Attachment and Adult Love Relationships – Part 2

Posted on January 28, 2012


My previous post, “Attachment and Adult Love Relationships – Part 1,” provided some background on attachment theory and attachment styles exhibited by children toward their primary attachment figure (usually Mom).  This post will look at attachment as it applies to adult love relationships, particularly in marriage.

As human beings at every and any phase of life, we want to know that someone has our back; that we matter to someone; that there is someone on whom we can rely who will be accessible and responsive to us in times of stress.  For children, that primary attachment figure is generally a parent.  As adults, that attachment figure is most often a spouse.  We refer to this person as a “significant other” because this is the other person that is most significant to our sense of well being.  Hart & Morris (2003, p. 62-63, 70-83) asserted that early life experiences impact our adult relationships and affect the way we answer two basic relational questions, “Am I lovable?” and “Are you safe?” The answers to these questions lead into the four attachment styles exhibited in close relationships.  If the answer to both questions is “yes” (i.e. I am lovable and you are safe), the result is secure attachment: “connection with certainty.”  Securely attached couples still have arguments and can still hurt each other.  However, in secure attachment each partner is able to retain a sense of being loved and valued and trust that their partner “will be loving, supportive, and responsive.”  Just as securely attached children are able to express their needs for emotional support from a parent, securely attached spouses readily express their needs for support and connection.  Johnson et al (2005, p. 14) referred to this as a secure dependence which complements autonomy.  Just as children are able to explore their world with confidence knowing that their parent is a secure base, securely attached adults are able to function with greater autonomy knowing that they have a safe haven in their partner.

If the answer to either or both of the questions is “no,” the result may be an insecure attachment style.  In anxious attachment (“connected with uncertainty”), the underlying feeling is that “others are reliable, but may abandon me because I am not lovable.”  Consequently, anxiously attached partners feel insecure.  They desire closeness, but fear that closeness may be lost because they are unlovable.  They may appear securely attached until something happens to trigger their attachment anxiety (Hart & Morris, 2003, p. 70, 77-78).  In avoidant attachment (“connected carefully”) as the name suggests, individuals generally are uncomfortable with and avoid closeness.  Avoidantly attached individuals feel worthy of love, but do not trust that others can be relied upon to provide it.  Consequently, those with avoid attachment have developed a strategy of not relying on closeness and responsiveness from others.  They neither seek support from nor give support to their partners.  Finally if the answer to both questions is “no” (i.e. I am not lovable, and you are not safe), the result is a fearful attachment style (“connected cautiously”).  “The longing for being cherished is intertwined with the fear of being hurt and rejected” (Hart & Morris, 2003, p. 82).  As in Ainsworth’s description of ambivalent attachment in children (see previous post), the fearfully attached person experiences ambivalence in close relationships and sends a mixed message of “come here / go away.”

Having offered this view of attachment styles, let me add the caveat that human beings can not be neatly categorized.  Human behavior by any measure occurs along a continuum.  One might think of these styles as occurring along two continua.  Johnson et al (2005, p. 15) observed that “attachment responses seem to be organized along two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance.”  To gain an understanding of your own attachment style, spend a few minutes with the following survey (

The bottom line is this, “secure relationships show higher levels of intimacy, trust and satisfaction” (Johnson et al, 2005, p.16).  The good news is that regardless of your current attachment style, your family of origin, or your relationship history, secure attachment is not unattainable and can be achieved in a marriage relationship that has experienced distress and insecure attachment.  When one has a history of trauma or past relationship hurts, this may be best achieved with the assistance of a therapist.


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

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.

Hart, A & Morris, S. H., (2003). Safe haven marriage. Nashville: W Publishing Group.

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).