Attachment Theory…a Brief Overview
Attachment-based couples therapy dominates the field of couples counseling. The fundamental premise of Attachment Theory is that we learn how to be a husband, or wife, or parent, for that matter, from our early-life relationships with our own parents or other primary caregivers.
The way our parental attachment figures attended to our emotional and physical needs shaped the “attachment style” that we eventually formed. Our attachment style in our adult relationships reflects the hand we were dealt in our family of origin.
During an assessment, our Big Big Book not only reveals the dominant attachment styles of the couple, but it also gives us a numerical score across all four attachment styles. Rarely do we see a client who is purely one style. We’re mostly a bit of this, and a lot of that. But there is typically a dominant style that overshadows all the rest.
Attachment-Based Couples Therapy and Secure Attachment Poker
As I mentioned previously, your attachment style is your worldview of how you believe love and intimate relationships work.
Attachment-based couples therapy operates on the premise that the most fortunate among us have Secure Attachment, which is by far the best parental hand to play.
Secure Attachment offers powerful benefits that help you provide resilience and responsiveness to your partner during tough times.
But what are the most common combinations that we see in our Couples Therapy Intensives where at least one partner is securely attached? But what happens in attachment-based couples therapy when we discover a partner who is less securely attached?
Many of these couples have stable and loving bonds, and many could be even better. Remember, we are all mostly a mix of different styles.
When we say a partner has Secure Attachment, we mean that it is their dominant style. It’s not a guarantee that they always behave that way! Here are some of the common patterns where at least one partner has Secure Attachment that we see.
Secure Attachment Combinations
Secure and Secure (SS):
Attachment-based couples therapy goes much easier for spouses who both have a dominant style of Secure Attachment. Let’s call them Secure-Secure (SS) couples. They can weather lots of presenting problems with resilience and good humor because they can communicate carefully and skillfully.
Having a solid sense of security makes these couples more open to being influenced, less self-centered, and, most importantly, a higher capacity for empathy. We accomplish more in attachment-based couples therapy because marital satisfaction is more comfortable to achieve.
When both spouses have Secure Attachment, they are likely to be emotionally regulated and mutually respectful. They usually have close extended family ties. In other words, as couples therapists, we have a lot to work with.
Don’t get me wrong. SS partners aren’t saints. They can present in attachment-based couples therapy with all sorts of common relationship problems.
They aren’t immune to resentments, or petty bickering. The essential difference is that SS couples cherish each other…or want to. They have an abiding sense of mutuality and goodwill. And for the most part, they play well with others.
Secure (S) and Anxious-Preoccupied (AP):
The Secure partner will tend to become stressed-out over time by the constant demands of their Anxious-Preoccupied partner.
It often becomes an annoying game of beat the clock. Can the Secure partner reassure the Anxious-Preoccupied partner fast enough to calm them down?
Some S partners have what it takes to patiently and lovingly soothe the Anxious Preoccupied partner. However, some AP partners can be so unreasonably neurotic in their demands for reassurance, that even the most S partner will tend to burn out.
Some Secure partners will gradually lose patience and begin to have a superficial similarity to the Dismissive-Avoidant (DA) attachment style. This is not only because S partners have a varying, albeit generous amount of goodwill and patience, but AP partners also tend to fret on a continuum of anxiety. Some are more anxious than others.
The bottom line concern is burn-out. Unfortunately, with this pairing, it falls to the Secure partner to be the bedrock of relational security. It’s a lonely burden to carry both partners into Secure Attachment single-handed.
An attachment-based Couples Therapy Intensive can be a big help with these couples. If the AP partner can describe the nature of their anxiety, and accept reassurance from their Secure partner, they can move in the direction of becoming more Secure themselves.
Remember, attachment-based couples therapy works on the premise that attachment styles can shift. Science-based couples therapy works well with this combination. in our intensives, we teach the specific things you can do to help create a more secure attachment.
The Important thing to remember is that we are all struggling to gain mastery over our childhood attachment injuries. We select partners who we feel are best suited to helping us to accomplish this critical task.
Secure (S) and Avoidant-Dismissive (AD):
The usually solidly grounded Secure often finds the Avoidant-Dismissive exasperating. The AD will even make the S resemble an AP.
