Attachment is part of how we relate to others from an early age. Attachment is about the emotional bond that exists between two people — usually in a family or marriage context. Understanding your own attachment style and that of your spouse can help you figure out why you do the things you do during conflict or even everyday married life.
Understanding attachment can also help you see what you might do differently in order to secure and strengthen the bond between you and your spouse. Attachment is fundamental to marriage — so read through this article and the next three if you really want to learn about what is probably the most significant undercurrent in marriage.
This is the first of a four-part series on attachment. This article will focus on anxious attachment and how it affects a couples’ relationship in marriage.
How Your Attachment Style Develops
The basic idea of attachment theory is that how you were loved as an infant becomes critical to how you relate to significant others in your life as an adult. When you are a baby, your primary caregiver, usually a parent, will have a unique way of relating to you. We refer to this caregiver as an attachment figure. When you get married, your spouse becomes your key attachment figure. When you have kids, you become an important attachment figure to them. But we start with our own primary caregiver and the essential components of how they relate to you centre on this one fundamental question: was my attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive to me?
If a child grows up in an environment with an attachment figure who is available to meet their attachment needs, the child will grow up feeling loved, secure, and confident. The child is then likely to explore his or her environment more freely, play with others and be sociable.
Attachment in Adulthood
The challenges or attachment injuries a person experiences in childhood impact not only them, but also the way they relate to their spouse. See our previous article: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) and the Impact on Your Marriage. For an adult, the attachment system that was formed in childhood gives rise to the emotional bond that develops between him or her and their romantic partner. Two researchers took Bowlby’s studies of attachment and explored them in the context of marriage. They noted certain parallels: infants/caregivers and adult romantic relationships share the following features:
- Both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
- Both engage in close, intimate bodily contact
- Both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
- Both share discoveries with one another
- Both study one another’s facial features carefully
Typically, once a person’s attachment style is established in childhood it remains with the individual through their adulthood.
Two terms that we will use frequently when talking about attachment are the words avoidance and anxiety. Avoidance is about whether or not a person is comfortable with closeness to a significant other. Do you seek connection and being seen? Or do you shy away from it or even really run from it? Anxiety is about your trust in the security of your connection. Do you feel at peace that your significant other is available, responsive and committed? Or are you needing to reassure yourself of this sometimes or even all the time?
Each person has an attachment style to their spouse. Sometimes, one spouse is one style, and the other spouse is a different one. For example, if you are anxious about your connection to your partner, your partner may be securely attached to you, which means the problem is not that your partner is unavailable or unreliable, but that you are not able to rest in and trust that he or she is available. That’s the part you have to take responsibility for. Conversely, your partner may begin the marriage as a securely attached person, but if you are consistently inconsistent in your availability or accessibility then their attachment style toward you may become more and more anxious because of your behaviour.
Four Styles of Attachment
There are four styles of adult attachment. These occur on a spectrum and can be thought of as quadrants rather than four distinct parts. Each of us falls somewhere on a scale of severity in one of these four quadrants:
Low on avoidance and low on anxiety. People who have secure attachment are comfortable with intimacy. They are not worried about rejection or preoccupied with the relationship. They are interested and invested but don’t have an underlying anxiety about the status of their connection to their spouse.
Avoidant or Dismissive
High on avoidance and low on anxiety. They are uncomfortable with closeness and place a high value on independence and freedom. They are generally not worried about their spouse’s availability.
Anxious or Preoccupied
Low on avoidance and high on anxiety. They crave closeness and intimacy and are generally quite insecure about the relationship.
High on avoidance and high on anxiety. They are uncomfortable with intimacy, but also worried about their spouse’s commitment and love.
So those are the four attachment styles. Our next three articles will cover the avoidant or dismissive, anxious or preoccupied, and disorganized attachment styles. In this article we will look at anxious attachment.
Anxious Attachment in Marriage
The key concepts of the anxious attachment style are:
- They draw attention to the relationship bond
- They may relentlessly try to repair their connection with their spouse
- Their main goal is to find consistent security
After conflict, they will often gather positive evidence about the relationship to use as a defense against abandonment
Anxious Attachment in Marriage
If you’re listening and you recognize that your spouse has an anxious attachment style, we encourage you to download our bonus episode. This episode describes how to effectively and helpfully relate to an anxiously attached spouse in a supportive way. This bonus episode is available to patrons of the Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
It’s important to remember that attachment styles all occur on a scale or spectrum. There are a lot of characteristics for each style. You will resonate with many, or possibly all of these characteristics if you are anxiously attached.
Furthermore, an anxiously attached spouse generally doesn’t have much trust in the security of the bond between him/herself and their spouse. They may fear being abandoned, feel unappreciated by their spouse, or fear their spouse becoming too independent. They may have anger towards a spouse who they perceive to be insufficiently available and not responsive enough to their needs.
Signs of Anxious Attachment
Common things that an anxiously attached spouse may say include:
- “I often worry that my spouse doesn’t really love me.”
- “When my spouse is out of sight, I worry that he or she may become interested in someone else.”
- “My spouse is not as consistently available as I would like.”
- “I frequently get angry at my spouse for ignoring me.”
These phrases are indicators that you do not feel safe and secure in your relationship with your spouse, and you are always looking to them to make you feel secure because of your anxious attachment.
It is common for an anxiously attached spouse to put their securely attached spouse on a pedestal and overestimate their abilities while underestimating their own. When entering the marriage, they may believe this is their only chance for love. Because of their low self-worth and high view of their spouse, they may worry about losing their spouse and be hyper-aware of any sign that their spouse is pulling away from them. This sense of insecurity increases their need for security; ironically, this often results in behaviours that smother or otherwise drive their spouse away.
