Attachment in Couples: Are You Getting Your Needs Met?

Melissa M. Gonzalez, Psy.D.

gonzalez_melissa2Romantic love is a dynamic state involving two fairly equal partners who have needs and capacities for attachment, care-giving, and sexual gratification. At times, each individual will feel threatened, frightened, or injured, requiring protection, comfort, and support. Healthy, secure adults usually seek to fulfill these needs with their spouse or romantic partner. However, those with insecure attachment styles respond in slightly different ways.

Anxious/preoccupied individuals (those who are high in attachment anxiety and low in avoidance) question whether or not they are worthy of love and become extremely worried about being rejected. They generally appear needy and dependent in relationships. They usually want to be extremely close, both emotionally and physically; they are especially sensitive and expressive; and they constantly seek reassurance of their partner’s love and availability as well as their own self-worth. These individuals can be excessively care-giving at times, which may be perceived as dominating. While they tend to idealize partners, they can be demanding as they never feel that their needs are fully met. Within the context of a relationship, the individual with an anxious attachment style is likely to have their attachment needs triggered frequently, often for extended periods of time. They may even feel threatened by events that might normally be considered minor or even benign. They remain highly vigilant of their partner’s level of availability and responsiveness. Yet this can strain the relationship significantly as the anxious individual becomes dissatisfied or angry about the insufficient support they receive relevant to the high demands and expectations they place on their partner. Consequently, the partners of these individuals often become irritated and demoralized by the constant calls for support and feelings that they cannot fulfill their partner’s needs.

Avoidant/dismissing individuals (those who are low in attachment anxiety, but high in avoidance) have a relatively low need for relationships and are content being self-sufficient. In relationships, they demonstrate low levels of self-disclosure, emotional closeness, and physical affection. These individuals generally do not turn to their partners for support in times of distress and also do not feel a drive toward providing support or care. These individuals may actually provide support in tangible ways, but typically not in emotional ways. Overall, they are emotionally distant and defended; they are likely to make negative attributions about their partners; and they can be critical and judgmental. Individuals with avoidant attachment styles are likely to minimize threatening feelings, preferring not to focus on them. Therefore, they usually attempt to cope with threats on their own without relying on their spouse or partner. When the avoidant individual’s partner seeks out support (either in healthy or unhealthy ways), he or she is typically seen as weak.

Fearful individuals (those who are high in attachment anxiety and high in avoidance) desire close relationships, but their fears of intimacy lead them to avoid engaging in relationships. It typically takes them a long time to enter into relationships; and, once engaged, they often have difficulty being close as they inhibit self-disclosure and hold in their emotions. These individuals are very sensitive, vulnerable, and passive. They do not seek support in their partners as they may not believe that their partners truly care about them.

Attachment security predicts greater relationship satisfaction in both men and women; and relationship quality is most strongly predicted by low attachment avoidance in men and low attachment anxiety in women. Attachment security increases relationship satisfaction in a number of ways: (1) by promoting the open expression of both positive and negative emotions, (2) through high levels of facilitative disclosure, which is self-disclosure combined with the ability to elicit disclosure from one’s partner, and (3) mutual expression and negotiation during times of conflict.

Research has shown that most people prefer a secure partner. While a secure partner can sometimes buffer the negative effects of an insecure partner, an insecure partner can sometimes erode his or her partner’s sense of security. In the former, the secure partner’s encouragement of openness and mutual expression disconfirms the insecure partner’s existing, problematic expectations. A gradual reshaping of the insecure partner’s working models can then occur, thereby making the insecure partner more secure. However, in the later, one partner’s insecurities can disturb the other partner’s security. For example, an avoidant partner can elicit anxious behaviors in a secure partner who may begin to fear loss and rejection due to the chronic emotional distancing they experience. Additionally, wives of secure husbands tend to be less rejecting and more supportive during problem-solving tasks, while husbands of secure wives listen more effectively in confiding tasks. Furthermore, relationship repair may be easier when at least one spouse is securely attached.

However, in many instances, two insecurely attached individuals come together and develop a relationship. When a couple is comprised of an anxious wife and an avoidant husband, the husband cannot provide the reassurance the wife craves and the wife cannot accept the husband’s need for emotional distance. This creates a vicious cycle of distancing and reassurance seeking. Fear of abandonment in one partner exacerbates fear of intimacy in the other partner. These pursuer-distancer cycles are then maintained in a destructive state of homeostasis. Unfortunately, this problematic pattern can be predictive of physical aggression in married couples. Couples that are comprised of two anxious individuals function especially poorly. They often engage in high levels of emotional manipulation and power assertion. Since each of them tends to feel misunderstood and unappreciated, they often become demanding and coercive. They tend to focus on their own needs at the expense of their partners’ needs. These negative cycles predict continued deterioration of the relationship; and, often times, depression and anxiety arise from relationship distress.

Trust is typically a primary issue that must be addressed in couples who are engaged in problematic patterns. Trust is easily challenged by attachment injuries, which occur when one partner violates the expectation that they will offer comfort and caring in times of distress. Attachment injuries can often be a major block to relationship repair. Small disappointments can often trigger reminders of previously unresolved injuries; and an “offending” partner may not always recognize such an injurious event, only compounding the impact. Furthermore, such injuries may make some partners more sensitive to perceived threats and slights, thereby increasing the likelihood that further attachment injuries will occur. Ultimately, the most significant relationship problems are about the security of the bond between partners and the couple’s struggle to define the relationship as a secure base and a safe haven.

If you are interested in couple’s therapy with a focus on attachment style, please contact Melissa M. Gonzalez, Psy.D. by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone: 713-621-9515, extension 403.

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Schachner, D., Shaver, P., and Mikulincer, M. (2003). Adult Attachment Theory, Psychodynamics, and Couple Relationships: An Overviewl. In Susan M. Johnson and Valerie E. Whiffen (Eds.), Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy (pp. 3-17). London and New York: The Guilford Press.

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