John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst originated the Theory of Attachment. He was attempting to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Although Bowlby was primarily focused on understanding the nature of the infant-caregiver relationship, he believed that attachment characterized human experience from “the cradle to the grave.”
It was many years later, in 1987, that Hazan and Shaver did research exploring Bowlby’s ideas in the context of romantic relationships. They found that the same motivational system that gives rise to the close emotional bond between parents and their children are responsible for the bond that develops between adults in emotionally intimate relationships. They noted that the relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners share the following features:
- feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
- engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
- feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
- share discoveries with one another
- play with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
- engage in “baby talk”
Some people feel secure in their relationships, confident that their partners will be there for them when needed, are both open to depending on others, and having others depend on them. The kinds of things that make an attachment figure “desirable” for infants, like responsiveness and availability, are the very factors adults find desirable in romantic partners.
In 1994 Feeney, Noller, & Callan’s research demonstrated that just like secure children who use their parents as a secure base to explore their world, the same is true for romantic partners. Secure adults seek support from their partners when distressed and also provide support to their distressed partners. Just like the securely attached children who show that they are thriving by being well adjusted, resilient, getting along with their peers, and are well-liked, securely attached adults are thriving, enjoying a partnership that is characterized by longevity, trust, commitment, and interdependence.
In Susan Johnson’s wonderful book Hold Me Tight, she speaks about the significance of secure adult attachment for a romantic partnership to thrive. Johnson eloquently describes how when we are emotionally disconnected from our partner, terror erupts. Because when we feel insecure, we become fearful, anxious, angry, and controlling or withdraw, avoid contact, and stay distant. The root of the powerful emotions is feeling that we are fighting for our lives. Indeed, this need to feel safe is primal. The desperate attachment cry can only be soothed by our partner coming close to emotionally and physically connect. The ugly fights that ensue with nasty blaming or cold, shut down stonewalling are both actually cries for help, desperate cries for attachment.
Recognizing that we are emotionally attached to our partner, and dependent upon them in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing and protection may be difficult to face. We live in a culture that prizes independence and can hold dependence as a dirty word. By holding each other tight, we create a secure and lasting bond, that which we yearn for. Longing for that reliable emotional connection is hard-wired into us. And when we don’t have it, we suffer. We feel gloomy, lonely, and full of rage at our partner who we hold as responsible for denying our essential need. Intense feelings are an essential part of the built-in survival mechanism that keeps the human species alive over millions of years. We need our bonds with others, or we perish, and some deep part of us knows it.
When we become wise enough to know what we need to thrive, we can get busy creating it. We take every action to strengthen the commitment to make the relationship safe and secure. Marriage in and of itself will not do that. When we relax into being securely attached, ease permeates the relationship, reducing arguments. With the calm assurance of returning to its protection, the relationship becomes a safe haven to venture out into the world of career and wider friendships. Feeling safe allows us to become self-confident, curious, flexible, and open to the world of adventure. It is only when the open-hearted, vulnerable contact is established that we are reassured that we are securely bonded.
For an inspirational example, stay tuned for Part 4 to hear about the recovery of Pricilla and Zack.