The Role of Attachment Theory in Healthy Relationships

“Intimacy is our birthright. Unresolved attachment injuries from the past cause relationship issues in the present.”– Michael Myerscough

Attachment Theory is based on John Bowlby’s attachment research.

Born in 1907 Bowlby rebelled against the popular psychoanalytical view of the time that patients problems lay in their internal conflicts and unconscious fantasies.

Bowlby insisted people’s problems were mostly external and rooted in real relationships with real people.

Through his work Bowlby found humans have an inbuilt need to feel attached to and comforted by significant others. In adults these attachment relationships are believed to be as important for survival as nutrition and reproduction.

This is such an important point I’m going to share it with you again:

Your adult attachments are as vital for your survival as nutrition and reproduction

Bowlby’s ideas at the time were radical and rejected, so radical and so rejected they got him thrown out of the British Psychoanalytic Society. Undeterred he believed there were four behaviours essential for attachment:

  1. You monitor and maintain emotional and physical closeness with your beloved
  2. You reach out for this person when you are unsure, upset or feeling down
  3. You miss this person when you are apart
  4. You count on this person to be there for you when you go out into the world and explore

Later in his career Bowlby teamed up with a Canadian researcher called Mary Ainsworth who helped him find a way to prove his theory.

The experiment Mary shared with him was called:

The Strange Situation

You can find full details of the experiment on this page if you want to dig deeper into this subject

Here it is in a nutshell: The experiment was set up in such a way to observe the variety of attachment forms exhibited between mothers and infants. It was conducted in a small room with one-way glass so the behaviour of the infant could be observed covertly.

Infants were aged between 12 and 18 months. The sample comprised of 100 middle-class American families.

The procedure, known as the ‘Strange Situation,’ was conducted by observing the behaviour of the infant in a series of eight episodes lasting approximately 3 minutes each:

  1. Mother, baby, and experimenter (lasts less than one minute).
  2. Mother and baby alone
  3. A stranger joins the mother and infant.
  4. Mother leaves baby and stranger alone.
  5. Mother returns and stranger leaves.
  6. Mother leaves; infant left completely alone.
  7. Stranger returns.
  8. Mother returns and stranger leaves.

This experiment helped to identify three main attachment styles:

  1. Secure
  2. Insecure avoidant
  3. Insecure ambivalent/resistant

Ainsworth concluded these attachment styles were the result of early interactions with the mother.

So what’s all this baby stuff got to do with you?

Well Bowlby also studied World War II widows and discovered they showed behaviours similar to those of youngsters with attachment injuries.

Ideally your adult attachments give you:

  • Love
  • Comfort
  • Support
  • Protection

Throughout the whole of your life.

But due to your relationship history and the negative interaction cycles you can get stuck in with your partner, you might find you have difficulty with trust and expressing real emotion to the person who means the most to you.

Truth is, when most couples argue about jealousy, sex, money or whatever…

…The origins of these arguments are usually a form of protest from one partner about:

  • Not feeling connected
  • Not trusting
  • Not feeling loved
  • Not feeling safe

With the other partner.

When those you’re attached to are not available, responding to your needs to feel love, comfort, support or protection you’re likely to feel distressed and you may become anxious or fearful, numb or distant.

Over time these behaviours can become the habitual ways you react to your partner.
It’s even possible for these harmful behaviour habits to take on a life of their own becoming a negative cycle causing much pain, injury and despair to all those involved.

Therefore it’s vital you recognise and express your needs for:

  • Love
  • Comfort
  • Support
  • Protection

In healthy ways instead of disguising them with harsh words or angry actions. It was only when I started studying to become a relationship therapist that I discovered you are allowed to ask for what you want in your close relationships.

Though it’s also okay for your partner to say:



…You’re only able to do this if you feel safe and loved.

So if you’re in a relationship you no longer feel safe and loved in…

…You need to take steps to resolve this.

Bowlby believed it was emotional experiences in real relationships that shape how we deal with emotions, create our models of self and other, and how we habitually engage with loved ones.

There is a large and growing base of research to support his theory from the fields of social psychology, development and neuroscience.

Here are four of the basic principles associated to attachment theory and adult romantic bonds

  1. Human Beings Are Bonding Animals – Seeking and maintaining contact with significant others is an innate and primary motivating force in human beings at all stages of life. Despite what you might have been taught, dependency isn’t a sign of weakness or immaturity it’s an inbuilt part of being a human. Rejection and isolation are traumatising to humans and are interpreted by our nervous systems as danger signs.
  2. Emotional Responsiveness – Feeling secure in your connections with others creates a safe haven. One where you can find comfort, reassurance and support from trusted others. This is essential for developing and maintaining a healthy sense of emotional balance, especially when faced with challenges and uncertainty. Research on the predictors of success in newlyweds suggests emotional responsiveness is the best predictor of future relationship satisfaction.
  3. Constructive Dependency – Knowing you have a secure base allows you to take risks and explore the world. It makes you feel stronger. There is evidence to suggest having a safe haven and a secure base fosters resilience in the face of threat.
  4. The Importance of Emotions – Turning to others is the foundational way we regulate our own emotions… Especially fear. The core question in relationships is: Are you there for me when I need you?

You can find 9 ways to demonstrate you’re there for your partner by visiting this post I wrote: 9 Ways

If you’d like help untangling the negative cycle your relationship seems stuck in…

…If you’d like support to build the kind of relationship where you feel loved, comforted and understood by your partner…

…I can help.

To find out more, go here next