How we attach and create romantic bonds

In matchmaking and coaching awesome singles seeking deep and meaningful relationships, we often find ourselves talking about attachment theory. We know that relationships reflect back a lot of stuff deep within. The stuff only our inner… inner circle gets to see. The stuff we may not see ourselves. So, as the dating experts, we hold up a mirror… for you to look into that space before your partner pokes you there unexpectedly. We want to reflect back what you have learnt about love from your major attachments. Because when we start to see the underlying attachment needs and the behaviours associated with these, in ourselves and in others, it opens up the space for deep, long-lasting connection.

This blog is an introduction to attachment in adult relationships.

Attachment Theory 

We referred to John Bowlby’s attachment theory in our previous blog – Bowlby describes attachment as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. An emotional bond that is a product of evolution, where those who receive most comfort and protection are at a survival advantage.

If our job as a baby is to receive as much love as we can, faced with different parenting ‘styles’ we may develop different strategies to maximise the love we get. With unpredictable or unresponsive caregivers, we may learn to hold on tight to our attachment figures or we may learn to be more independent and sooth ourselves. It makes good evolutionary sense for our species to develop different ways of attaching.

Perhaps Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure, which observed different styles of attachment in babies, will help give a picture of attachment at play. Mum and baby are in a room, stranger comes in, mum leaves, mum returns, stranger leaves, mum leaves, stranger returns, mum returns and stranger leaves.

The anxious baby is very distressed when mum leaves the room and when mum returns, baby comes close but is resistant and may even push mum away – baby cannot be easily soothed. The anxious baby is also fearful of the stranger.

The secure baby is distressed when mum leaves the room but happy when mum returns and can continue playing. The secure baby is friendly with the stranger when mum is there but avoids them when mum is gone.

The avoidant baby does not show distress when mum leaves the room and continues as if nothing has happened when mum returns. However, baby’s heart rate is just as elevated as the others. The avoidant baby is okay with the stranger and can be soothed equally by both mum and stranger.

A secure baby can use mum as a secure based from which to explore.

Attachment in Adults

Bowlby believed that attachment characterised human experience from “cradle to grave”. And observing happy couples in love, you can probably see what Hazan and Shaver did in 1987 – that they share some similarities with babies and their caregivers –feeling safe when their attachment figure is close and responsive, engaging in close physical contact, feeling insecure if the other is inaccessible, sharing discoveries with one another, playing with one another’s facial features and being fascinated and preoccupied with one another – even engaging in baby talk… aw my cutie wootie pie!

Dr Sue Johnson, one of the big names in relationship psychology, also sees this parallel and talks about how to create a secure bond. Just like babies and their care givers, in a romantic relationship we need safety, security, predictability, comfort. When we have that we have a safe base from which to explore.

When we do not feel safe, we may respond with ‘protest behaviours’ to get love and attention from our attachment figure. The problem is that the protest behaviours we elicit to get love often has the opposite result. When the behaviour is based on fear, the result is that you fear, when the behaviour is based on love, what you get back is love.

We have all learned different things about love. We have different emotional (or attachment) needs. Yet we somehow expect our partners to just get us, and for us the just get them. We expect to just fulfil each other’s need by the magic that is love. But that’s not the magic. The magic is what happens when you work hard to get a deep understanding of each other.

Attachment research suggests that about half of us have a secure attachment style, which means that the other half are either anxious, avoidant or what is called disorganised (both anxious and avoidant).

Anxious attachment style – you like a lot of closeness. You think (worry) about relationships a lot and have a huge capacity for intimacy and love. You are very caring, giving and affectionate but you feel that you don’t get back as much as you give. You fear that your partner does not want to be close to you/ does not love you as much as you love them. You can very easily sense changes in your partner’s mood, emotions or behaviours – and you respond to these. Relationships take a lot of energy. With unmet needs, you ‘poke’ your partner, trying to get attention and love. And when they don’t reciprocate your emotions become high and you act out or withdraw, in protest. Take time out, sit on your hands, act with love.

Secure attachment style – you are comfortable with closeness. You find it easy to communicate your needs and get them fulfilled. You are loving and attentive. You don’t usually take things personally and find it fairly easy to respond to your partner’s needs. You usually deal with conflict in relationships very well. Sometimes people mistake the security and lack of drama for lack of chemistry because you are not dangerous – but that is unfortunate for them.

Avoidant attachment style – you have learnt to be independent and it is important for you to maintain self-sufficiency. With unpredictable attachment figures, you have learnt to sooth yourself on your own. You prefer autonomy to intimate relationships. You feel safe around people until they get too close. People may admire that you are calm, cool, not needing anyone, but the truth is you need love just like everyone else. You want to be close but it feels uncomfortable, so you tend to keep people at a distance. You may find faults with your partners, be focused on finding the ‘perfect’ partner or the one that got away. You are on alert for signs of neediness or control. Your partners think you are emotionally distant and the may act out at you, to get a response. But the more they do, the more you retreat – your protest. When you see a fault open your heart, when you want to run, lean in.

You may find that these descriptions sound familiar to you. We recommend taking this test to learn about your attachment style. Knowing your attachment style and that of other’s around you, allows you to go beyond feelings and behaviours and helps you connect by meeting each other’s deeper emotional needs.

We also recommend reading this book to learn more about attachment in romantic relationships.

The good news about attachment is that it can shift to secure. So, in the coming blogs we will talk more about creating a secure attachment for long-lasting love.

You are only as needy as your unmet needs”. Levine and Heller.

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