Love exists at the core of every romantic relationship. Often first built on an attraction, love solidifies and connects two people in a way that creates a new connection and family. This is the process of “the two becoming one” as the Bible puts it.
To understand this, researchers have long tried to find ways of codifying and measuring what love is. We can attempt to describe the feeling of love, but it’s often like trying to describe a newly invented color.
We can try to name how we express love, and that has led to the popularization of “love languages,” but these are often in flux and don’t always show a complete picture. How did we learn those languages in the first place? One way we have been able to “measure” love and track connection is through the lens of attachment.
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are considered to be the founders of attachment theory. Bowlby was among the first to note that attachment to a parental figure for children provides a necessary ingredient to healthy human development. Ainsworth expanded upon his research and produced a classic experiment called “The Strange Situation” which was able to demonstrate attachment styles in children.
The strange situation would go as follows: Researchers would have a mother and infant playing together in a room with a two-way mirror. Researchers then would indicate for the mother to leave the room, only for a short time. This is inherently distressing for the infant, but would not inflict any long-term harm to be separated for only a matter of seconds.
However, the child does not know this, so the normal, healthy reaction would be to begin to cry. After this point, the mother would reenter the room, and this provides the operative moment. Researchers have found reactions by the child largely fit into one of four categories.
Secure Attachment: When the mother comes back into the room, the child seeks comfort from the mother and is soothed relatively quickly by the mother’s efforts to do so. Play can resume and no further distress is noticed.
Insecure – Avoidant: The child does not pursue the mother upon her arrival. They may self-soothe and play but they don’t pursue comfort from the mother. Sometimes this is referred to as anxious-avoidant attachment and is believed to be a result of parenting styles that are variable in their reliability. The child doesn’t know that their needs will be met by their attachment figures, so they don’t even bother trying to be comforted by them.
Insecure – Ambivalent: In this scenario, the child pursues comfort from the mother but then doesn’t seem to be able to be comforted. They may cry and rail upon the mother as she tries to provide comfort to no avail. Researchers speculate this may occur in relationships where abuse or neglect has been present.
Insecure – Disorganized: In this type of attachment, the previous two are sort of mixed. The child’s response is somewhat unpredictable as they may not want comfort at first, then want it, then fight it. Children with this style may have developed it from a home environment that fosters a large amount of chaos.
As we see above, we can categorize attachment style in children, but this begs the question of how this impacts our adult relationships. As I previously alluded to, romantic love seems to be a similar type of attachment relationship as we have with our parents.
Our romantic partners are the ones we seek out comfort from when we feel distressed. Researchers have looked into how childhood attachment styles relate to our adult relationships and longitudinal studies (studies that track the same individuals over a long period) have shown that childhood attachment styles usually map pretty well onto our adult relationships.
Children who have had secure attachments often find it easier to attach in a healthy manner as an adult. The three insecure attachment types often manifest in relationships with high conflict, or difficulty attaching in the first place in the example of the avoidant attachment style. If someone finds themselves struggling to develop connections with anyone, to feel like they can trust, they may have grown up with avoidant attachment.
The individual who finds that they are constantly fighting and don’t feel supported by their partner may have an ambivalent style. For someone with a disorganized style, this may manifest as oscillating between thoughts of deep affection and deep hurt from their partner, at times pursuing and at times engaging them in heated arguments and fights.
Another layer to this, secure attachments and insecure attachments can both go through what we might call an “attachment injury.” This is usually an event that occurs within a relationship that leads to feelings of betrayal. This might consist of an affair or emotional cheating but can also stem from a long-term miscommunication problem or not meeting each other’s emotional needs.
I liken this to physical injuries. Some are like a sudden breaking of a bone, while others are the result of long-term misuse of the body. The former is sudden and very painful, the second comes slowly and more insidiously. Often the latter is even harder to treat because it has become the “normal” and expected pattern.
Perhaps you’ve read this far and identified a style that seems to map onto your experience and are now wondering what can be done about it? The good news is that counseling/therapy can help you to overcome this early childhood learning and develop a better attachment style.
For individuals, a cognitive-behavioral approach can be helpful to “re-map” your neural pathways and learn that you can relate differently to significant others. This comes through a process of identifying needs and emotions, then recognizing helpful thoughts and behaviors you use. It can take a significant amount of time to unlearn a lifetime of entrenched thoughts, but it is possible.
Note, that we often will always have negative and unhelpful automatic thoughts, so the process involves learning how to recognize these and replace them consciously with more helpful thoughts. Further, we identify what behaviors help you get your needs met and which ones keep you entrenched in a vicious cycle that further damages attachment.
In couples/marriage counseling, we work toward solidifying your attachment again as a couple. Maybe you both come in with unhealthy styles or healthy ones that have been damaged, but either way, we look toward what sort of patterns in which you find yourself stuck. So often, couples’ attempts at getting their emotional needs met lead to further disconnect because these are being conducted in an unhealthy manner.
Couples’ counseling aims to slow down interactions and get at the heart of the primary emotional needs that partners need to find comfort in each other. When I work with couples, I always like to state that divorce and separation need to be off the table for this to be helpful. Without that commitment, it becomes difficult to reintegrate and attach in a manner that is healthy since there is a perceived “escape hatch” from the relationship.
Further, one of the biggest things that helps couples reattach is simply positive, quality time together. Engaging in couples counseling should come with a renewed commitment to set some things aside in life to have quality time together. One hour of counseling a week does not provide enough fertile soil for the relationship to grow.
Looking back at the attachment styles, one might be filled with dismay that the route forward may contain difficulties. However, there is hope! We have identified the attachment styles that cause dysfunction in relationships and have been able to name them, therefore we can work through them.
Attachment represents a great measuring stick we can use to help individuals and couples navigate emotional healing and growth. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor to begin working through your own attachment struggles.
“Mother and Baby”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Git Stephen Gitau, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Loving Couple”, Courtesy of Streetwindy, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Comfort”, Courtesy of Shukhrat Umarov, Pexels.com, CC0 License