Attachment and Adult Love Relationships – Part 1

Posted on January 22, 2012


When couples become distressed and seek marriage counseling, they often report escalating arguments which they attribute to a need to better communicate.  Though communication is certainly important in a marriage, when we begin to explore each partner’s best hopes for the relationship, it is often a deeper connection that emerges as the primary longing in the relationship.  Underlying this longing for connection is a desire for emotional safety and trust, and the ability to recover more quickly when conflict occurs.  The attachment style of each partner affects a couple’s ability to provide a “safe haven” or “secure base” for each other.

Attachment theory began as a theory of child development examining the way in which infants bond to their mothers.  John Bowlby (1958) theorized that infants have an inherent biological drive to maintain proximity to an attachment figure (usually mother) for comfort and protection.  Mary Ainsworth (1967) hypothesized that mother is a secure base from which infants explore their world (the child’s father is also an attachment figure, but at the time of the experiment, the mother was generally the primary caregiver).  Ainsworth’s research included a “strange situation” experiment (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) in which a mother and toddler are placed in a room together.  The child is allowed to play and explore the room with the mother present.  A stranger enters the room and talks to the mother and approaches the child.  Mother quietly slips out of the room, and then returns to comfort the child.  In situations in which the child exhibits secure attachment, the child plays happily while mother is present, pauses and becomes upset when mother leaves the room, and is comforted by mother when mother returns and then returns to play.  More than half of children observed exhibit this pattern of attachment.  A smaller percentage of children exhibit some form of insecure attachment.  [My editor (aka my wife) thought the next paragraph had too much technical jargon.  I thought it still might be helpful so I left it in.  Skip it if you wish.]

A child exhibiting insecure-avoidant attachment appears indifferent to the presence or absence of the parent.  The child plays happily when the parent is in the room and continues playing when the parent leaves.  The child ignores the mother upon mother’s return.  The child with insecure-resistant/ambivalent attachment may initially cling to mother or be preoccupied with mother.  When the mother leaves, the child is distressed.  With ambivalent attachment, the child is not easily comforted when mother returns.  The child will appear angry with mother and may hit mother.  A very small percentage of toddlers (5-10%) exhibit disorganized attachment wherein the child’s reaction to the mother leaving and returning is inconsistent (Berger, 2008, p. 194).

Essentially, attachment style is a reflection of our answer to the questions, “Are you there for me?  Do you care about me? Can I count on you to be available to comfort me and protect me?”  Secure attachment answers all of these questions with “yes.”  In the parent child relationship, the parent is generally responsive to the infant’s needs and infants learn that the parent is a secure base from which to explore their world and to which they can return for protection and comfort.  Neglect tends to increase avoidant attachment.  Essentially, avoidant attachment is the child expressing, “I can’t rely on you, so I won’t rely on you.”  Ambivalent attachment is more common in situations of abuse.  The parent is sometimes a source of comfort and protection and sometimes a source of pain.  “I need you, but you are not safe.”  This is a combination of “come here / go away.”

Secure attachment provides a secure base, a safe haven, and “promotes the confidence to risk [and] to learn” (Johnson et al., 2005, p.14).  What does this have to do with adult love and marital relationships?  I am glad you asked.  See my next post.


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1978.

Berger, K. S. (Ed.) (2008). The developing person through the life span. (7th ed.) New York: Worth Publishers.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 1-23.

Johnson, S, Bradley, B., Furrow, J., Lee, A., Palmer, G, Tilley, D, & Woolley, S. (2005). Becoming an emotionally focused couple therapist. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).