What is “attachment” and why is this so important for romantic relationships?

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“Attachment” is a fascinating and complex matter, and the consequences are enormous for people’s experience of entering into a relationship and how their fair once married. In fact, the issue of attachment may be the single most central and important factor in the quality and success of people’s relationships.

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It seems obvious to say that a person is attached to their husband or wife, but there is more to it than that. “Attachment” is a fascinating and complex matter, and the consequences are enormous for people’s experience of entering into a relationship and how their fare once married. In fact, the issue of attachment may be the single most central and important factor in the quality and success of people’s relationships.

This is because the kind of attachment we have to our romantic partners is unique. It is not simply that we are connected to them practically and emotionally, but that the close bond we establish with our spouse fulfills a deep-seated need to have a secure attachment to a special other. This profound connection gives us a fundamental sense of security and fulfillment and is important for us to lead happy and healthy lives.

If we are inclined to form adult relationships that are what psychologists call “poorly attached,” then we may experience difficulties in dating and marriage. Many of the relationship issues that we address on this site are related to the broad range of attachment issues. While it is difficult to say with certainty exactly how many people experience attachment issues, the evidence suggests it is a very significant percentage, if we include people with very mild levels of attachment difficulty.

Our romantic attractions are related to our childhood experiences with intimacy.

This article is going to take a relatively deep-dive in the whole area of attachment, for those who want to get a solid grip on what this is all about. Our romantic attractions are related to our childhood experiences with intimacy, how we felt when – as a baby – we bonded and enjoyed closeness to our mother. These moments of pure unconflicted comfort are profoundly engraved in our brain, and as adults we seek to recapture that sense of closeness and comfort through the deep bonds of marriage.

It may sound outlandish to say this, but many experts suggest that we love whom we love not so much because of the future we hope to build but because of the past we hope to reclaim. Love is also reactive, not just proactive; it arches us backward to recreate the cocoon of our innocence. This explains why many people choose their life partner because it just felt “right” or “familiar.” He or she has a certain look or smell or sound or touch that activates buried memories.

Attachment Theory

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (1965) developed attachment theory through studying the relationship between children and their caregivers. They concluded that children learn two main expectations from their many interactions with caregivers: whether they are accessible and whether they are likely to be responsive. This expectation will be based on one or both of the following judgements:

“(a) whether or not the attachment figure is judged to be the sort of person who in general responds to calls for support and protection;

(b) whether or not the self is judged to be the sort of person towards whom anyone, and the attachment figure in particular, is likely to respond in a helpful way” (Bowlby, 1973, p. 238).

These expectations are formed into relatively stable working models, which the child uses to guide their choices. If the child enjoys a warm and supportive bond with its caregiver, that will typically solidify into a broadly trusting orientation, and is likely to mitigate the child’s anxiety, fear, and worry.

Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver suggested that attachment theory applied to adult romantic relationships in two main ways. First, they showed how in many respect romantic partners display similar features in their relationship to that of a child with their caregiver:

They seek to be close to one another

They feel comforted when their partners are present

They are anxious or lonely when their partners are absent

They provide a secure base that helps partners face life’s challenges

Models of child attachments thus serve as a base for understanding attachments later in life.

Bowlby and Ainsworth showed how attachment patterns form in childhood through the mental representations or schemas that we hold about people and relationships between them. Hazan and Shaver that those attachment orientations typically formed into ‘working models’ that persist into adulthood and play themselves out in people’s romantic attachments. We know that adult attachment follows closely our attachment orientation as a child:

  • The working models that people form about relationships in childhood are relatively stable, such that their close relationships later in life are likely to reflect their attachment histories.
  • Individuals form relationships based on the expectations and beliefs they have about relationships.
  • While working models of attachment are stable, they are subject to change based upon new life experiences and social conditions.
  • Problematic attaching orientations can lead to relationship complications, sometimes quite debilitating.

Meet the “Ice Queen”

Dina is a 30-year-old woman, slim and athletic, outgoing and cheerful, who has seldom been involved in a serious relationship. A male friend described her as ice-cold, dismissing of men and ambivalent about relationships, despite firmly asserting that marriage is an important goal in her life. Another friend of hers warned me that she was unreachable and a “lost case” in terms of relationships.

It emerged from a brief survey of her relationship history that she was uncomfortable getting close to people, she was distrusting of people in general and men in particular, and that she had a habit of getting involved in failed relationships with partners suffering from psychological problems. I inquired why she thought this was happening, and she tearfully disclosed a painful article in her childhood.