The Avoidant-Dismissive can erode the Secure partner’s otherwise robust self-esteem with their chronic emotional unavailability and distancing.
However, the S has a superpower. As with the Anxious-Preoccupied, a patient and robust S can wear down an Avoidant-Dismissive, and nudge them grudgingly toward more Secure Attachment. As with the AP, shifting an Avoidant-Dismissive toward Secure Attachment, without the benefits of science-based couples therapy can be a daunting task.
It’s a great deal of lonely, one-way work to establish mutual Secure Attachment with the Avoidant-Dismissive.
The difference is that Secure partners believe in people. The AD spouse does not have such an optimistic view of humanity. Consequently, if the Avoidant-Dismissive fails to accept influence from their S partner, the emotional gridlock might persuade the Secure partner to toss in their hand and leave.
It’s helpful when AD’s can accept a complaint about their attachment style without getting defensive. Even if the AD is skeptical, they can push themselves to connect more with their Secure partner while managing to tolerate their anxiety in the process.
Accepting influence from the S partner is essential for the SAD pairing to work.
The SAD is a sad pairing (no pun intended). The essential challenge with all Secure pairings that are not mutual is that the more resilient and buoyant S is aware that healthy Secure Attachment is possible.
They are wired for Secure Attachment, are used to it, and long for it. We see their longing in attachment-based couples therapy.
It is poignant to see long-term SAD couples struggle for growth. We work intensely with these couples to become more intimately connected. And they often do!
Secure (S) and Avoidant-Fearful (AF):
This can be a challenging hand for the Secure partner.
The thing to remember about the Avoidant-Fearful is that they fear loss.
As convoluted as it sounds, the Avoidant-Fearful feels more pressure as they settle into ordinary life with their S partner. They expect trouble, and when it doesn’t come, they become anxious. Happiness is not a natural state. They are perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Avoidant-Fearful (AF) partners, like Avoidant-Dismissives (AD), are on a continuum. Some achieve Secure Attachment in couples therapy more readily than others.
The bottom line is that in the worst case, sometimes the AF will actually instigate conflict because it allows them to relax.
Once trouble in the SAF marriage is established, it elicits so much anxiety for some Avoidant-Fearful spouses, that they would rather bail out on the Secure partner than be dumped by them.
Secure Attachment is in Reach for Everyone. People usually have an “aha” moment when they get back feedback from their Big Big Book. They connect the dots between their family of origin, their current marital challenges, and their attachment style. Attachment styles are pervasive.
Clients are often profoundly grateful for the insights that Attachment Science in practice offers. Secure Attachment is within reach for everyone. Sometimes it takes work to see how we were shaped, and courage for us to decide to be different. Let’s take a closer look at these 4 distinct styles of attachment.
Attachment-Based Couples Therapy and the Four Styles of Attachment
Secure Attachment… the Goal of Attachment-Based Couples Therapy
Some of us are fortunate. We had parents who made us feel safe and loved. We could go to them and get our needs met.
We felt a sense of love, safety, and security. This is called a Secure Attachment.
Securely attached children received generous amounts of loving parental attention and playtime. Their parents were reliably responsive and empathetic.
This warm environment results in children also becoming measurably more empathetic than other children who were not fortunate enough to be securely attached.
Securely attached children are less aggressive and more responsible than children with more problematic attachment styles. Secure attachment creates a healthy template for future intimate relationships.
If your partner is securely attached, you know that you can count on them. They are reliable. They have your back.
Fortunately for the human race, it is estimated that Secure Attachment at 50% is the most common of all the attachment styles we see in attachment-based couples therapy.
The most noteworthy trait of the securely attached, as opposed to the next style, Anxious Attachment, is their capacity to understand themselves and others as well. They exude a calm self-possession that is attractive to others.
Perhaps your parents were there for you…but only sometimes.
If your parents were inconsistent with their parental attention, you never really knew what you were going to get.
But because they were occasionally reliable, you keep pulling on that slot machine lever of love hoping for a big love payday.
This is the torment of Anxious Attachment. Adults with anxious attachment sometimes act clingy and can be demanding.
They can never manage to calm themselves down, even if their partner is reliable and securely attached.
People of the anxious-preoccupied type, at about 20% of the population, are tied with Avoidant Attachment for the other most common attachment style.
