Much of the work we do in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy grew out of the psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s seminal work on attachment. Subsequent researchers and theorists have built on his work and analysed how different attachment styles affect relationships. In their book Attached, Amir Levine, MD, and Rachel S. F. Heller, MA, describe different styles of attachment and how they affect relationships.
Styles of attachment are:
Secure: People who feel securely attached are at ease with intimacy, don’t fear rejection, and are able to express love and warmth with relative ease.
Anxious: People who are anxiously attached fear that their partners may not be reliable sources of love and intimacy. Anxious partners need frequent confirmation and reassurance of value, support, and connection.
Avoidant: People with avoidant attachment styles fear attachment is a sign of dependence and seek to minimise closeness. They will try to establish that they can make it on their own with or without a partner.
Disorganised: A few people exhibit traits of both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. They may fear becoming dependent because they fear no partner will reliably provide support and intimacy.
It is obvious that some pairings or attachment styles might create more problems than others. For example, an anxious person might do well with a secure partner, as reassurance and validation would likely be in steady supply. However, an anxious person in a relationship with an avoidant person might suffer seemingly interminable torment while simultaneously causing great distress for the avoidant partner.
However, understanding one another’s attachment style can improve empathy between partners regardless of their individual attachment styles and lead to better communication about each person’s needs and how to meet them. With time and understanding, each partner can reassure the other that attachment does not necessarily mean dependence. The anxious partner may feel empowered to trust in the relationship without on-going demands for validation and recognition of intimacy, while maintaining healthy commitments and mutual validation.
The avoidant partner may also come to feel that shared intimacy is possible without losing independence or personal identity. In short, each partner can become securely attached to their partner. Of course, it is unlikely that both partners will suddenly become securely attached and forget all the past experiences that made them anxious or avoidant in the first place, but with greater understanding of the underlying emotions and relationship dynamics, each partner may view times of conflict through a different lens and be able to react with more patience and compassion for the other partner in addition to becoming more patient and compassionate to him or herself.
No couple can honestly claim to be perfectly matched and expect to never experience times of conflict, disappointment, or anxiety. Healthy couples can, however, expect to work through difficult emotions effectively, patiently, and sympathetically. Couples counselling can help couples identify their attachment styles and develop communication strategies to help work though difficulty constructively while offering mutual support. It won’t always be easy, of course, but a little effort and understanding go a long way to making a relationship mutually satisfying.