By Dr. Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD, Psychologist
Attachment Hope for Couples: How to Improve Your Security Odds
You walk into the room and lock eyes with the most gorgeous human being you have ever seen. This individual locks eyes with you as well. You begin talking and realize that the chemistry between you is intense. You plan a date. You have several great dates. You fall in love and begin to talk about spending the rest of your lives together. You have the wedding. You go on the honeymoon. You begin to live your day-to-day lives together. (Perhaps not quite in that order.) But then, as you settle into shared lives, you notice that something is changing. The arguments are more frequent. The emotions are not all positive. Why does your partner leave when there is conflict? Why does your partner walk away when you need soothing? Why are they sometimes exhaustingly clingy and other times too independent? John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth offered an answer rooted in attachment styles to these questions. Several researchers after them offered solutions. I’d like to share them with you.
The Evolution of a Relationship
It is important to acknowledge that it takes time for interpersonal patterns to emerge within a romantic relationship. A perception bias occurs when you first fall in love that naturally heightens your connection to your partner’s strengths and limits your awareness of their weaknesses. Thus, it is in day-to-day living that you develop more accurate perceptions of patterns that are problematic.
Why You Relate the Way You Do
In the 1960s, John Bowlby asserted that we learn positive and negative ways of relating based on our parent-child experiences. Our ways of relating are designed to strengthen our bond with our attachment figures (parents/caregivers) growing up. They help us survive. An attachment behavioral system gradually emerges wherein we attempt to regulate our emotions and behaviors toward an attachment figure. To do this, Bowlby (1980) asserted that the attachment system essentially asks the following fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive? According to Bowlby (1980), an individual who has experienced a secure attachment is likely to view attachment figures as available, responsive, and helpful. An insecurely attached individual would view attachment figures as inaccessible, untrustworthy, and unreliable.
Different Attachment Styles
Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s attachment behavioral system and introduced specific attachment styles that explain our attachment behaviors. She outlined three specific attachment styles: (1) secure attachment and two insecure attachment styles: (1) anxious-resistant, and (2) avoidant (Ainsworth, 1979). In adult romantic relationships, the insecurely attached adult who is anxious-resistant would be dependent on their partner and yet reject their soothing attempts. The insecurely attached adult who is avoidant would not seek emotional or physical comfort from their partner when experiencing emotional distress.
Bowlby and Ainsworth helped us to understand that our way of relating to others is guided by our early attachment experiences, but do we indeed exhibit the same attachment behaviors in our adult romantic relationships?
Further Research into Attachment Styles
Hazen and Shaver (1987) evaluated Bowlby’s theoretical premise that early attachment behaviors extend to adulthood and are relatively stable. They conducted research and found that adults also reported the three attachment categories that Ainsworth determined (secure, anxious-resistant, and avoidant). Their research identified that romantic relationships are attachment bonds and share similar attachment behaviors that characterize parent-child interactions. In essence, Bowlby and Ainsworth were right to suggest that we can look at our adult relationships and evaluate our partner’s attachment behaviors based on their childhood attachment experiences.
Are People Stuck Forever in Patterns from Childhood?
What happens if you partner with someone with an insecure attachment style? Can their attachment style become secure?
Researchers had the same questions about whether or not early attachment behaviors could be changed in adulthood. Findings across several studies did indicate that while early attachment style is relatively stable (Kim, Baek, & Park, 2021), attachment behaviors can change (Tmej, AMA et al., 2020; Sims, 2000; Rimane, Steil, Renneberg, & Rosner’s, 2020; Overall, Simpson, & Struthers, 2013; Gazder & Stranton, 2010; Park, Johnson, MacDonald, & Impett, 2019). Therein lies the hope for the couple. So, back to the question, what happens if you partner with an insecurely attached individual? How can you increase your secure attachment odds in your relationship?
Distress in romantic relationships is the leading cause for adults to seek psychological services (Bradbury, 1998). There are specific interventions that increase attachment security or reduce the negative impact of insecure attachment behaviors in romantic relationships. The following interventions are supported by empirical examination.
Transference-focused therapy (TFT) is a therapeutic intervention that aims to reduce impulsivity, stabilize mood, and improve interpersonal and occupational functioning. The intervention is specifically designed for individuals who struggle with borderline personality disorder. Trauma can impact the internalized representations of personality. It is not uncommon for individuals to develop maladaptive personality traits in response to trauma. Trauma impacts attachment bonds. TFT is a great choice for an individual partner in a couple dyad who may also struggle with borderline personality. A recent study found that individuals who participated in TFT moved towards securely attached with some preoccupied behaviors away from insecurely attached with preoccupied behaviors (Tmej, AMA et al., 2020)
Emotionally Focused Therapy
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) for couples focuses on reshaping distressed couples’ structured, repetitive interactions and the emotional responses that evoke partners and foster the development of a secure emotional bond (Jonson, 1996; Jonson, 1999). The EFT model assumes that the negative emotions and interactional cycles typical of distressed couples represent a struggle for secure attachment (Bowlby, 1969). Sims (2000) randomized 26 couples in which at least one partner had been rated as insecurely attached to EFT or a waitlist control group. Couples in the EFT treatment condition increased their attachment security (and decreased attachment-related avoidance) more than the control couples.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Processing Therapy
Trauma-focused cognitive processing therapy (CPT) focuses on changing the dysfunctional beliefs associated with trauma. Trauma during our early attachment years impacts our attachment functioning, thereby shaping how we related to others in romantic relationships. CPT offers hope for couples in that an insecurely attached partner, who has been the victim of trauma, can participate in this mode of treatment to improve functioning. In Rimane, Steil, Renneberg, and Rosner’s (2020) study, individuals who participated in CPT experienced reduced avoidance attachment (insecure) behaviors when assessed post-treatment.