It turns out that an uncle felt threatened by her (because she was better looking than his own daughter), in part because he perceived that she showed his daughter in an unfavorable light. For some years, this uncle would use every opportunity to harangue her and humiliate her. She considered herself strong and resilient and would defend herself against these attacks, and would tell her uncle that he had no right to behave in this way. But of course, the insults still hurt. However, here is the rub: she would tell her father about the mistreatment she was receiving and he failed to ever stand up for her. She was told to take criticism from someone older who she should respect. She was told that it was only words and anyways she knew how to stand up for herself. The net result is that this young girl quickly learned that she could not trust people to be there for her, especially men.

Years later, this distrust persists. She could not overcome the deep sense of abandonment from her caregiver, who she looked to but failed to deliver the protection she craved and needed. The mental models she has are to expect to be let down. Her attachment orientation is to avoid close relationships, because (in her mind) they prove worthless and are disappointing.

As Sue Johnson explains in her famous book, Hold Me Tight, functional relationships provide each party with two vital benefits: Knowledge that one has a supportive and available partner provides security. An attachment figure who we feel we can rely upon offers comfort and reassurance, which reduces our anxiety and mitigates our distress at life’s difficulties. However, it also provides the safety we need to then go forward with confidence and explore ourselves and the world, including learning new ideas and making changes to ourselves. Dina was deprived of a supporting attachment figure during her formative years, leading her to doubt herself and others, rendering her cautious and afraid when venturing into adult relationships.

Negative emotions are highly useful. Anger, anxiety or regret helps a person to judge when danger presents itself. The problem becomes when negative emotions persist even after their utility has been exhausted, or if they grow to such intensity that they impair the person and overwhelm them. Dina’s reaction to her mistreatment was important in helping her to defend herself against attack, but now has become an unhealthy defense mechanism against non-existent or exaggerated threats. Her attachment orientation is so highly avoidant of abusive closeness, that it is now protecting her against any closeness.

This body of research and knowledge sheds enormous light on the struggles that people face in romantic relationships, and, in particular, offers values insights into the difficulties many singles face in forming and securing lasting relationships. Now for some more specifics:

Attachment Styles

Based on recent interpretations of attachment theory, it may be said that there are broadly four types of attachment orientations:

  1. Secure. Secure people find it relatively easy to get close to, trust, and depend on their romantic partners. They perceive themselves as loveable, establish a long-term commitment, and are comfortable that their partner depends on them. They are tolerant of differences and are responsive to their partner’s needs. Secure partners express feelings, articulate needs, and are willing to reveal their vulnerabilities.
  2. Dismissing. Dismissing people prefer to be self-reliant, neither seeking nor accepting support from their romantic partners, even when this is harmful to the relationship. They maintain emotional distance, struggle to articulate emotional feelings, and are reluctant to acknowledge their need for attachment (or other needs). They become anxious with closeness, and find trust challenging. Typically, in the marriage, their partners seek more closeness and connection than they are able or willing to provide.
  3. Anxious. Anxious people are filled with worry and uncertainty about their romantic relationships. They suspect that they will not be loved and supported that they often demand reassurance, sometimes aggressively so. They can become rather jealous and blaming, and often end-up scaring their date away or acting in a suffocating manner towards their spouse. Whilst they have a profound need for closeness, they distrust the emotional availability of others.
  4. Fearful. Such people are ambivalent, desperately wanting closeness on the one hand but are afraid of it on the other hand. They perceive themselves as unworthy of love and are afraid that they will be rejected. Thus, they vacillate between attachment and hostility. In a dating situation, this type of person appears highly inconsistent and unreliable, seemingly unable to stick to a relationship without escaping often for contrived reasons.

Another way of thinking about this is through the model made famous by Thomas A Harris, characterizing people by whether they think they and others are ‘okay’:

1. I’m Not OK, You’re OK (fearful)
2. I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK (dismissing)
3. I’m OK, You’re Not OK (anxious)
4. I’m OK, You’re OK (secure)

If you want to understand this better, please read the footnote.

Attachment and Relationship Behaviors

Yet another way to understand the difference is by how partners to a relationship negotiated their own needs and those of the relationship, or how concerned the person is about their own interests in the relationship and how concerned they are about working for the best interest of the relationship itself. Some people care neither about themselves nor about others, some care about both, and some care only about one or the others – meaning that there are four main combinations:

  1. Secure. This person will look to find a way of solving the problem, so that the relationship is not harmed but their own needs are not left behind (looks out for both their own interests and that of the relationship).
  2. Dismissing. This person cares little about self or the relationship and in a problem situation will simply withdraw (fails to look out either for own interest in the relationship of the best interest of the relationship itself).
  3. Anxious. This person cares about self but not so much about the needs of the relationship, such that they will be aggressive to achieve their goals in the relationship, even if the net result is damage to it (looks out for own interest in the relationship but in so doing does not take care not to harm the relationship).
  4. Fearful. Such a person will try to do anything to restore calm, and will be highly soothing, even if it means that they are harming their own interests (will sacrifice to preserve the relationship even at the expense of own relationship needs).

