By Susan Johnson, Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 1, 1994 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
As the child is connected to the parent, to be connected with another person is the only security we ever have in life. In that sense we never grow up.
An illusion. An anesthetic. An irrational compulsion. A neurosis. An emotional storm. An immature ideal. These are the descriptions of love that have long populated the psychological literature. Let us not even consider the obvious fact that they are highly judgmental and dismissive. The question I want to pose is, does any one of them, or even all of them together, come close to capturing the extraordinary experience that for most people is an enormous part of the meaning of life—an experience that fosters well-being and growth?
As a marital therapist, my job is to help people experience love, to move from distance and alienation to contact and caring. But in order to help distressed couples change, I realized early on that I needed a model of what a good relationship is. For too long, the choices have been confined to two. There is the psychodynamic, or psychoanalytic, view, which holds that adult relationships are more or less reflections of childhood relationships—replays of old conflicts. And there is the behaviorist view: Love is a rational exchange in which couples make deals based on their needs, and they succeed to the degree that they master the negotiation process. Love is then either a crazy compulsion or, after couples calm down, a kind of rational friendship where the partners make good deals.
I can assure you that if I tried to persuade the couples I see in therapy to leave with an understanding of their childhood or a rational friendship, they would not be satisfied. The truth is that these conventional descriptions do not adequately reflect the process of marital distress or the rekindling of love that I observe as a marital therapist. Possessing insights as to why you have certain sore spots or honing negotiation skills seems to somehow miss the mark. Neither addresses the intense emotional responses that consume distressed couples. As I watch couples, I see that raw emotion, hurt, longing, and fear are the most powerful things in the room. Couples seem to have a desperate need to connect emotionally—and a desperate fear of connecting.
There are, of course, many elements to a relationship. It is true that echoes of the past are present in relationships, but this focus does not capture enough of what goes on and ignores the power of present interactions. Couples do also make bargains. But the essence of their connection is not a bargain. It is, rather, a bond.
The bond between two people hinges on two things—their accessibility and responsiveness to each other. The notion that the tie between two people is created through accessibility and responsiveness is an outgrowth of attachment theory. First put forth by the late British psychiatrist John Bowlby 30+ years ago and later elaborated both by him and psychologist Mary Ainsworth in America, attachment theory has gathered significant momentum. It promised to be one of the most significant psychological ideas put forth in the 20th century. As many researchers have demonstrated, it is certainly the most viable way of making sense of the mother-infant (and father-infant) bond.
Over the past decades, a number of psychologists, including myself, have seen in attachment theory an understanding of adult relationships. In my experience attachment is the best lens for viewing adult love. When viewed through this lens, love relationships do not seem irrational at all; we do not have to pronounce them mysterious or outside our usual way of being. Nor do we have to shrink them to fit the laws of economic exchange. They make perfect—many would say intuitive—sense. And attachment theory goes a long way toward explaining what goes wrong in relationships and what to do about it.
John Bowlby observed that the need for physical closeness between a mother and child serves evolutionary goals; in a dangerous world, a responsive caregiver ensures survival of the infant. Attachment theory states that our primary motivation in life is to be connected with other people—because it is the only security we ever have. Maintaining closeness is a bona fide survival need. Through the consistent and reliable responsiveness of a close adult, infants, particularly in the second six months of life, begin to trust that the world is a good place and come to believe they have some value in it. The deep sense of security that develops fosters in the infant enough confidence to begin exploring the surrounding world, making excursions into it, and developing relationships with others—though racing back to mom, being held by her, and perhaps even clinging to her whenever feeling threatened. In secure attachment lie the seeds for self-esteem, initiative, and eventual independence. We explore the world from a secure base.
