We don’t tend to think about attachment in adult relationships, yet it is equally important as attachment in children. Attachment is a bit different in adult relationships in that it is reciprocal. A parent doesn’t expect their child to reciprocate a sense of safety, but a partner definitely looks for that reciprocity (even if they are not aware of it). Adults also need to feel that a relationship offers safety and security in order to be able to have a richer, articulated, coherent and positive sense of self and other. Another difference in adult relationships is the fact that there is a sexual component. Here too we see that the need for safety and security determines just how comfortable the sexual relationship is between partners. “No safety, no sex” is a common refrain within adult relationships.
At the very heart of a marriage is the question “Are you there for me?” Can I count on you to be physically there if I am in need, can I count on you to be there for me if I am in need emotionally? Can I count on you to acknowledge my need for safety and security in our relationship so that I can feel free to show my true Self? Can this safety allow me to explore the world and find my place in it? In relationships each partner’s accessibility and responsiveness to the other’s emotional cues determines whether there is a sense of a secure base from which to move.
Distressed relationships lack this sense of safety and secure attachment. Isolation, separation, or disconnection from an attachment figure (whether it’s a parent or spouse) is inherently traumatizing. Emotional disconnection leads people to become immersed in fear and insecurity. The brain reads as “dangerous” the actions of the partner and because of our hardwiring to survive we adopt a stance of fight, flight, or freeze.
Each behavior elicits a reaction from a partner in a reciprocal feedback loop. Round and round it goes miring a couple in a negative cycle that can lead to a breakdown of the bonds between spouses. The more distress and hopelessness there is in the relationship, the more automatic, rigid, and self-reinforcing the emotional and behavioral responses between partners.
Couples get caught in a negative feedback loop of reactive behaviors and misperceptions. Each time a partner fails to respond in a time of great need, a sense of panic and insecurity grows until over time a couple can become caught in a cycle of attack and defend. These cycles are fueled by anger, sadness, longing, shame and fear.
Securely attached partners cannot go as deeply into a negative cycle and can effectively exit from whatever cycle they get caught in. These couples can express exactly what it was that upset them or triggered them. Partners can regulate their emotional distress upon separation and can send clear, assertive signals of their needs when reunited. Securely attached couples can trust and accept comfort and reassurance from each other. Moments that are defined as unsafe or insecure can be identified and responded to. Couples can reflect on their experience and create integrated, consistent narratives about their relationship.
In short, in securely attached couples there is an ability to discuss a perceived breach of connection without causing a negative attack/withdraw cycle to begin. Couples tend to have more open and direct communication and also tend to disclose more of themselves to their partner. There is more attunement to the others needs and a deeper sense of empathic support for the partner. Communication is both respectful and collaborative. This is in fact “effective dependence”, an ability to feel connected to another person yet be confident in being autonomous.