Relational attachment is one way to classify the bond or connection that we experience interpersonally. When we are securely attached to another, we have a sense of deep connection that is rooted in love and trust. Dr. Terry Hargrave, creator of Restoration Therapy, Drs. John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute, and Sue Johnson, director of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) Institute, have all founded their research-based marriage therapy programs on the concept of secure attachment. The aforementioned professionals help us to understand the importance of love and trust as the foundations for secure attachment in healthy marriage (1, 2, and 3).
Originally, the term attachment was used to describe the bond between a parent and child. In his article, Counseling Reflections on Attachment, Spirituality and Trauma, my colleague Kyle Ferlic discusses the following in regard to attachments in childhood:
Attachment, as originally proposed by British psychologist John Bowlby,
is a term that defines how we relationally bond with our parents or care-
givers (1). Bowlby and his colleagues learned the importance of this by
studying mother-infant interactions. His propositions grew in popularity
with the invention of neural scans, showcasing that brain development is
majorly impacted by the consistency, care, and timeliness of parents (2).
Secure attachment occurs when our parents show warmth, affection, kind-
ness, and commitment by responding to children’s needs in a reasonable
time. Insecure attachment happens when our caregivers fail to do this,
which can lead children to develop a temperament of dysregulation, detach-
ment, avoidance, and overall distress. Attachment may be one of the most
common ideas that come up in my therapy sessions, as it impacts how clients
view their own needs, others’ trustworthiness, and the world’s predictability
(from a general standpoint) (4).
Sue Johnson, founder of EFT, is a pioneer of the concept that the same pattern of emotional attachment Bowlby observed between a parent and child is also the way that humans bond in committed and meaningful romantic relationships (3). As we consider this, we can see that there are three primary attachments in life; in a perfect scenario, the attachments ensue in the following order: 1) mother 2) father 3) spouse. The bonding with mother begins in the womb and continues as the primary bond for the first months of life. Father comes on the scene as a primary attachment somewhere in the first and second year of life (5). The spouse becomes a part of this primary bonding experience during courtship and romance when a strong commitment to the love relationship is made. Many other relationships in our lives are important, but these three are the main attachments that create a foundational sense of security. When we are secure in these three relationships, we have a sense of feeling confident in ourselves and have the ability to go explore our world with bravery, creativity and clarity (3).
There are four types of attachment: secure, distracted, dismissive and disorganized. Secure attachment means that I have a strong sense that someone will be there for me when I need them. When I am secure in a relationship, I can rest and be myself. Distracted attachment means that sometimes my person is there for me and other times they are not. Since I’m not sure, I am anxiously hoping for that person to be there for me and this often comes across needy and dependent. Dismissive attachment is when no one is there for me emotionally so I learn to find my stimulation in life through things, experiences, and/or substances instead of people. Dismissive people shut off emotion and at times appear to be emotionless (until they explode in anger). Disorganized attachment has to do with “my person” being both a source of tenderness and pain to me. It is very confusing to have a parent or a spouse who is nice sometimes and abusive at other times. Attachment pain is the worst pain the brain knows, and disorganized attachment is the most painful type of attachment pain (5).
In marriage, the goal is to have a secure attachment. Sue Johnson says that when a couple has secure attachment, it provides the following for each individual:
- A safe haven/warm nest/home base
- A positive sense of self
- Courage to explore the world
- Knowledge that someone has my back
- Confidence and independence (3)
So, if we know that our spouse is truly there for us in a secure way, then we have the courage we need to go out into our world and explore. There is a sense of a secure, home base (or safe haven/warm nest) to come home to relationally that gives us the confidence that we need to be independent and reach our fullest potential in life. When we don’t have this, it feels like we have nowhere to land and no place to call home or feel safe; for anyone in a long-term/marital relationship, that is a very sad and lonely existence.
Developing a Secure Attachment in Marriage
Oftentimes, we consider our parents to play the most important roles in our emotional development, but the spousal relationship can serve a vital role as well. When we’ve had strong, healthy bonds with our parents, we have a model of how to love well in the marital relationship. When the bond with our parents was/is insecure, we look for the marital relationship to help us fill in those gaps so that our hearts can heal. You can find out more about this concept of healing childhood wounds in my 2021 blog series on Healing the Child Within Part 1, 2 and 3.