Thanks to Mary Ainsworth, a large body of research supports attachment theory. She devised a procedure to test human attachment called the "strange situation," it allows researchers to observe mothers and children during a carefully calibrated process of separation and reunion. Ainsworth found that whenever children feel threatened or can no longer easily reach their attachment figure, they engage in behavior designed to regain proximity—they call, they protest, they seek, they cry, they reach out. Closeness achieved, they do all they can to maintain it: They hug, they coo, they make eye contact, they cling—and, that all-time pleaser, they smile.
Ainsworth noticed that children differ in their attachment security and their patterns of behavior sort into three basic "attachment styles." Most children are securely attached: They show signs of distress when left with a stranger, seek their mother when she returns, hold her for a short time, then go back to exploring and playing. These infants develop attachment security because they have mothers who are sensitive and responsive to their signals.
On the other hand, she found, 40 percent of kids are insecurely attached. Some are anxious/ambivalent. They show lots of distress separating, and on reunion, they approach and reject their mother. Their mothers usually respond inconsistently to them, sometimes unavailable, other times affectionate. So preoccupied are these infants with their caregiver's availability that they never get to explore their world.
The third group of children have an avoidant attachment style. They do not seem distressed during separation, and they don't even acknowledge their mother during reunion. These infants keep their distress well-hidden; though they appear to dismiss relationships entirely, internally they are in a state of physiological arousal. These children are usually reared by caregivers who rebuff their attempts at close bodily contact.
These responses are not arbitrary but universal. Evolution has seen to that because they serve survival needs. Some researchers are busy identifying the neurobiological systems that underlie attachment behavior and mediate the response to attachment threats. They are finding specific patterns of changes in biochemistry and physiology during experimental separation experiences.
Attachment bonds are particularly durable, and once an infant is attached, separation—or the threat of it—is extremely stressful and anxiety-producing. In the absence of attachment danger, children explore the world around them. But if the accessibility of a caregiver is questionable or threatened, the attachment behavior system shifts into high gear. Facing the loss or unreliability of an attachment figure, infants typically are thrust into panic and they mount an angry protest. Eventually, however, the protest dies down and they succumb to a despair that looks like classic depression.
The implications of attachment theory are extraordinary and extend to the deepest corners of our psyche. Attachment impacts the way we process information, how we see the world, and the nature of our social experience. Our attachment experience influences whether we see ourselves as lovable. Research now shows that we carry attachment styles with us into life, where they serve as predispositions to later behavior in love relationships.
We seek physical proximity to a partner, and rely on their continuing affections and availability, because it is a survival need. What satisfies the need for attachment in adults is what satisfies the need in the young: Eye contact, touching, stroking, and holding a partner deliver the same security and comfort. When threatened, or fearful, or experiencing loss, we turn to our partner for psychological comfort. Or try to.
The core elements of love are the same for children and adults—the need to feel that somebody is emotionally there for you, that you can make contact with another person who will respond to you, particularly if you are in need. The essence of love is a partner responding to a need, not because it's a good deal—but even when it's not. That allows you to sense the world as home rather than as a dangerous place. In this sense, we never grow up.
It is clear that the dynamics of attachment are similar across the life span. Implicit in the anger of a couple who are fighting over everything is the protest of the child who is trying to restore the closeness and responsiveness of a parent. In the grief of adults who have lost a partner is the despair of a child who has lost a parent and experiences helplessness and withdrawal.
Attachment theory makes sense of a matter that psychology puzzles over—how we come to regulate our emotions. We regulate feelings, specifically negative ones—fear, sadness, anger—through the development of affectional bonds with others, and continuing contact with them. Through the lens of attachment we also come to understand that the expression of emotion is the primary communication system in relationships; it's how we adjust closeness and distance. Emotion is the music of the interpersonal dance. And when attachment is threatened when we feel alienated from a partner or worry about our partner's availability—the music either gets turned way up, into the heavy metal of angry protest, or way down, shut off altogether.
