Let’s face it; people are complex. We all have highly personal histories that affect who we are, how we see the world, and how we interact with others. For this reason, it might sound impossible to classify individuals into a just handful of categories used to describe human nature.
But decades of psychological research suggests this kind of broad categorization might be more accurate than you’d think—and understanding it could help you improve the way you relate to your spouse.
In today’s article, we’re introducing attachment theory, along with the theory’s four main “attachment styles” which can have a profound impact on the way you operate within your marriage.
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory is grounded in the pioneering work of 1950s psychoanalyst Dr. John Bowlby. Based on his research, he concluded that the quality of an infant’s bond with a primary caregiver—a parent, in most cases—actually influences the quality of their relationships well into adulthood.
Is a child made to feel seen, heard, and valued? Is the child comforted when distressed? Does a child feel safe to explore? All of these factors point to the type of bond shared between parent and child, as well as the type of bond the child will likely seek out as they grow up.
Four Attachment Styles in Relationships
Attachment theorists point to four key attachment styles that people develop in childhood and maintain throughout their life. They are:
These attachment styles often operate without our conscious awareness. If you find yourself repeatedly having the same types of relationship conflict, or always end up with the same type of partner, this could be due to your unexamined attachment style dictating your thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
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What The Four Attachment Styles May Look Like in a Marriage
Read through the following four attachment styles and how they might present in a relationship. Then see if you can sense which one most closely describes you or your spouse. You can also download the worksheets in the image below to understand more about how to heal from attachment trauma.
Securely attached adults generally have greater relationship satisfaction. They tend to:
- Provide genuine support to their partner when their partner is upset
- Seek support from their partner when they are upset
- Have honest conversations
- Honor each other’s independence
Anxiously attached partners often feel hungry for connection. They tend to:
- Want their partner to “complete” them or rescue them
- Demonstrate behaviors described as clingy, demanding, or possessive
- Make assumptions about their partner’s actions that support their fears (e.g., when a partner meets a new friend, the anxiously-attached partner might think, “She’s going to leave me; I should have never trusted her”)
Dismissive/avoidant partners can seem very independent, but this independence is a false cover for their fear of being let down. If you don’t allow for genuine connection, the dismissive/avoidant person thinks, how can you ever be hurt? Dismissive/avoidant partners tend to:
- Be emotionally distant, detached, or isolated from their partner
- Focus a lot on creature comforts
- React to conflict by shutting down or feigning apathy (e.g., saying “I don’t care” when their upset partner threatens to end the relationship)
Fearful/avoidant partners often seem like they are constantly moving between hot and cold. They tend to:
- Alternate between being too close or too distant from their partner
- Feel overwhelmed by their emotions
- Have rocky relationship dynamics, experiencing high highs and low lows
Becoming more aware of your attachment style (and your partner’s—which could be different than yours!) is a valuable exercise. Why? Because it can help you uncouple yourself from maladaptive behaviors and build deeper, more meaningful connections.
If you’re curious about learning more about attachment styles, download these worksheets or connect with a marriage counselor today who can offer support as you unpack these subtle yet powerful influences on your life…and your marriage.