Dyadic Regulation Processes
Dyadic regulation processing occurs in couples therapy and is designed to improve attachment-relevant dyadic interactions between them. Applying the Dyadic Regulation Processing Model, researchers evaluated how partners can buffer the impact of their partner’s anxious resistant or avoidant behaviors due to their insecure attachments. Overall, Simpson and Struthers (2013) videotaped romantic couples discussing relationship problems identified by one partner who wanted changes in the other partner. Results indicated that insecurely attached partners whose partners displayed more softening exhibited less anger and withdrawal, and their discussions were more successful. These partners buffered their insecurely attached partner’s responses by learning to be sensitive to their autonomy needs, validating their viewpoint, and acknowledging their constructive efforts and good qualities.
Partner Relationship Mindfulness
General mindfulness is defined as the awareness of what is happening in the moment. In their study, Gazder and Stranton (2010) defined relationship mindfulness (RM) as open or receptive attention to and awareness of what is taking place internally and externally in a current relationship. They found that an individual’s own daily relationship mindfulness did not buffer the effects of their own insecure attachment on same-day relationship behaviors, but their partner’s daily relationship mindfulness did. In essence, you can buffer the impact of your partner’s insecure attachment behaviors by increasing your own relationship mindfulness. Therapy is a great place to learn how to practice relationship mindfulness techniques.
Partner with Someone with a Secure Attachment Style
As outlined, various treatment interventions can move an individual and couple towards more secure attachment relating. At this point, you may be thinking that hope is only achieved within a therapeutic setting. I have good news for you. If you are a securely attached individual, you play an important role in your relationship with an insecurely attached partner. Experiencing secure behaviors within romantic relationships can reduce representations of insecure attachment style (Park, Johnson, MacDonald, & Impett, 2019). How romantic! Your secure attachment behaviors can provide a secure base for your insecurely attached partner to grow. In the context of your relationship, you and your partner will experience many life events together. In their most recent study, Fraley, Gillath, and Deboek (2020) found that life events could change attachment style presentations in adulthood, with some changes yielding an enduring pattern.
What Lies within Our Power?
We cannot go back to our childhood and choose caregivers that would prevent us from developing an insecure attachment style. We, therefore, cannot prevent the impact of any dysfunctional early childhood attachment experiences on who we are, interpersonally, as adults. However, there is hope. We can increase our secure attachment odds by choosing partners who are securely attached. We can participate in couples therapy interventions. We can also offer a secure attachment base for our insecurely attached partner. Attachment styles do not equate to fixed potential in your relationship – there is always room for growth.
If you’re ready to explore how therapy can help you and your relationship, click through to find a couples therapist near you.
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Bradbury, T. N. (1998). The developmental course of marital dysfunction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gazder, T. & Stanton, S. C.E (2020). Partners’ Relationship Mindfulness Promotes Better Daily Relationship Behaviors for Insecurely Attached Individuals. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 5;17(19):7267.
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Fraley, R.C., Gillath, O. & Deboeck,P.R.(2020, August13).Do Life Events Lead to Changes in Adult Attachment Styles? A Naturalistic Longitudinal Investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Kim, S.‐H., Baek, M., & Park, S. (2021). Association of parent–child experiences with insecure attachment in adulthood: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Family Theory & Review.
Overall, N.C., & Simpson J. A.( 2013) Regulation processes in close relationships. In: Simpson JA, Campbell L, editors. The Oxford handbook of close relationships. New York: Oxford University Press; 2013. pp. 427–451.
Park, Y., Johnson, M. D., MacDonald, G., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Perceiving gratitude from a romantic partner predicts decreases in attachment anxiety. Developmental Psychology, 55(12), 2692–2700.
Rimane, E., Steil, R., Renneberg, B. & Rosner, R. (2020). Get secure soon: attachment in abused adolescents and young adults before and after trauma-focused cognitive processing therapy. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Sims A. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Ottawa; Canada: 2000. Working models of attachment: The impact of emotionally focused marital therapy.
Tmej, A., Fischer-Kern, M., Doering, S., Hörz-Sagstetter, S., Rentrop, M., & Buchheim, A. (2021). Borderline patients before and after one year of transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP): A detailed analysis of change of attachment representations. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 38(1), 12–21.
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