Individuals with an anxious attachment need constant reassurance and affection from their spouse and have trouble being alone. Because of this underlying fear of losing attention or affection, they may not take time to see matters from their spouse’s point of view. They can easily stumble into misunderstandings and conflict because they’re trying to control their spouse in a way that relieves their own fears.
An anxiously attached spouse may text their husband or wife constantly while they are at work, asking for updates and really intruding on the independence of the other person. If their spouse then gets annoyed and pulls back, it heightens their anxiety, potentially creating conflict: why are you ignoring me, etc.? The anxiously attached spouse doesn’t see the impact of their own fear on their spouse which may even be having the effect of driving the other person away. And that confirms their fears and the perceived insecurity of the attachment.
How Does Anxious Attachment Develop in Childhood?
To understand the anxious attachment style from a place of compassion, it is helpful to understand how it develops. If a child is loved by a parent, but that parent feels helpless or overwhelmed in the early months and years of that child’s development, the parent may only really get close and attentive to the child when he or she is distressed.
Children who grow up without a reliable attachment figure learn early on that a high degree of internal distress produces the most attentive response from the parent. Maybe as a toddler, the child learns that tantrums are the best way to elicit undivided attention from a parent. When the child is not distressed the parent is not really available. The child learns that their parent is sometimes there and sometimes not. When the parent is not available it may be seen as rejection, so the child becomes highly sensitive to signs of unavailability as a warning to expect rejection. A child like this may become clingy and dependent because there is no consistency. From an early age, the child learns to demand attention from their parents because they may not always be available.
In some cases, the parent has their own abandonment wounds and the child becomes someone the parent depends on to fulfill their own needs. So the parent fosters neediness in the child in order to satiate the parent’s hunger for being cared for. A child in this situation is really trained to remain dependent and needy, checking in with the parent for security rather than internalizing a secure attachment. It does validate the parent who has a wound that is satiated by being needed, but it leaves the child dependent and anxiously attached.
How To Shift To Secure Attachment When You Are Anxiously Attached
Secure attachment is the ability to feel secure in the availability and connection of your spouse whether you are together or apart. So the question is: how do you challenge yourself to shift to a more secure attachment style if your default is anxious or preoccupied attachment?
There are a number of things that can help an individual with an anxious attachment style to move towards a more secure attachment. Self-soothing is often a helpful practice. Learning to calm and soothe yourself is really just doing your own parenting. It’s providing the reassurance, availability, and presence for yourself that your caregivers were not able to give you. Anxiously attached Christians who have strong faith in God may also benefit from really learning to draw on the consistent availability and presence of God as a way of self-soothing.
Another thing that is helpful for anxious attachment is spending time getting to know yourself: your strengths, gifts and talents. Building confidence in yourself and accomplishing tasks and seeing yourself develop as a person fosters a sense of self-worth. That self-worth helps you subconsciously understand that you can function well independently which increases a sense of security.
Finally, individuals can work on not jumping to conclusions and overreacting. Because fear is at the root of anxious attachment, and because anger is often the face of fear in marriage, it helps if you can take a step back when you find yourself overreacting. Work at being things from your spouse’s point of view; try to be generous (giving the benefit of the doubt) when interpreting their actions and have faith in his or her goodwill before assuming the worst.
Things To Work On Together
In a romantic relationship, there are a number of things that a couple can work on together to help an anxiously attached partner become more secure. See our previous article Why People Seek Marriage Counselling and What Approaches They Use. First of all, it is very helpful to practice communicating your feelings and needs directly. Often, it will be more automatic to try to control your spouse or to micromanage them — and these actions are driven by deeper needs and feelings within yourself but it will be really hard for your spouse to see past those behaviours to these feelings and needs. If you can communicate with them more directly, you can avoid acting in ways that may otherwise frustrate or even drive your spouse away.
It’s also a good idea to consider working with a couple’s therapist. A couple’s therapist trained in emotionally focused couple’s therapy can help you reorganize your marriage attachment style so that you can relate to one another in a more secure, healing way.
Finally, it’s important to be patient with yourself and your spouse. Your attachment style is really most often instilled in you without any choice or decision on your part. The same goes for your spouse’s attachment style. Despite these challenges, it is still possible to learn how to create a secure, loving bond with your spouse. These other attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and disorganized — they are not permanent disabilities. They are definitely challenging, but this is also a way that you can grow together as a couple and derive incredible meaning and value from the healing powers of marriage. Be careful to give yourself and one another a lot of compassion and patience for the process.
 John Bowlby, “Attachment and Loss: Retrospect and Prospect.,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 52, no. 4 (October 1982): 664–78, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1982.tb01456.x.
 Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, “Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52, no. 3 (1987): 511–24, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061.
 Jeffry A Simpson and W Steven Rholes, “Adult Attachment, Stress, and Romantic Relationships,” Current Opinion in Psychology 13 (February 2017): 19–24, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.006.
 Nancy L. Collins, “Working Models of Attachment: Implications for Explanation, Emotion, and Behavior.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71, no. 4 (1996): 810–32, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110.
 Jason D. Jones and Jude Cassidy, “Parental Attachment Style: Examination of Links with Parent Secure Base Provision and Adolescent Secure Base Use,” Attachment & Human Development 16, no. 5 (September 3, 2014): 437–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2014.921718.
 Darlene Lancer, “How to Change Your Attachment Style,” October 2018, https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-change-your-attachment-style/.