Marriage Relationships: Secure Attachment Relieves Pain

Posted on February 3, 2012


In my first post, I asserted that human beings are made for relationships.  It was hardly an original thought.  Bowlby (1988, p.62) stated “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized around a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure.”  In childhood, the attachment figure that provides that “secure base” or safe haven is generally a parent.  In adulthood, this person is commonly one’s spouse.

Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson (2006) conducted an experiment demonstrating that marital satisfaction actually favorably changes our neural response to stress and pain.  The subjects of the experiment were married women presented with the expectation of electric shock and either 1) were alone, 2) had an anonymous experimenter holding their hands, or 3) had their husbands hold their hands.  The results indicated that the stress response and the perception of pain were reduced by having a hand to hold.  The presence of the subject’s husband had greater effect than the anonymous experimenter.  Further, a relationship was found indicating that higher levels of marital satisfaction were correlated with reduced pain and fear.

The bottom line is this.  In a stressful situation, it is better to be with someone (even a stranger) than it is to be alone.  It is better to have that someone be a spouse than a stranger.   Further, the more the marriage provides a safe haven and secure base, the more the relationship insulates one from the effects of pain and fear.  Our brains are actually changed by secure attachment, and we are more resilient.  A secure relationship has an analgesic effect.  That is, not only emotional, but physical pain is reduced by having someone to whom we matter.  Dependency is healthy and not something we outgrow (Bowlby, 1988).


Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic Books: USA.

Coan, J., Schaefer, H., & Davidson, R. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science. 17(12), 1032-1039.  Retrieved from,%20Schaefer%20&%20Davidson,%202006.pdf, 29 January 2012.

“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).