Attachment theory was developed in the 1940s by John Bowlby. Simply put, attachment theory stipulates that humans have innate needs for proximity to and comfort from other human beings. While this may seem self explanatory it has not been until relatively recently that the mental health industry has begun to use these principles in their work with couples. In modern times attachment theory has been used extensively in the field of parenting and now is also being used in relationship science. In the 1990s, studies on attachment in adult relationships began to develop. It was quickly discovered that the patterns of attachment follow us from ‘the cradle to the grave’.

Babies develop emotional bonds with primary caregivers during childhood, which go on to provide the template for future relationships. During times of stress or threat, whether you are a 2-year-old child or a middle-aged, married man there is an in-born tendency to seek support and comfort from an attachment figure. Later in life this is more often than not your partner. This seeking out of proximity, represents an attempt to regulate the negative affective states such as fear or sadness that stressful situations often provoke. There is strong evidence that the attachment style developed in childhood remains relatively stable across the life span and may even be transmitted between generations (Goldberg, 1991). Research studies (Bowlby, 1969, Bretherton, 1985, Tennant, 1988) on attachment styles in infancy and childhood have confirmed that the sensitivity and responsiveness of the primary caregiver to the child’s emotional states is a major determinant of the way the child learns to regulate distressing affects and to relate to other people.

Bowlby came to the conclusion that relationships were less about cause and effect and more about the ‘dance‘ that takes place between people. It is this dance that ultimately impacts and shapes the couple and their relationship. During Bowlby’s career he met the Canadian Mary Ainsworth who helped him to transform his findings into a series of experiments which went on to be known as the Strange Situation. Here is a clip showing how the experiment worked.

Bowlby and Ainsworth noted that three main attachment styles are present amongst infants: Secure attachment; Ambivalent attachment; and Avoidant attachment. In 1990 another category was added- Disorganized.

As adults we each have aspects of all of these styles, though one attachment style usually dominates. It is when the strategy you employ becomes rigid and is commonly applied to every situation that problems arise e.g. critical complaining or defensive distancing will predict the continued deterioration of a relationship.

From Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Experiment thousands of new studies emerged and it is clear that these attachment styles affect our adult relationships both in terms of caregiving and sexuality and go along way to understanding the behavioral patterns that emerge between partners. The most significant problems are about the security of the bond between partners and in defining the relationship as a safe haven and a secure base.

Distressed relationships are about accessibility and responsiveness to emotional cues. In adult relationships as in children – isolation, separation or disconnection from an attachment figure (your partner) is traumatizing. Distressed and disconnected partners become immersed in fear and insecurity and will adopt behaviours of fight, flight or freeze. The greater the distress in the relationship the more fixed and automatic the emotional responses.

Attachment theory is now a well researched framework for understanding the complex phenomena that make up adult love relationships. Attachment theory also fits well with the recent research on the nature of relationship distress (Gottman 1994; Johnson 2003) and the impact of those relationships on mental and physical health (Kiecolt-Glasser et al., 1993; Anderson, Beach, & Kaslow, 1999). Here is a clip explaining the dance that develops between two partners with different attachment styles. In this example anxious and avoidant styles are discussed.

Attachment theory allows the therapist to see through complex multidimensional dramas that often characterize partnerships in distress. The therapist can teach partners to regulate their reactive emotions which in turn fuel negative cycles; access and articulate other emotions allowing for new possibilities of emotional engagement. This allows the therapist to define problematic aspects of the relationship, set therapy goals and use the best methods of intervention. Take heart, there is hope for a relationship in distress!

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Anderson, P., Beach, S.R. and Kaslow, N.J., 1999. Marital discord and depression: The potential of attachment theory to guide integrative clinical intervention.

Bowlby, J., 1969. Attachment and loss v. 3 (Vol. 1).

Bretherton, I., 1985. Attachment theory: Retrospect and prospect. Monographs of the society for research in child development, pp.3-35.

Goldberg, S., 1991. Recent developments in attachment theory and research. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry36(6), pp.393-400.

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Tennant, C., 1988. Parental loss in childhood: Its effect in adult life. Archives of general psychiatry45(11), pp.1045-1050.

Johnson, S.M., Attachment Theory A Guide for Couple Therapy, Reprinted from Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy, edited by Susan M. Johnson and Valerie E. Whiffen, Copyright 2003 by The Guilford Press.