Attachment Theory For Couples

Attachment theory helps us understand how parents and children bond to each other as they go through different developmental stages in life.

For the last twenty years or so there has been research related to attachment theory applied to the connection and difficulties couples experience in their relationships.

As an adult, the spouse or significant other in a couples’ life becomes the primary attachment figure replacing the family of origin parents.

What we find is that seeking and maintaining contact with a significant other is an innate and primary motivating factor in people throughout their life span.

Attachment and the emotions associated with it are the core defining feature of close couple relationships.

The more securely connected we are as a couple, the more separate and different we can be as individuals.

Secure dependency and autonomy are two sides of the same coin.

For people of all ages, positive attachment to a significant other creates a safe haven that offers a buffer against the effects of stress and uncertainty in life.

Secure couple attachment provides a secure base from which individuals can explore their world and most adaptively respond to their environment

When couples become less engaged and feel less connected on an ongoing basis; it results in couple distress and may be the foundation for further distancing and relationship problems.

The building blocks of secure attachment are emotional accessibility and responsiveness.

Attachment or separation distress results from the assessment that an attachment figure is inaccessible.

Emotional engagement that can be counted on when needed again and again is crucial to maintaining a strong attachment with a partner.

Strong couple attachment relationships are where our strongest emotions arise and where they seem to have the most impact. These strong emotions may be positive or negative.

Fear and uncertainty may activate our attachment needs with our partner. Maintaining a strong sense of connection with a loved one is a primary inbuilt emotion regulation device.

Attachment to a spouse or significant other is our primary protection against feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness.

If our attachment or connection with our significant other is disrupted by failing to elicit comforting responsiveness and contact from our significant other, anger, aggressiveness, anxiety, hurt, criticism, clinging, hopelessness and depression, as well as other emotions and problematic behaviors may result.

The drama of this distress may get played out in a couple involving one partner demanding and pursuing the other but failing to get the responsiveness they need while the other partner becomes defensive, withdraws or tries to avoid the other.

These anxious and avoidant strategies may lead to an emotional escalation or polarization and distancing of both partners.

To simplify our discussion, we may describe how people react when they feel their partner is detached or unresponsive to them in their relationship in the context of being Securely Attached, Anxiously Attached or Avoidant Attached.

In secure relationships, protest at inaccessibility is recognized as appropriate and accepted.

Both partners have learned to identify ways to engage and be responsive to each other in meaningful ways that result in regaining and maintaining their strong connection to each other.

Securely attached people are more open to new information and able to revise their beliefs and seek reassurance more effectively. They are more likely to avoid blaming, becoming defensive, attacking, escalating or further polarizing the relationship.

Anxiously attached adults seem to experience separation from their attachment figure as if they are being abandoned or betrayed. Anxiously attached partners are more prone to strong panic, anger and criticism.

Avoidant partners are also threatened by a disruption in their connection with their significant other but experience more hostility in response to their partner’s call for responsiveness.

Avoidant partners may have difficulty seeking or giving support when attachment needs arise within them or their partner. They tend to see their partner as being to blame for further disconnection based on what they see as an unreasonable or unnecessary call for them to be more responsive to their partner.

This pattern of blame-pursue followed by defend-withdraw is a predictor of relationship breakdown and need for relationship repair.

Unless this pattern is recognized and addressed by the couple; it may further make their relationship attachment problematic.

Adapted by M. Douglas Evans from The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by Susan Johnson Ph.D., 2004.

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