attachment styles in relationships: a couples counselor's guide
Updated: Jan 6, 2022
If you've never heard of attachment theory, today we will cover the basics and more. If you're pretty familiar with attachment theory, this article will still be useful to you.
The work done by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth has revolutionized the mental health field forever. Bowlby was one of the early originators of attachment theory, and Mary Ainsworth brought the theory to life in the experiment titled "the strange situation." In this experiment mothers and their infants were placed in a playroom together where the mother was then instructed to play and interact with their child. Then, at some point in the experiment, the mother was instructed to leave the room for a moment. When the mothers left the room Ainsworth watched the differently reactions from these infants, ranging from crying and screaming to shutting down and going numb. The resulting reactions of the infants to their the mothers' absence and return, led Ainsworth and Bowlby to identify and categorize four core attachment styles: Securely attached, Anxiously Attached, Avoidantly Attached, and Fearfully/Avoidantly Attached; we will talk about those in a moment.
But what is attachment all about? The main assertion behind Attachment Theory is that children need to be able to depend on at least one caretaker for all their physical and emotional needs, but if their caretaker is either unavailable or inconsistent in meeting the child's needs it will have a negative impact on the child's emotional and social development. Infants then develop "strategies" to cope with any emotional or physical needs being unmet or inconsistently met by their caregiver(s); that's where attachment styles come into play.
Below is the video of "The Strange Situation" experiment which shows how each child has a different reaction to their mother's absence and return. Studies show that attachment styles are established based on several factors, including early childhood experiences, availability of caregivers, and perhaps even genetics.
attachment in adults
Research over the past several decades is now revealing that attachment needs and styles never go away. It is a primary human need that, if unmet, can lead adults to feel insecure, unstable, and desperate. This explains why intense emotions can be experienced during an argument with a loved one. In these quarrels, our attachment systems can become activated and we might go into a fight or flight response.
Studies even show that people who appear outwardly calm and content existing in a fully self-reliant manner still register high levels of stress in the body when experiencing disconnection from their significant other. This means that, regardless of how hard we try to deny it, our body knows that it needs human connection and attachment. Study after study has been affirming, again and again, that no matter our age, we need to feel attached to at least one significant person in our lives for our overall well-being.
Why Is adult attachment So Important?
It's a fair question. After all, there are many theories in the realm of psychology that are almost in direct contradiction to this theory. For example, the concepts of self-soothing, self-love, self-compassion, while helpful in some contexts, are often taught from the point of view of not needing anyone to make us feel happy. Of course, they fail to note that the reason people are able to self-soothe and self-love is because of a felt sense of attachment to at least one significant other in their lives. Ultimately these concepts teach us that "we should be able to be perfectly happy without anyone." However, scientific studies fail to substantiate these claims. In fact, all the evidence shows that we need to at least "feel" attached to someone to truly feel balanced and stable. Self-confidence, self-love, self-soothing, courage, and curiosity all come from knowing that we have a secure base to turn to for emotional support.
Our attachment style has a huge impact on our ability to bond with others and to get our needs met in life. These attachment styles can serve as predictors of relationship satisfaction, emotional well-being, and even physical health. Studies show that securely attached couples are healthier, live longer, and report greater relationship satisfaction than those in insecurely attached relationships. Often the result of not getting our relationship needs met includes anxiety, depression, and reports of relationship dissatisfaction.
the attachment styles
Now let's go into detail about each of the four attachment styles. It is important to mention, however, that people usually fall somewhere on a spectrum within the four attachment styles. In fact, the creator of Emotion-Focused Therapy and author of the book Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson, Ph.D. prefers to call them "attachment strategies" since the word "strategies" implies behavior, whereas "styles" implies permanent identity or personality. The good news is that this means people can go from an insecure form of attachment to a secure bond in their relationships. But let's explore what each of these styles entails:
Anxiously attached people tend to be preoccupied with their partner leaving or abandoning them. They are more likely to experience strong anxiety and worry when they perceive their partner is unresponsive or unavailable. Consequently, they are the most likely to "pursue" their partner, often through the use of demands, lashing out, or even withdrawing in hopes of their partner chasing after them. Usually, this attachment style is the result of caregivers not consistently meeting the person's needs during their early years of development.
Avoidantly attached people have a strong fear of becoming stuck with a romantic partner, and they feel smothered or controlled when in a serious relationship, regardless of their partner behaving controllingly. For them, intimacy feels too intense and they are most likely to call their partner names like "clingy," "too much," and "needy." This attachment style often stems from having parents who would or could not meet their emotional or physical needs. This led the avoidantly attached person to rely heavily on themselves. Consequently, they end up fearing intimacy because they associate it with abandonment. They have a tendency to subconsciously sabotage their relationships using "distancing strategies" to keep the relationship at an emotional level that feels safe for them.