The lens of attachment sharply illuminates the dangerous distortion personified in a popular icon of Western culture: the John Wayne image of the self-contained man, the man who is never dependent and never needs anyone else. Our need for attachment ensures that we become who we are as individuals because of our connection with other people. Our personality evolves in a context of contact with other people; it doesn't simply arise from within. Our attachment needs make dependence on another person an integral part of being human. Self-sufficiency is a lie.
The most basic message of attachment theory is that to be valid adults, we do not need to deny that we are also always, until the end of our life, vulnerable children. A good intimate adult relationship is a safe place where two people can experience feelings of vulnerability—being scared, feeling overwhelmed by life, being unsure of who they are. It is the place where we can deal with those things, not deny them, control them, or regulate them, the old John Wayne way. Relatedness is a core aspect of ourselves.
Yet Western psychology and psychiatry have often labeled feelings of dependency as pathologic and banished them to childhood. Our mistaken beliefs about dependency and self-sufficiency lead us to define strength as the ability to process inner experience and regulate our emotions all by ourselves. Attachment theory suggests that, not only is that not functional, it is impossible. We are social beings not constituted for such physiological and emotional isolation. For those who attempt it, there are enormous costs. A great deal of literature in health and psychology shows that the cost of social isolation is physical and psychological breakdown. Under such conditions, we simply deteriorate.
There is nothing inherently demeaning or diminishing in allowing someone else to comfort you. We need other people to help us process our emotions and deal with the slings and arrows of being alive—especially the slings and arrows. In fact, the essence of making intimate contact is sharing hurts and vulnerability with someone else. You allow someone into a place where you are not defended. You put contact before self-protection. In marital distress the opposite happens, self-protection comes before contact. If you cannot share, then a part of your being is excluded from the relationship.
The couples I see have taught me that it is almost impossible to be accessible, responsive, emotionally engaged with someone if you are not able to experience and express your own vulnerabilities. If you cannot allow yourself to experience and show your vulnerability, you cannot tell others what you need and explicitly ask others to respond to you. But troubled couples naturally want to hide and protect their vulnerability, although that usually precludes any satisfying kind of emotional contact.
Like psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory sees early relationships as formative of personality and relationships later on. But unlike Freudian theory, it sees our view of ourselves and relationship styles as subject to revision as we integrate new experiences. This capacity makes growth possible. The past influences the present, but we are not condemned to repeat it.
The attachment system involves attachment behaviors, emotional responses, and internal representations, or models. In our psyches, we create working models of attachment figures, of ourselves, and of relationships. Built from our experience in the world, these internal working models are at the same time cognitive and affective, and they in turn guide how we organize our experience and how we respond to intimate others.
The reason our behavior in relationships is relatively stable is that, although they are susceptible to revision, we carry these internal working models into new social situations. They write the script by which we navigate the social world. Our internal working models of ourselves, our relationship, and our close ones create expectations of support and nurturance—and become the architects of the disappointments we feel. They are the creators of self-fulfilling prophecies.
But the existence of internal models also explains why you can have very different experiences in two different relationships. Essentially, you meet a new potential partner who brings a different behavioral repertoire. This allows you to engage in a different dance of proximity and distance—she is home to receive your phone calls, he doesn't react with veiled hostility when you call him at the office. Being accessible and responsive, your new partner doesn't ignite your anxiety and launch you into attachment panic. What's more, with a different set of internal working models, your new partner appraises your behavior differently and then offers a different response. From such new experience, a tarnished inner vision of relationships or of your sense of self can then begin to change.
That may be what passionate love really is—we find someone who connects with us and alleviates our attachment fears, which opens up a whole new possibility of acceptance and responsiveness. Love is transforming—not just of the world but of the self. We find a whole new way of contacting another human being, and this emotional engagement opens up new possibilities of becoming ourselves. That is the intoxicating thing about the relationship. It modifies how people experience themselves and how they see other people.
