Adult intimate relationships can be understood through attachment theory, which has been researched and validated in a number of research studies over the last few decades. John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, observed as early as 1958 that human beings are biologically wired to seek and maintain a few intimate relationships. He asserted that our need to connect begins at birth and continues throughout life, and as adults, we continue to need a special someone who will be emotionally accessible and responsive to us. Most importantly, attachment theory helps us understand how to create a secure relationship, how a love relationship can become distressed, and what interventions can help a troubled partnership.
What Should I Know About Attachment Relationships?
Attachment relationships begin developing at birth and our early experiences as children shape our responses in current primary relationships. Secure attachment results when caregivers respond to their children’s cues and the child develops an expectation that others will be there for them and that they are loved. When there is unresponsiveness of an attachment figure over time, people develop different attachment strategies as a way to protect themselves in intimate relationships and can become either overly anxious or more distant and avoidant.
In an insecure attachment strategy, one can become overly preoccupied with the relationship or exhibit the opposite reaction of withdrawing or investing less of oneself in the relationship. The first strategy is characterized by blaming or critical behaviors, whereas the second strategy is more likely to involve an unemotional or dismissive stance. There is a third attachment strategy that some individuals—who have experienced either severe abuse or neglect as a child—can develop and that is to both seek contact with the significant other, but then reject the contact when it is offered. Insecure attachment strategies, while useful in childhood relationships, may not be needed in the adult relationship, but will work to define the current relationship as insecure. A distressed relationship will also reinforce and maintain these strategies. It is important to remember that these strategies can be modified and our experiences as adults can shape and change our sense of security in relationships. An emotionally responsive and accessible partner can influence our sense of security and we can come to expect that we will have our emotional needs met and that we are worth loving.
When Should I Seek Help?
Adult attachment difficulties will become evident in primary intimate relationships.
The following are signs of relationship distress:
- Repeated negative interaction that creates distance and distrust in the relationship
- Diminished or nonexistent affection and/or sexual desire
- Feelings of loneliness or alienation in the relationship
- Betrayal or breach of trust in the relationship
- Addictive behaviors; for example drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling
- Lack of connection or intimacy in the relationship over long periods of time
Couples should consider therapy when the relationship has become unhappy or unfulfilling for one or both partners and the continuation of the relationship is threatened. Couples therapy that has an attachment focus can address directly relationship problems and can provide a long lasting successful outcome. Research studies of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) find that 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements.
What is Therapy Like?
There are various forms of couple and marital therapy available and couples can access help through consulting with a therapist specifically trained in couple and family interventions that are attachment based.
Typically, therapy involves weekly sessions for both partners over a series of, on average, 10-20 sessions. Generally, the therapist helps the couple identify communication patterns that are contributing to distress and insecurity in the relationship. When the couple begins to identify their patterns as their primary problem, and not each other, they can then begin to develop more positive ways of interacting with each other. Couples are helped in creating a secure connection by learning to provide comfort, support, nurturance and care for one another. The relationship then becomes a safe haven where partners can turn to one another for love and be both intimate and interdependent with each other. The end goal of attachment-based couples therapy is to decrease the level of negative interaction and increase the emotional closeness and connection for the couple.
While it is known that insecure and secure attachment exists in all cultural, religious, and economic groups, and in both heterosexual and same-sex unions, the way these relationships are expressed will differ across these groups. A therapist who is sensitive to these variances will be able to modify the treatment to fit the particular needs of the couple.
The text of this brochure was written by Gail Palmer, MSW, and Alison Lee, PhD.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Adult Attachment Relationships" pamphlets to market your practice.