Attachment in Couple Relationships
It appears to be an inborn drive in human beings to relate to other people and to seek security and safety from an early age in another’s arms. But what we often forget is that this need continues throughout adulthood and into old age, that the human requirement for safety and security is present in adult relationships as well as childhood ones.
In the mid 20th Century the psychologist John Bowlby developed what became known as Attachment Theory. He observed that babies form a strong disposition to attach themselves to primary caregivers in their lives, seeking to create a secure base from which to explore their world. This emotional and psychological security or safe haven becomes internalised in the child and the child carries an internal working model of a secure base, a feeling of “I’m okay” into adulthood. When “I’m okay” also meets another “I’m okay” in a relationship then the relationship tends to be one characterised by safety, security and mutual soothing- a feeling of “we’re okay” exists (see my articles “Couple Fit” and “Relationships as Containers”).
Adults as well as children benefit from having someone looking out for them—someone who is deeply invested in their wellbeing and who is reliably available to help if needed, and in an intimate relationship, loves them. Intimate relationships play a critical role in promoting health and wellbeing in adulthood. Receptive and open caregiving in situations of distress can restore feelings of security and give the attached individual in a couple relationship the confidence to go forwards and engage effectively in the world. At best, intimate relationships are reciprocal, mutual and flexible. Therefore, in a “we’re okay” relationship partners will be able to rely on one another in times of need, sometimes as care-seekers and sometimes as caregivers.
During infanthood, if a secure attachment is disrupted the child will experience feelings of loss; sometimes these feelings of loss can be worked through and accepted, but at other times the loss produces a partial inability to reattach to a caregiver; this is carried forward into adulthood as feelings of “I’m not okay”. When “I’m not okay” meets and falls into the arms of another “I’m not okay” then inevitably a relationship built on often unconscious feelings of “we’re not okay” exists.
Instead of developing a secure base or secure attachment style, other attachments styles are developed: anxious, avoidant and anxious-avoidant (different terms are used by different theorists). It’s important to note that we all carry within us to a greater or lesser extent these varying styles.
A closer look at attachment styles
Secure adults with secure attachment styles (“I’m okay”, “You’re okay”) are comfortable with intimacy, prepared to be vulnerable in relationships, will rely on the support of others and are confident that they are valued and loved. Anxious adults (“I’m not okay”) have a deep desire for closeness and dependence, coupled with a heightened concern and often an expectancy regarding rejection. Relationships are typified by jealousy, low levels of trust and mutual dissatisfaction. They desire commitment in relationships but can express a controlling and dominating interpersonal style Avoidant adults (You’re not okay”) appear to have low anxiety but view close relationships as unimportant, they value independence and self-reliance. Avoidant adults tend to be involved in relationships distinguished by low levels of interdependence, commitment, trust, and satisfaction. They will appear to have little distress following a relationship breakup and their relationships tend to involve more frequent negative emotions Anxious-avoidant adults (“I’m not okay-You’re not okay”) are high in anxiety and avoidance; they desire close relationships and the approval of others, but because they fear being rejected they avoid intimacy by appearing to sabotage relationships they are in.
In childhood the infant seeks an attachment with its primary caregiver; if this attachment is given then the infant can internalise a secure base from which he or she can explore the world in a good enough way. This encourages the forging and development of healthy relationships, which in turn serve as a secure base that help partners face the surprises, opportunities, distresses and challenges life presents. If the infant suffers loss or cannot find that early secure base he or she may develop different, insecure forms of attachment which can be problematic in adult couple relationships. Attachments styles are not fixed, and counselling can help couples to explore and recalibrate their attachment styles leading to better relationships.
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