Attachment Styles: John vs. Paul

Posted on August 16, 2013


Attachment theory looks at the way human beings emotionally connect and bond with the significant people in our lives.  It can be argued that in the makeup of all humans is the need to have someone in our lives to whom we matter and to whom we can turn for comfort and support in times of stress and distress.  In the language of attachment theory, this person is the attachment figure.  In children, the attachment figure is usually a parent.  For adults, the attachment figure is usually a spouse or significant other (hence, the term significant other; i.e. a person who is significant for us).  Attachment theory further postulates that early childhood experiences affect how we attach as adults.  Those early experiences affect whether we see ourselves as worthy of love and see others as capable of loving us.  If our parents were generally responsive to our needs, able to emotionally engage with us, and able to provide comfort and support, we learned to see ourselves as lovable and other people as capable of loving us.  This is secure attachment.  Either consciously or unconsciously, we go into relationships with 2 questions, “Are you safe?” and “Am I lovable?”  Our early childhood experiences impact how we answer those questions.  If we felt secure in childhood, found mom and dad to be a secure base and safe haven from the world, we answer both questions “yes.”  Yes, I am worthy of love.  Yes, other people can be relied upon to be emotionally safe for me.  The result is adult relationships in which we are confident that our partner will be there to provide comfort and support in times of stress, that our partner will be emotionally available to us and willing to engage.  If those early childhood experiences left us with a feeling of being unlovable, we may have a more anxious attachment style.  We may desire closeness, but have a fear that our partner may not be there for us.  Eventually, our partner will discover that we are unlovable and desert us.  Another response to early experiences is to feel that other people are not emotionally safe.  The result may be to become uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness and learn to get by without close connection.  This is an avoidant attachment style.  Finally, there is the possibility of developing a fearful attachment style in which we desire closeness and at the same time fear closeness.

With artists, not every story one tells is necessarily autobiographical.  At the same time it is difficult to not allow one’s views of relationships to infiltrate one’s work.  To illustrate the point, let’s look at the songwriting of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.  In The Beatles’ library, the songs by either John or Paul were attributed to both.  However, in later interviews they indicated that they had rarely written together after the early days of the band.  Though there are some exceptions (again, not every story is autobiographical), if we attribute the song to which band member sang the lead vocal, we get some view to their adult attachment styles.  As children, John and Paul had very different home lives.  John’s parents split when he was four.  John lived with his Aunt Mimi, occasionally saw his mother and never saw his father.  John stated, “The worst pain is that of not being wanted, of realizing your parents do not need you in the way you need them…I was never really wanted.”  John’s Uncle George died when John was 14 and his mother was struck by a car and killed when John was 17.  By the time he reached adulthood, John had experienced numerous significant losses.  By contrast, Paul said, “I had a very secure childhood.”  Paul did have to cope with the death of his mother to cancer when Paul was 14.  However, Paul, his younger brother, and his father benefited from the help of extended family during their time of grief.  Paul reports fond memories of his nuclear and extended family and particularly credits his father for his musical influence.

So let’s look at the music.  Going back to the early days, Paul wrote the lyric for “All My Loving” which assumes that though he and his love are physically apart, their hearts still belong to each other.  It is a story of attachment wherein the assumption is that one’s partner will be faithful and that being forced by circumstances to spend some time apart does put the relationship at risk.  Sue Johnson observed that autonomy and intimacy are two sides of the same coin.  The more securely a couple is attached the more they are able to be autonomous without anxiety.  The more secure the base, the better able we are to explore our world with confidence.  “All My Loving” is such a story.  For the same album (“With the Beatles” in the UK & “Meet the Beatles” in the US), John  contributed “Not a Second Time,” a tale of having been hurt by a girl who has now changed her mind and returned.  John’s response is to “shut down his emotions because he can’t face the possibility of being hurt all over again” (Turner, 2005).  On “A Hard Day’s Night” Paul sings “Things We Said Today” which is largely a restatement of the sentiments of “All My Loving.”  Even though I have to be gone for a time (because rock stars have to tour), we will later be back together and still “deep in love.”  Paul also contributed “And I Love Her,” a statement of confidence that love will last.  John sang “I’ll Cry Instead” and “Tell Me Why,” both of which are tales of love lost due to the fickle nature of his partner.  Continuing on with “Beatles For Sale,” Paul gave us “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman.”  Both are stories of being in love and feeling secure.  John gave us “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser,” stories of betrayal, rejection and loss.

The comparison can continue through their solo careers.  Though Paul’s solo work was sometimes dismissed by the critics, his continuous mindset during the 70’s seemed to be, “I love my wife, she loves me, and it’s wonderful.”  From “My Love” to “Listen to What the Man Said” to “Silly Love Songs” the sentiment is consistent.  John was more prone to social commentary.  But when he got around to relationships, he wrote “Jealous Guy,” an apology for making his partner cry over his own anxieties.  “I’m Losing You” is both about the fear of losing his partner and self-recrimination for his role in driving her away.  Even the more positive “Woman” includes an apology for inadvertently causing her “sorrow and pain,” and expresses feelings of unworthiness.

The point here is not to disparage the late John Lennon (whom those of us who grew up listening to his music grieved his murder and still miss him greatly).  But rather it is to point out that early childhood experiences impact how we attach in adult love relationships.  Experiencing unmet attachment needs is not a character flaw, but a normal part of being human.  The popularity of the songwriting by both John and Paul speaks to the universal nature of this aspect of the human experience.  Most of us can relate to both the joy of feeling securely in love and the anxiety of feeling insecure in relationship at different times in our lives.  Further, if one’s attachment style tends to be anxious, avoidant, or fearful based upon childhood experience, this does not mean that we never experience secure attachment.  John also wrote “Love,” “Dear Yoko,” “Beautiful Boy,” and “All You Need is Love” any of which communicate an experience of secure attachment and emotional safety.  Paul wrote “The Night Before” and “Oh Darling” which communicate a fear of rejection.

The bottom line is this: many of the conflicts that couples get into occur when a partner’s attachment system gets triggered.  When small issues become big arguments or when the same arguments repeat in relationship, it is usually an issue with attachment.  When couples feel securely attached, they can more easily resolve conflict without the argument escalating or becoming relationship threatening.  Further, though those early childhood experiences affect us profoundly, they do not need to be life sentences to forever have anxious, avoidant, or fearful attachment.  With marital therapy, couples can learn to no longer see their partners as unsafe and learn to turn to their partners for comfort and support in times of stress or distress.  It is a normal human attachment need to know that someone is there to whom we matter and to whom we can turn for comfort and support.


The Beatles. (2000). The Beatles anthology. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC.

Turner, S. (2005). A hard day’s write: The stories behind every Beatles song (3rd ed.).  UK: Carlton Books Limited.