A secure attachment in marriage can be established by starting out from a healthy place or by making intentional corrections along the way. When a healthy marriage has been modeled and each individual understands what it takes to have a healthy connection, the bond can come fairly easily. Sometimes, individuals have seen and experienced unhealthy connections, and because of that pain, they seek out help through therapy or other interventions in order to learn how to connect to their spouse more effectively. Lastly, there are others who haven’t seen secure attachment modeled and don’t understand what it takes to have a healthy, connected relationship…they also don’t make the effort to learn. It is in these marriages that we find the most pain.
In order to develop secure attachment, each individual must heal and grow personally so that they have a strong sense of self to offer in a relationship. When we love ourselves and understand our intrinsic value, we can reach out with love and be a secure home base for another. When both individuals are doing this work, there is a synergy that is created that gives way to a strong and secure attachment that will grow across the span of the relationship. This is a beautiful thing!
Marriage is a Reparenting Experience for Those Who Suffered from Developmental Trauma and Insecure Attachment with Their Own Parents.
Another beautiful aspect of the marital bond is that it can serve to heal the heart of a wounded soul. So many of us are wounded from our childhood experience and in need of a safe place to heal. A healthy marriage is a perfect opportunity for this healing to take place. If a couple is able to have healthy individuation (self-reliance) matched with grace and kindness for faults and weaknesses, this dynamic presents a space for deep healing in the places of the heart that feel abandoned, abused, or betrayed. Couples who do this work are creating a space of significant hope that will restore even the most wounded heart. The process of healing from insecure attachment is called “earning” secure attachment. Dr. Dan Siegel, founder of Interpersonal Neurobiology (an interdisciplinary framework associated with human development and functioning) speaks of the concept of earned secure attachment as a redemptive experience that takes place when an adult is “reparented” in a relationship that provides security and builds confidence so that the inner child is healed (6). Adults who did not receive secure attachment in childhood can be strategic in their marriage to position themselves to “earn” security that will heal their heart so that they can live more whole, fully alive, and engaged with the world.
Strengthening Attachment Through Brain Relational Skills
The Life Model is a model of healthy development from conception through death. This model offers a conceptualization of 19 brain relational skills that, when learned and practiced, will serve to form a strong, impenetrable foundation for secure attachment in relationships. Any marital relationship that spends time learning and practicing these skills will benefit greatly in this investment in the relationship. There are several Life Model books that give in depth information in regard to these skills:
- Transforming Fellowship (Chris Coursey)
- The Four Habits of a Joy Filled Marriage (Marcus Warner & Chris Coursey)
- Joy Starts Here (Dr. Jim Wilder, Ed Khouri, Chris Coursey & Sheila Sutton)
- Joy Streams podcasts (https://joystream.lifemodelworks.org)
- Thrive training (https://thrivetoday.org)
The therapists at the Center for Family Transformation are all trained in the Life Model brain relational skills. All of our therapists are willing and able to offer education and opportunities to practice these skills. We also offer customized marriage intensives and a Marriage Attachment Healing Conference for couples who wish to begin learning and practicing the skills in a more intensive format. You can contact us through our website (www.familytransformation.com) or by phone at 704-237-4042. Find out more about our upcoming Marriage Attachment Healing Conference (February 11 and 12, 2022) here.
Also, be sure to watch for my next blog post in this series entitled The Marital Bond, Part 2: Healing Attachment Injuries in Marriage.
- Hargrave, Terry. (2022, Jan.). Restoration Therapy Training. Retrieved from: https://www.restorationtherapytraining.com
- Gottman, Drs. John and Julie. (2022, Jan.). The Gottman Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.gottman.com
- Johnson, Sue. (2022, Jan.). Emotionally Focused Therapy. Retrieved from: https://drsuejohnson.com
- Ferlic, Kyle. Counseling Reflections on Attachment, Spirituality and Trauma.https://www.familytransformation.com/2020/12/20/counseling-reflections-on-attachment-spirituality-and-trauma/
- Coursey, C. M. (2016). Transforming Fellowship: 19 Brain Skills That Build Joyful Community. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
- PsychAlive. (2022, Jan.). What is Your Attachment Style? https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/