Put somewhat differently, the various attachment styles manifest themselves in how people express their own needs.

  • People with a secure attachment style tend to explain their needs
  • People with an anxious style often demand their needs are met
  • People with dismissive style have a habit of ignoring their own needs
  • People with a fearful style bring up their needs but them play them down.

These relational schemas guide not only the person’s thoughts but also their behavior, as they will pursue or avoid some action in accordance with their expected outcomes. Thus, attachment orientations that are shaped by childhood relationships continue to shape our ongoing interactions as adults.

Attachment-Related Issues

We now turn to applying these ideas to more practical examples of the relationship difficulties that are common among both singles and couples. Here are a range of common issues that are the consequence of a dismissive, anxious or fearful attitude towards relationships, based in part on Randi Gunther’s book Relationship Saboteurs. Please note that in order to bring these attachment issues to life I describe quite extreme examples (although not necessarily the most extreme), even though the vast majority of people who have some degree of attachment struggle will experience their issues much more mildly than our examples below.

Anxiety

When someone experiences acute insecurity in their relationships, they respond with anxiety, possessiveness and jealousy. Constant fear of losing their partner despoils them of the happiness they could enjoy from the relationship. Ultimately, the continuing pressure for reassurance proves too burdensome for many and they back off from their romantic partner. It could easily lead an individual to stop dating someone due to how exhausting it can be to deal with a highly anxious type of person. While initially some people may be attracted to an insecure partner, because it allows them to feel valued and important, the constant need for obsessive closeness can become feel suffocating.

People high on anxiety may feel the need for constant closeness to the person they are dating or to their marriage partner, and can struggle to function normally when separated from them. It has been called lovesickness and desperate love, and while it may seem “cute” is actually quite debilitating. This can be a totally normal phase for some people at the beginning of a relationship, but it is clearly dysfunctional when it persists long-term.

People like this tend to:

  • Continuously fret about losing their partner
  • Constantly seek reassurance
  • Feel threatened by their partner’s other close relationships
  • Panic at even the slightest sign of their partner’s loss of interest
  • Worry more about the relationship ending than enjoying it

Dismissive

People with a dismissive attachment orientation are often controlling of their dating relationship and in a marriage of their spouse. Not only do they generally want to be in charge of every aspect of their partner’s life, but feel that they need to be. This is often the approach of the dismissing type, who is desperate to ensure that they are not swallowed up by the relationship. To justify their controlling tendency, they convince themselves that their partner could not manage without them do this, and believe that things would be much worse if they were to let go. Such people take the view that one is either in control or being controlled. They find it difficult to relate to the concept of parity.

While it may initially be comforting to have someone in one’s life who is up for taking care of everything, it can soon feel overly restricted. Most people will recoil at surrendering all important decisions to the control of another person, and they will reject the idea that someone else always knows better than they do what’s best for them. While at the beginning of the relationship, the controlling habits may have been wrapped in a loving veneer, over time the tactfulness usually dissipates and the full ugliness of the domination becomes apparent.

People like this tend to:

  • Assume that it is their role to establish the rules
  • Become vindictive when the partner refuses to cooperate
  • Rarely agree to back down
  • Become riled at having their decision questioned
  • Rarely takes advice from a partner

Fearful

People with fear of intimacy are also typically seeking it; otherwise, they would not be dating or entering a relationship. What they often do not realize is that that they want it and fear it at the same time. Thus, their relationships exist in a manic state of drawing close and pulling away. While this kind of dance may work for this type of person, it is often intolerable for the person who has to deal or live with this up and down yo-yoing. It can be quite unpleasant to put up with such inconsistency and volatility. Moreover, from experience this type of person knows that they cannot easily handle closeness or intimacy, and thus they live in constant fear of both increased closeness and the collapse of the relationship.

They are simultaneously afraid of the relationship and of not having the relationship, meaning that to anyone but themselves it comes across as highly confusing and indiscernible. In a dating situation this manifests in the person “blowing hot and cold”; initially showing great enthusiasm (eliciting a similar reaction in the date), only to back away and grow all skeptical (leaving the date confused and shell-shocked). In a marriage situation, this exhibits in efforts to have an intimacy-rich relationship, but then going cold when he is expected to step up. This problem only arises once the relationship becomes close, so initially the other partner will have no reason to suspect a problem.