From my point of view, attachment theory also redefines the place of sexual behavior. For the past 50 years, we seem to have come to believe that sex is the essence of love relationships. That is not my experience in working with couples. Sex per sex is often but a small part of adult intimacy. Attachment theory tells us that the basic security in life is contact with other people. We need to be held, to be emotionally connected. I think that the most basic human experience of relatedness is two people—mother and child, father and child, two adults—seeing and holding each other, providing the safety, security, and feeling of human connectedness that for most, in the end, makes life meaningful. Many people use sex as a way to create or substitute for the sense of connection they are needing. I would guess that many a man or woman has engaged in sex just to meet a need for being held.
So perhaps now the mystery of love is becoming clear. We fall in love when an attachment bond is formed. We stay in love by maintaining the bond. We use our repertoire of emotions to signal the need for comfort through contact, the need for a little distance. We help each other process our inner and outer worlds and experience each other's pain, fear, joy.
What, then, goes wrong in couples? As I see it, healthy, normal attachment needs go unmet and attachment fears begin to take over the relationship.
We know that distressed couples settle into rigid interaction patterns. Perhaps the most distressed pattern is that of the disappointed, angry, blaming wife demanding contact from a man who withdraws. Couples can stay stuck in this for years. We know from the research of John Gottman that this is a sure killer of marriages.
But it is only through the lens of attachment that we come to understand what makes such patterns of behavior so devastating. The answer is, they block emotional engagement; they stand in the way of contact and exacerbate attachment fears. As partners hurl anger and contempt at each other or withdraw, emotional engagement becomes more and more difficult. Patterns of attack—defend or attack—withdraw are highly corrosive to a relationship because they preclude a safe way for a couple to emotionally engage each other and create a secure bond.
What couples are really fighting about is rarely the issue they seem to be fighting about—the chores, the kids. It is always about separateness and connectedness, safety and trust, the risk of letting someone in to see the exposed, vulnerable self.
Marital distress, then, is not a product of personality flaws. Nor is anger in relationships irrational. It is often a natural part of a protest that follows the loss of accessibility and responsiveness to a partner. It is an adaptive reaction—anger motivates people to overcome barriers to reunion. Self-defeating as it may be, anger is an attempt to discourage a partner from further distancing.
But fear is the most compelling emotion in a distressed relationship. Hostility in a partner is usually a sign that the fear level has gone way up—the partner feels threatened. Attachment fears—of being unlovable, abandoned, rejected—are so tied to survival that they elicit strong fight or flee responses. In protecting ourselves, we often undermine ourselves as a secure base for our partner, who becomes alarmed. Our partner then confirms our fears and becomes the enemy, the betrayer.
Such fear sets off an alarm system. It heightens both the anger of those experiencing anxiety in attachment and the dismissal of emotional needs by those given to avoidance.
The lens of attachment puts a whole new frame on our behavior in relationships. The angry, blaming wife who continues to pursue with blame, even though she understands this behavior may drive her husband away, is not acting irrationally. Nor do her actions necessarily reflect a lack of communication skill. She is engaged in a desperate intensification of attachment behaviors—hers is an entreaty for contact. She perceives her husband as inaccessible and emotionally unresponsive: a threat that engages the attachment behavioral system. Of course, the defensiveness and conflict make safe contact increasingly less likely, and the cycle of distress escalates. It keeps going because the person never gets the contact and the reassurance that will bring closure and allow the attachment fears to be dealt with.
In working with couples, my colleague Les Greenberg and I have elaborated a therapy, "Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy," that views marital distress in terms of attachment insecurities. It recognizes that relationship problems are created by how individuals react to, cope with, and disown their own attachment needs and those of their spouse. A major goal of therapy is owning and validating needs for contact and security, helping people to expand their emotional range, rather than shut their feelings down or constantly control them. It is not about ventilating feelings, but about allowing people to immerse themselves more deeply in their experience and process elements of it they usually protect against—the desperation and loneliness behind anger, the fear and helplessness behind silent withdrawal.