Because their early attachment needs were often poorly attended to, they crave intimacy from their partners, but tend, at the same time, to doubt their value as partners. Their almost perpetual anxiety makes it difficult to accept that they are loved and cherished.
Dismissive/Fearful Avoidant Attachment
Some people have to play a worse parental hand.
What happens when your parents are neglectful to you as a lifestyle, and you’re left to entertain yourself?
You get fed and have your physical needs met, but meaningful emotional interactions are in short supply.
These kids grow up with the reasonable belief that their needs will never be met, so they better get used to taking care of themselves.
This is called Avoidant Attachment. To a person with this style…people always let you down. It’s just the way it is.
Getting close may desirable but scary at the same time. Or you may decide that being alone is less of a hassle, and you prefer to dismiss the importance of intimate bonds altogether.
These people can relax when they are alone. They know they can count on… themselves.
Avoidant and the next style, Disorganized Attachment, are characterized by different forms of emotional withdrawal and intimacy avoidance.
So as you can see, there are Dismissive Avoidants and Fearful Avoidants. At the risk of being flip, it’s wise not to overthink this. Attachment theory in practice uses these terms to describe how some partners struggle in different ways to avoid people.
Disorganized Attachment… the Greatest Challenge for Attachment-Based Couples Therapy
Disorganized Attachment is such an unfortunate attachment style it is often deliberately omitted in informational articles about attachment science.
Research tells us that most of our incarcerated population have a Disorganized Attachment style.
Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant Attachment allegedly comprise about 90% of individual attachment styles, leaving about 10% for Disorganized Attachment.
But I am skeptical.
I suspect these numbers are plucked from the air.
I believe that Disorganized Attachment is a lot more common than we are comfortable admitting.
Some kids get the worst, most horrific parental hand. They may suffer extreme physical neglect, sexual abuse or trauma. Or they experience or witness violence regularly.
I was a foster parent for several years. The kids in the foster care system typically display a Disorganized Attachment style.
They never develop a sense of safety or security with intimate others. They can sometimes behave like they are anxious, and sometimes like they are avoidant. But most often, there is a complete lack of attachment-oriented behavior. This is the nightmare of Disorganized Attachment.
Disorganized Attachment makes it an overwhelming challenge to calm down and self-soothe. People with Disorganized Attachment typically have chaos and turmoil in their intimate relationships.
They may lean heavily on others to help them to manage their feelings. They find it challenging to be vulnerable to others or to ask for help. Trust is in very short supply.
They know that people are not only unreliable… they can be dangerous.
They typically have an ongoing struggle in their marriages and can be triggered by traumatic memories even when parenting their children. Developmental Trauma and Disorganized Attachment are often two sides of the same coin.
Is My Attachment Style Carved In Stone? Can Attachment-Based Couples Therapy Help?
Attachment styles can change once you realize that your childhood casts a long shadow. However, it can take a good, preferably science-based couples therapist to help you sort out your family of origin issues. Understanding your attachment style, and how you got that way is essential.
And so is understanding the attachment style of your partner.
It is crucial to understand how, and why, we tend to unconsciously fall back on our childhood attachment patterns in our adult intimate relationships. The paradox is that our painful childhood pattern can cause severe problems in our marriage. But despite that fact, our attachment styles are still somewhat resistant to change, because these attachment styles feel so right and familiar to us.
Attachment-based couples therapy can help you to understand these childhood attachment injuries, and help you to move into a new secure attachment style.
Attachment Theory has been a significant factor in the development of science-based couples therapy.
It is a crucial aspect of how we come to love the way we do. Our attachment style can be a profound source of grace.
Learn More About Secure Attachment in Online Couples Therapy
Bowlby, J. M. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. M. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London, UK: Tavistock.
Johnson, S. & Greenberg, L. (1985). “Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: An Outcome Study.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 11(3), 313-317.
Johnson, S. & Greenberg, L. (1985). “The Differential Effects of Experiential and Problem Solving Interventions in Resolving Marital Conflict.” Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 53, 175-184.
(EFT, CBT, and controls tested.)
Johnson, S.M., Burgess Moser, M., Beckes, L., Smith, A., Dalgleish, T., Halchuk, R., Hasselmo, K., Greenman, P.S., Merali, Z. & Coan, J.A. (2013). “Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy.” PLOS ONE, 8(11): e79314.