Attachment, Couples, and Adult Relationships

How the “Attachment Bond” Influences Our Adult Relationships

Have you ever felt strongly, deeply connected to someone for whom you would do anything? It is called being “In Love,” and ideally we have all experienced it. You probably tend to need the same essential things from every love relationship you have ever had, and that some of the relationship dynamics in your current relationship are a constant no matter whom you are with. These dynamics often come from our earliest relationship, and are strongly influenced by the quality of our earliest care giving.  The term, attachment bond, is what we call our first love relationship- the one we have with our mothers, or our primary care givers, which profoundly and deeply shaped almost everything about us, including how deeply and effectively we attach to loved ones as adults.

Attachment, Bonding, and Relationships


Photo courtesy Paul Stevenson

How do we learn to attach?  From our first, most important attachment-the one we have with our primary caregiver, usually our mothers. All humans were meant to bond with their mother, as infants cannot physically care for themselves. Equally as important, all infants experience intensely felt emotions such as sadness, joy, anger, and fear, which need to be managed and contained by their mother. This emotional attachment is created mostly through non-verbal communication between mother and infant.  This bonding is so profound and important to whom we are as human beings that it influences relationships throughout a lifetime as it the foundation for all attachments.

Ideally, a baby becomes securely attached to the mother.  Through a strong, loving attachment, a mother can help the child become self-confident, hopeful, trusting, and comfortable with conflict. A mother, it must be noted, does not have to be a perfect parent or perfectly in tune with their infant’s emotions- just simply good enough. Secure attachments allow us to:

  • Feel Safe
  • Develop Meaningful Connections with Others
  • Have Meaning in Our Lives
  • Experience Comfort and Security
  • A Desire to Explore the World
  • Balance Emotions
  • Have Appropriate Expectations of Relationships
  • Bounce Back from Adversity
  • Have an Awareness of Emotional Feelings
  • Maintain Successful Relationships

Maternal Difficulties with Care Giving

Sometimes a mother, for a myriad of reasons, cannot attend to her baby’s emotional needs sufficiently.   Why do Caregivers have trouble securely attaching to their infants?  The following reasons often contribute to a mother or caregiver having trouble providing secure attachment for her infant:

  • Physical Neglect
  • Maternal Addiction to Drugs or Alcohol
  • Traumatic Experiences
  • Physical or Sexual Abuse
  • Young or Inexperienced Mother
  • Maternal Depression
  • Separation from the Caregiver due to divorce, adoption, death or illness
  • Emotional Neglect or Emotional Abuse
  • Frequent Moves or Placement
  • Maternal Mental Illness

Adult Attachment Patterns

The following are the adult attachment patterns based on maternal parenting:

Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment

Dismissive-Avoidant adults have a very high level of independence from others, and often avoid attachments in general.  They deny that they need close relationships. They tend to suppress or hide their feelings, dealing with rejection by distancing themselves from their partners. Adult characteristics often include feeling anxious and insecure, being controlling, blaming, distant, critical and rigid, and having tremendous difficultly with closeness or emotional connections with others.  People with Dismissive-Avoidant attachment patterns had parenting that was too often rejecting and unavailable.

Fearful/Avoidant Attachment

Fearful-avoidant adults have ambivalent feelings about relationships-both desiring them but feeling uncomfortable with the emotional closeness involved. They tend to have difficulty with intimacy, suppress their feelings, and view themselves and partners as untrustworthy.   Adult characteristic often include feeling anxious and insecure, are controlling, blaming, erratic, unpredictable, but sometimes charming. Their parents were often unavailable and narcissistic, making close relationships very difficult for the child.

Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment

People who are anxiously attached seek a high level of approval, intimacy, and responsiveness from those they care about, and sometimes become overly dependent on their partners, blaming themselves if their partners are not responsive.  They tend to have low self-worth, and tend to have less positive views of their partners, and mistrust their intentions.  Adult characteristics include high levels of emotional expressiveness, impulsiveness, and worry in their relationships. Parents of those that are anxiously attached are often narcissistic and unavailable, but attuned enough to their child so that the child does trust, sometimes too much, in human relationships.

Secure Attachment

The securely attached have a history of warm and responsive interactions with relationships.  Securely attached people tend to have positive views of themselves, their partners, and their relationships.  They often feel comfortable with intimacy and with independency, and often seek to balance the both.  They are comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them, without worrying about rejection.  They also tend to be empathetic toward others while setting appropriate boundaries when needed.

The secure parental pattern is one where the parent is aligned with the child, empathetically attuned to the child’s emotions, and promptly and consistently cares for its needs.   As a result, the caregiver has successfully forged a secure attachment with the child.

Are you suffering from Insecure Attachment?

If you feel that you are securely attached in your relationships, able to give and receive love, relish your independence but also enjoy togetherness, consider yourself tremendously blessed.  If, however, you did see yourself in one of the other attachment profiles, you probably have more conflict in your relationships, difficulty with closeness, and unrealistic expectations from others. Depression and Anxiety can also be a result of insecure attachments.   If these conflicts are causing you enough distress, you might want to consider getting some help.

So what is to be done?

Therapy can create more secure attachments

Psychotherapy and Couples counseling can provide one of the most corrective experiences possible for those that are insecurely attached.  Through an empathetic, understanding attachment with the therapist, much of the pain of insecure attachments can be dramatically improved.  The therapeutic orientation of choice is psychodynamic psychotherapy.

Jennifer De Francisco is a marriage and couples counselor in Newport Beach and also serves the rest of the Orange County. If you think counseling can help or if you are experiencing personal issues such as depression, please call me at (949) 251-8797.

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  10. JANET says:

    I see a wonderful loving caring relationship being destroyed right in front of my eyes and I don’t know why. It is complicated by him having 2 11 year old sons that I love very much. I just don’t understand how this could have happened,

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