Home » Blogs » Neuroscience and Relationships » What We Know From Studies of Intimacy and Attachment

What We Know From Studies of Intimacy and Attachment

images-426Why are some interactions with your partner so intense? And why do you, in certain situations, say and do things you’d rather not – perhaps with a compulsion to do so?
Many partners have “Ah-ha” moments of recognition when they first learn that some of the feelings they experience in response to one another have very real biological causes.
The answer to these questions, to a great extent, has to do with certain chemicals or hormones — neurotransmitters — that are naturally released by the body. In other words, at least physiologically, what explains our feeling loved and enthusiastic, or feeling shaky and panicky, is the particular mix of hormones our body produces. And aside from intervening variables, such as food and drugs, that also directly alter the emotional and physiological states of the body, the hormones released are a direct outcome of our perceptions of events in and around us.
This last statement is a key aspect to understand in developing our capacity for emotional intelligence (emotional regulation), and thus, our capacity for cultivating emotional intimacy and meaningful connections in key relationships.
Hormones such as endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine produce feel-good sensations, and others such as cortisol and adrenalin produce feel-bad sensations.
Feel-good hormones are essential brain chemicals that are released when we experience what is pleasant, rewarding or familiar — and thus safe. For example:
  • Endorphins and Dopamine explain why we engage in certain pleasure seeking or goal-directed behaviors.
  • The release of Oxytocin signals that we feel safe enough to love and be loved.
  • Serotonin explains feelings of confidence and acts as a natural anti-depressant and helps temper impulsive feelings.
In contrast, feel-bad hormones get released when we perceive a threat or danger to not only our physical safety, but also emotional safety.
Why would we not feel safe in the presence of someone we know deep down inside that we love and loves us (and theres no question of physical harm)?
Attachment theory poses that seeking a sense of emotional connection and caring responsiveness with significant others is an innate, primary drive. It’s not an option, a want or something “nice” to have; it’s rather a powerful (arguably, the most powerful!), motivating principle that shapes human behaviors, and does so continually, moment by moment, across the life span.
Our most intense fears are intimacy fears of rejection and abandonment, inadequacy and loss of control, and the like, all of which are triggered when our deepest yearnings — emotional drives — to meaningfully connect and matter in relation to life in and around us feel thwarted or blocked.
Unless there are lions, tigers or bears around, our primary and perhaps most intense fear has to do with real and perceived threats to our intimacy needs to matter in relation to persons we most care about.

The receptor sites for all of these hormones in our brains, by the way, are in the same area that deal with emotion. No wonder we do and say certain things — we do so to make ourselves feel better!

So, in summary, what have we learned from studies of intimacy? We now know that:

  • The actual (or perceived) presence or availability of a person we’ve formed a love-attachment with can activate a physiological (bodily) sense of love, comfort and security, and that, correspondingly, the actual (or perceived) emotional unavailability of a loved one can activate feelings of distress, isolation, despair.
  • Having at least one healthy relationship creates a safe haven or buffer against the potentially damaging effects of both everyday stress and traumatic events.
  • Securely bonded relationships can provide a nourishing environment that fosters personal health, growth and confidence, as well as a springboard that sustains momentum for the fulfillment of personal goals and dreams.
  • Healthy, secure relationships foster both a sense of autonomy, in addition to a felt sense of interdependency and meaningful connection (rather than the extremes of “self-sufficiency” or “dependency”).
  • The more securely connected we feel inside, the more secure we feel in taking action to not only stand up for our self as a separate and unique self, but also to honor and treat loved ones as separate and unique beings.

It’s fascinating to learn what happens in our brains when we feel accepted — or rejected — by persons who matter to us. Depending on the response we receive to our bid for connection with another we accordingly can experience either a sense of emotional connection and belonging — or a sense of separation, disconnect and aloneness. It is likely that you may have experienced some degree of these emotional states even as you read the words on this page.

And it appears that our perceptions (beliefs) are key determinants of what mix of hormones get released. Core beliefs have to do with what we believe about ourselves, others and life. Studies show distinct differences in the beliefs of persons with different attachment styles. Those with secure styles of attachment tend to regard love as enduring and reliable, whereas those with anxious attachments view love as an intense experience they cannot seem to hold onto without constant (fear-based) vigilance, or taking the “easy” road of falling in and out of “love” with different partners (is this love or addiction?), and those with avoidant attachments often describe love as rare or “not for them.”
We all know the feelings. Of course, we can learn to buffer, mask or ignore these feelings, and we often do, for example, by adopting a belief that we’re not “bothered” or “don’t care”; in truth, we are hardwired to care, thus, even the response of “not caring” is a protective way of dealing the pain by giving us an illusion of power over it. In truth, deep down, we really, really do care. As long as we’re alive, just as it’s impossible to not breathe, we cannot not care…

Love makes the world go around, and when love is not happening, human beings can resort to desperate behaviors that threaten to destroy their own and others existence.

No endeavor is more complex than the sustained actions involved in forming and maintaining healthy emotional bonds in our relationships. They’re more complex than piloting a plane, writing a symphony or running a government, which is why learning how to relate to our self and others in emotionally intelligent ways is critical not only to our happiness and emotional growth and wellbeing, but also to our physical health and survival.
Our mind and body appear to be hardwired to continually assess for the quality of responses we receive from those we most love when we make bids for connection. More specifically, we all share yearnings for:
  • Thoughtful responsiveness
  • Emotional availability or connection

The need — not want — for healthy human connection is a complex drive unlike any other, perhaps because we seek to matter and find meaning in both our connection with others and our self. To the extent we feel safe, we are open to love and learn new things. When we feel overall safe, it also means the parasympathetic division of our body’s autonomic nervous system is in charge of all processes, rather than the sympathetic (fight or flight survival) system. In other words, when we do not feel emotionally safe enough to love, no logic in the world regardless how air tight reasonable it is, will get through. When our heart (emotion) is closed, little or nothing is allowed to come in or out. Love is not happening when the release of feel-bad (fear) chemicals are at such levels as to activate our body’s survival response.

Even when we say or do the most despicable things to our self or one another, in the raw…it’s always a cry for help! And it is always about the love and connection we’re seeking. The more scary or troubling our actions, the greater the hurt inside, the more indicative of how lost one is from the truth and beauty of who they are. It is hurt people that hurt people. It is still all about love, the emotional connection one may feel deprived of, yet still yearns for, but does not know how to experience, in order restore our sense of balance, safety and security.

To create healthy, vibrant relationships we need to cultivate a strong sense of self, a capacity to feel, understand and respond thoughtfully (rather than react) to our own and others upsetting emotions (fear and anger), and thus, to feel our emotions of vulnerability (in most circumstances) not as weakness, threats or defects, rather as opportunities for growth, meaningful connection and transformation. It takes a lot of the guess work out of the equation when partners in couple relationships understand what’s happening in their brains, and become familiar with what we’ve learned from the attachment and intimacy studies.



What We Know From Studies of Intimacy and Attachment

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

5 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Staik, A. (2013). What We Know From Studies of Intimacy and Attachment. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Aug 2013
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.