Securely attached people are not afraid of intimacy and do not falsely assume they're being abandoned at the first sign of unavailability or unresponsiveness from their partner. They are very direct about their needs, wants, and feelings because they learned early on that their needs matter and that they deserve to have those needs met, just like anyone else. This is usually the result of very attentive, loving, nurtering parents who met their childs physical and emotinal needs on a consistent basis. Consequently, securely attached people are very good at reaching out for intimacy and at providing love and comfort to their romantic partners and loved ones.
People with a fearful/avoidant attachment style often send mixed messages about wanting closeness with their significant other. Much like the anxiously attached, they will pursue their partner, but when their partner finally comes close, the fearful/avoidant person pushes them away using distancing strategies, much like the avoidantly attached person. The person with a fearful/avoidant attachment style sends these mixed signals because they fear intimacy and closeness, while at the same time desperately needing and wanting this connection from someone. This attachment style is rare and is often the result of severe trauma in childhood, such as witnessing domestic violence, addiction, or other serious issues from their primary caregivers. Often in these situations, they had no choice but to rely on these dysfunctional caregivers for survival, regardless of feeling very unsafe and unstable with them.
attachment styles and compatibility
Each attachment style interact differently with one another. We won't be including the fearful/avoidant attachment style in this section since this style is rarer and needs a more comprehensive explanation than I can currently offer.
This is a very common relationship combo. It is often the result of the anxiously attached person believing they truly are "too much" and "too needy," so when they meet the avoidantly attached person they stuff their needs deep down to avoid driving their partner away. As a result, the avoidantly attached person is led to believe that the anxiously attached person needs little or nothing from them, which is a relief to the avoidantly attached person. Of course, once the anxiously attached person's needs go unmet for a while, the couple becomes caught in a common pattern we call pursue/withdraw. Here is an explainer video about how the pursue/withdraw dynamic impacts a relationship. When I show this to couples with this pattern they are quick to tell me that this video is a very accurate depiction of their own relationship habits.
This relationship is ideal. In a secure/secure relationship, needs, wants, and feelings are communicated clearly, directly, and without games or protest behaviors. Needs and feelings are also validated. Love and affection are freely given and received since both partners believe that their partner is their number one priority. There is no fear of intimacy and no fear of abandonment. While all couples have their disagreements and moments of irritability, for the secure/secure couple, their relationship is often satisfying and nearly effortless.
This type of relationship tends to work out too. That's because when the anxiously attached person begins to experience a fear of abandonment and begins to blame or pursue their partner, the securely attached partner soothes and reassures the anxiously attached partner. The securely attached partner then becomes a model of secure attachment for the anxiously attached person. Consequently, it is not uncommon that the anxiously attached person learns how to express their needs and feelings more productively, leading the relationship to evolve into a secure/secure pattern.
This relationship is not as common as the three listed above. A securely attached person believes their needs matter and desire intimacy with their partner, whereas an avoidantly attached person fears intimacy and is likely to dismiss their partner's needs and feelings. As a result, the secure partner recognizes (usually before the relationship becomes serious) that their own needs are being disregarded and move on to a partner who is willing and able to meet their needs and feelings.
finding your style
But which attachment style are you? Remember, this is more of a spectrum, and each person's attachment style can vary slightly from relationship to relationship. An anxiously attached person can act avoidantly in certain contexts and relationships, and an avoidantly attached person can act anxious in certain contexts and relationships. Furthermore, during the first months of dating, everyone can behave as though they are securely attached; that's because the stakes are not high and there is less risk of abandonment or of being smothered. For reference, here is how the attachment spectrum is laid out. The term "Preoccupied," seen in the figure below, is interchangeably used with "anxiously attached."
So now it's time to discover where you fall on the scale. To have a clearer picture of your attachment style I recommend taking the evidence-based questionnaire named the "Experiences in Close Relationships Scale." Like the figure above, it will help you determine where you fall on the attachment spectrum: CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE QUIZ
summing it all up
Children need to be able to depend on at least one caretaker for all their physical and emotional needs, and if the needs go unmet they develop "strategies" to either get their needs met or suppress their needs. Attachment needs also apply to adults, and our attachment style has a huge impact on our relationships and on how we go about getting our needs met (or suppressing them). If you've taken the quiz, you know where on the spectrum of attachment you fall, and how your style may interact with other attachment styles.
Of course, there is so much more depth to adult attachment theory than can be fully conveyed in this article, so I've made some recommendations below for those of you interested in continuing your education about your own and others attachment styles.
Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - And Keep - Love
Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A.
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
RECOMMENDED THERAPY DIRECTORIES
If you are experiencing constant conflict or disconnection in your relationships, Emotion Focused Therapy for couples or individuals is a well-researched model based on attachment theory, and has been proven to be one of the most effective, long-lasting models. To find an Emotion Focused Therapist you can go to psychologytoday.com, type in your zip code, and then filter by "Types of Therapy." Now add "Emotionally Focused" to the search criteria. You can do similar searches on goodtherapy.org and therapyden.com.
You can also read my guide on how to find a good therapist here, check out more of my blogs here and if you live in or near Phoenix, Arizona set up an appointment for individual or couples counseling with me on my website.
Leave a comment below and tell me what you think. I'd love to hear your feedback!