Attachment styles have moved into more discussions and writing about relationships over the past few years. And for good reason: Understanding your own and your partner’s style can forge a new bridge to a deeper awareness of your differences. Most importantly, this new awareness opens the door to greater compassion — and then closeness.
There’s science here, too, that supports the growing use of attachment styles in helping couples better navigate the challenging times in their relationships.
In this post, we’ll address the basics of the science of attachment, how couples can struggle with different attachment styles and how couples can increase the depth of their connection by heightening their awareness of how attachment impacts their relationship.
Attachment Styles in Action: Familiar Scenarios
Diane is enjoying a girls’ night out at a local club. Dave is home playing board games with their kids. Both are relaxed, having fun. Dave is not worried about Diane, not anxious about when she’ll be home.
At a party, John is talking with a woman who is the date of a colleague. His wife Jane notices, and she’s becoming more angry and wishes he would come be with her. And, why is he spending time with this other woman?
Ann wants Andy to open up about issues at his job; Andy, though, prefers to leave problems at the office and deal with them as needed. Ann feels closer when they talk; Andy can be uncomfortable discussing emotions.
Each example demonstrates a different style of attachment. Without understanding attachment styles, couples can struggle to connect and feel close, fall into arguments frequently and even have different parenting beliefs they struggle to understand.
So, what exactly is attachment? And what are its origins for us as individuals?
Attachment: The Science, Briefly
We learn to love and be loved in our earliest years. As infants and young children, we are entirely dependent on our parents to feed us, keep us safe and to help us feel secure.
Our young brains are learning whether or not we can count on our caregivers to be there when we need them, to offer comfort and to help us experience joy that comes from connection with those important to us. Children look to their caregivers for applause and encouragement when we take our first steps, to encourage us when we go out into the world on those early days of school and when we need reassurance to try something new.
Our early experiences are unique — and they begin to influence our brain development and how we will connect and bond with others as we grow. And, these early experiences of relying on others can set the stage for how successful we are in our adult romantic relationships.
Keep in mind, however, we are not intending to blame parents for misguidance. Parents themselves are influenced by their own family of origin, their culture, the era and times and stress they may be encountering.
As we mature, adult attachment is the bond formed when we fall in love. Attachment includes:
- Seeking and maintaining emotional and physical connection with our beloved.
- Reaching for this one special person for comfort during times of stress, offering us a safe haven from the challenges of daily life.
- We miss our beloved when we are apart, and separation can bring forth intense emotions.
- We depend on our loved one to support us emotionally, and it is this closeness that gives us confidence and courage to venture out into the world as individuals.
Benefitting from this New Understanding
Understanding our own ways of attachment and how we connect with others is important learning. And, we can, as adults, make changes to become more secure in our attachment styles.
The science of attachment was at first resisted — as often occurs with any new discovery. However, over the years, science has been better able to understand the roots of attachment. Today, we can actually see on brain images the impact of attachment when people receive comfort from their partner.
The source of our attachment styles can reach beyond childhood. We also find that experiences in previous romantic relationships can influence attachment feelings in the current one. If you had troubled, perhaps abusive, adult relationships, your attachment style now may reflect those traumas. Or, when a previous partner had an affair, you may be particularly anxious or cautious in subsequent relationships.
Understanding the Three Main Attachment Styles
Let’s take another look at our three couples mentioned above.
Diane and Dave have secure attachment styles, which include:
- They are comfortable depending on each other
- They assume their partner’s intentions are positive
- They support each other’s growth and development
- They don’t worry about abandonment and can easily trust each other
John and Jane may not share the same attachment style. Jane is anxious and she may tend to:
- Need to be reassured that she is loved
- Not feel John is as close to her as she needs
- Be sensitive to any signs of rejection and need to know exactly where she stands in the relationship
- Persistently call and text and worry if John doesn’t reply promptly when she feels the relationship is in any way insecure.
John, on the other hand, struggles to understand Jane’s worrying. His attachment style is secure, and her persistence can lead to arguments when he becomes frustrated with her needs for reassurance.
Ann and Andy also have different attachment styles. She is anxious when he is quiet and seemingly withdrawn. Andy’s behavior tends to align with the avoidant attachment style and can include:
- A reluctance to get too close to others
- A desire to be independent and minimize the need for others for assistance
- Pulling away when things are going well and not be responsive when his partner wants connection
- Not making his personal needs known
One of the foundations of Emotionally Focused Therapy is helping each partner understand his or her own attachment style and to be aware of and sensitive to the style of their partner.
It’s also not unusual for a person to have a “mixed” attachment style. These folks can struggle with:
- Fear of losing their partner but also have difficulty with closeness and intimacy
- Suppress his or her own needs, which appears as passive or uncaring by the partner
- Typically includes some attributes of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles
“Aha! Moments” Bring New Understanding
When John and Jane learned in couples counseling about each of their differing attachment styles, their eyes opened to greater insight.
John began to understand and gain new respect for Jane’s jealousy and her fears. Her first boyfriend way back in high school had cheated on her with her best friend. So, alarm bells go off for her when she sees her new husband talking with a woman at a party.
John learned to comfort and reassure Jane, and she learned she no longer has to feel haunted by her past hurts. She also learned in therapy to voice her fears and to let John know when she wanted him to be close.
Indeed, couples can learn and grow by understanding their own and their partner’s attachment styles. Jane, with John’s help, can become more secure in their relationship.
Not Set in Stone: Attachment Styles Can Change, Evolve
Challenging events can cause a change in attachment styles, particularly as the couple struggles to recover from an unusual occurrence in their relationship. For example, discovery of any kind of unfaithfulness by one partner commonly triggers considerable anxiety in the partner. A death of someone in the family may cause an avoidant partner to reach out to the other.
Newer research confirms that couples counseling can create shifts in attachment styles. When the anxious partner is able to express his or her fears, the other partner can begin to respond in ways that can promote security. Avoidant partners can begin to feel more comfortable opening up.
Our brains are capable of change — of growing new habits even in our later years. As we begin to gain new awareness of our attachment styles and the benefits of making even small changes, we can learn to become more secure.
The Core of Attachment
Decades of research have affirmed the role of attachment in couples’ relationships. Dr. Susan Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, notes that these many studies “confirm that our need to attach continues beyond childhood and also establish that romantic love is an attachment bond.
“At every age, human beings habitually seek and maintain physical and emotional closeness with at least one particular irreplaceable other. We especially seek out this person when we feel stressed, unsure and anxious. We are just hardwired this way.”
We can see that the need is strong for connection. Where couples can struggle is with the “how.” Gaining greater insight into each partner’s obstacles to the closeness they seek is a first step.
To learn more about Emotionally Focused therapy, read Emotionally Focused Therapy: The Most Effective Approach