People like this tend to:

  • Find passion frightening
  • Watch their partners become increasingly frustrated with the relationship
  • Find open communication stressful
  • Break up and make up at regular intervals
  • Be confused as to why they find the same relation both attractive and a trap

Can attachment orientations change?

That is a difficult question, and can best be answered by a yes and a no. Attachment orientations are generally stable, meaning they do not evolve over time, because they emerge within a long-term family situation. As the reactions based on these mental models become habitual, they tend to operate entirely outside of conscious awareness, which makes them more difficult to change.

Moreover, mental models are continually reinforced through the direct consequences they produce. For example, an avoidant person will trigger responses that will confirm their initial hesitation about relationships. Alternatively, overly anxious people will often fail to get the desired degree of the implausibly high demand for reassurance and connectedness, confirming their original anxiety.

While the original attachment theory assumed that orientations were highly stable, more recently we have come to understand that we can change how we approach relationships.

Firstly, during a person’s journey to adulthood, he or she gains multiple experiences of life that may challenge their perceptions of attachment. Research shows that while attachment styles are typically stable, with 70–80% of people experiencing no significant change in attachment styles, over time 20-30% of people do experience significant change in their attachment orientation. Someone may change their attachment style if it keeps producing unsatisfying outcomes.

Secondly, while people tend to have a main stable attachment orientation, which in most circumstances is the default response, a different relationship style activated if that is more appropriate to circumstances. While people have a general orientation, they may adopt a differing orientation depending on the type of relationship or the specific individual. Someone’s attachment orientation may be influenced by external cues or the person they are with (and their attachment style). When someone has had brought to their mind feelings of loss, he or she is more likely to express feelings of insecurity, but if they are primed with a positive relationship experience, they are capable of expressing a more secure attitude towards attachment.

Thirdly, our adult relationships heavily influence our attachment orientation. For example, if the relationship we have had ar characterized by rejection the relationship will be insecure. If a person regularly finds that their requests for affection are rejected, he or she will develop a relational schema that explains this predictable response. People seek closeness to reduce anxiety and gain comfort, but if their partner is indifferent to their appeal the person may become over-persistent or avoidant. If, by contrast, those requests are mostly enthusiastically accepted, then the person will form a more optimistic relational mindset:

About the self – “I deserve lots of affection”
About the partner “My partner is affectionate”
About interactions – “If I ask my partner for affection, then my partner will joyfully give it to me.”

Finally, but most importantly, attachment styles will not remain stagnant if they are challenged and adjusted. As Feeney and Noller (1996 p. 17) note, “The revision of mental models may also be facilitated by aspects of development within the individual.” Davila and Cobb (2004 p. 152) similarly state that, “More durable changes in attachment models could be achieved through increasing the clarity and sharpness of client’s views of themselves and others. By helping clients gain a greater understanding of their own interpersonal style and the origins of their beliefs and patterns it may be possible to begin to alter them.” So, even someone with a highly stable problematic attachment orientation can be helped to gain sufficient self-awareness to make their own changes. Healthier attachment styles can be adopted, which can reshape how relationships are formed and maintained.

What to do

Our attachment orientation will have a major impact on how we view relationships, and thus how we approach them. If, as a result of your attachment orientation, you have significantly problematic attitudes and behavior, they are capable of getting in the way of relationship success or happiness. It is vital that you get help to properly understand how it is impacting you, so that you can make the necessary adjustments.

For example, you may be repeatedly withdrawing from relationships without realizing that this is being driven by a fearful or avoidance attachment orientation. With this knowledge, you are able to think more clearly and act more reasonably in this situation going forward. Another example may be that you have an anxious orientation and tend to become over-enthused about your date, repeatedly scaring them away. With this awareness, you can tone things down to allow the relationship to unfold more organically.

A person does not need to be a saint to enjoy a successful relationship; it is sufficient to bring things to a level that does not stretch the partner’s tolerance threshold to breaking point. However, people who clearly have a significant problem in their attachment orientation and do nothing to address it are susceptible to the kinds of struggles described above.

If someone has had a difficult childhood, this almost guarantees they will have some issues with their attachment. This has a solid chance of hindering their experience of dating and marriage. At a minimum, it is good that through this article you have gained greater self-awareness about how this could affect you.

If you see any signs that this is having an impact on your ability to date or have a good marriage, it is vital that you reach out to someone who can help you develop the skills to overcome your challenges. The good news is that in almost all cases attachment issues – even severe ones – are not an obstacle to a happy and fulfilling marriage. The great news is that these issues can be mostly addressed through simple self-awareness and modest modifications to behavior. On the flip side, ignoring them can lead to suffering years of dating frustration, as people repeatedly make mistakes and misjudgments. Likewise, ignoring these issues in marriage can lead to years of needless frustration for both spouses.

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