ex – My Dismissive Avoidant Story

Avoidant Ex Is Responding, Should I Now Step Back?

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