The most powerful change agent in a distressed relationship seems to be the expression of the tender, more disarming emotions, such as longing, fear, and sadness. It is the most powerful tool to evoke contact and responsiveness from a significant other. If I help couples create contact, couples can then solve their own problems.
Most couples begin by declaring how incredibly angry they are. They have good reason to be angry. As they come to feel more of their anger, not justify or contain it, they usually begin to explore and experience more of what it is about. The experience starts to include elements they don't usually focus on, which they may even as inappropriate. In fact one reason for feeling so angry is that they feel totally helpless and unlovable, which scares them.
Soon one partner begins talking to the other about what happened one second before lashing out—an incredible sense of helplessness, a voice that comes into the head and said, "I'm not going to feel this way. I refuse to feel so helpless and needy. This is unacceptable." And now the experience has been expanded beyond anger and partners start to contact hidden parts of themselves—in the presence of the other.
This is a new and compelling experience for them that enables one partner to turn to the spouse and confide, "Somehow, some part of me has given up the hope of ever feeling cherished, and instead I've become enraged because I am so sure that you could never really hold me and love me' " This kind of dialogue redefines the relationship as one where a person can be vulnerable and confide what is most terrifying about him or herself or the world. And the partner, with the therapist's help, is there both for comfort and as a validating mirror of those experiences of the self.
The relationship is then starting to be a secure base where people can be vulnerable, bring out the neediness or other elements of themselves that frighten them, and ask for their attachment needs to be met. In this safe context, the husband or wife doesn't see the partner as weak but as available—not dangerous. I may hear one say: "That's the part I fell in love with." In a sense, the language of love is the language of vulnerability. While Western psychology focuses on the value of self-sufficiency, in our personal lives we struggle to integrate our needs for contact and care into our adult experience.
Attachment theory is an idea whose time has come because it allows us to be whole people. It views behavior gone awry as a well-meaning adaptation to past or present experience. And it views the desire for contact as healthy. Secure attachments promote emotional health and buffer us against life's many stresses. Love then becomes the most powerful arena for healing and for growth, and from this secure base, both men and women can go out and explore, even create, the world.
Anger and hostility in marital relationships are usually interpreted by a partner as rejection. They are felt as distancing behavior, and set off attachment alarms; you respond as if your life is threatened. But hostility itself is often an outgrowth of feelings of fear; your partner is perhaps feeling threatened. It is important to recognize that it may be an attempt to bring you back into contact rather than to control you. In one sense, the appropriate response to hostility may be a hug rather than a return of verbal barrage. But we fight for our life when threatened; we defend ourselves with anything that comes to mind.
It's after the fight that you have a real chance to reprocess the events more accurately, to enlarge the experience to include elements that were left out of the argument while you were trying to win. An attachment lens on relationships encourages us to look at aggression in intimate relationships as a common way of dealing with fear. It also implies there's nothing wrong with dependency needs; it gives us permission to have feelings of wanting to be cared for without feeling weak or judging ourselves as "dependent." After the fight, you need to recapitulate the events with the inclusion of these feeling.
After a fight, in non-distressed relationships, the immediate emotionally reactivity dies down. (The problem in distressed relationships is that it never quite dies down.) When it does die down, if you have a secure base in a relationship, then is the time to talk about fears and attachment concerns.
This creates the opportunity for real closeness. As in: "when I heard you saying that you wanted to go away with your friends for a golfing vacation, I just got scared all to hell. You're saying that you don't need to be with me as much as I need to be with you. I get totally terrified if I think I'm hearing that."
If I have a secure base, I'm much more likely to allow myself to access the feeling that I'm afraid. I'm much more likely to tell my partner I'm afraid. Hopefully, my partner will actually help me with that fear. My fear level will be reduced. My partner's response will help me see myself as lovable, and that exchange also then becomes a positive intimacy experience in the history of the relationship.
This kind of sharing is what adult intimacy is all about. You and your partner find each other as human beings who need comfort, contact, and caring.