Attachment Theory and Couples Therapy

Attachment Theory Brief Overview

 Attachment Theory has become a deeply researched area of couples therapy. The fundamental premise of Attachment Theory is that we learned how to be a husband, or wife, or parent, for that matter, from our early-life relationships with our parents or other primary caregivers.

The degree to which our parental attachment figures attended to our emotional and physical needs shaped the “attachment style” that we eventually formed. Attachment theory informs many Couples Therapy Models such as Imago, and the science-based couples treatments; Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, and the Gottman Method.

In our Big Big Book, we make a point of learning not only the dominant attachment styles of our couples, but also their relative ratings 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 often a dominant style which overshadows all the rest.

Four Styles of Attachment

Secure Attachment

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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 an abiding sense of love, safety, and security. This is called 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.

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 which is attractive to others.

Anxious/ Preoccupied Attachment

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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 second 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 own value as partners. Their almost perpetual anxiety makes it difficult to accept that they are loved and cherished.

Dismissive/ Fearful Avoidant Attachment

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Some people get dealt a different sort of bad 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 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. These are just flavors of how you prefer to understand why and how someone struggles to avoid people. I will write more about this style, and others, in a future post.

Disorganized Attachment

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Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant Attachment allegedly comprise about 90% of human attachment styles, leaving about 10% for Disorganized Attachment. But I am skeptical. I think these numbers are plucked from the air. I suspect that Disorganized Attachment is a lot more common than we are comfortable admitting.
Some kids get the worst, most horrific parental hand. They suffer abuse, trauma, experience or witness violence. 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.  This is the nightmare of Disorganized Attachment.
Disorganized Attachment makes it an overwhelming challenge just 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 difficult to be vulnerable to others or to ask for help. Trust is in very short supply. 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 own children.  Developmental Trauma and Disorganized Attachment are often two sides of the same coin.
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Is My Attachment Style Carved In Stone?
No. 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 important.
And so is understanding the attachment style of your partner. It is important 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 serious 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.
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… or grief.
I will be writing about Attachment Theory in more detail in future posts. 

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

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