Understanding Attachment

Understanding Attachment

Since we have several posts on attachment, perhaps a brief explanation of secure and insecure attachment might help the reader to identify some of their own insecurities and how they affect his/her interactions.

In secure attachment the primary caregiver is tender, provides carefully paced face-to-face interactions with the baby and is sensitive to the infant’s signals for care, assistance and companionship.    The attachment figure becomes a child’s secure base from which he/she can explore the world. It is in the environment of a secure attachment when the child’s signals for help are responded to, with regularity and affection, by the caregiver, where the building blocks for security and safety are lay down. Marion Salomon in her article on Attachment Repair in Couples, states that, “The more securely connected we are,[as children] the more separate an individuated we can be.”

She goes on to describe  the securely attach individual as one that, “views himself as trustworthy, dependable and capable of loving as well as being loved…They are  better able than are insecure individuals to take emotional risks, reach out to and provide support for others, and cope with conflict and stress. Their relationships tend to be happier, more stable, and more satisfying. They can better acknowledge and communicate their needs and are less likely to be verbally aggressive or withdraw during problem solving.” (Solomon M. F., 2009).

In the marital relationship the securely attached individualis able to ask for what he needs or wants without manipulating his partner by shaming, threatening, or using guilt. He understands that the “no” of his partner is not forever, and he can therefore accept it without protest or withdrawal. Because his self-esteem is high, he does not personalize the actions of his partner and is willing to view a situation from his partner’s perspective, without feeling threatened. The securely attached individual is hopeful that his needs will be met without demanding and is confident that others will respond in helpful ways. He provides for his partner a sense of safety and security that allows freedom to feel, speak, and express needs and wants without the fear of being criticized or shamed.

Insecure attachment on the other hand, can take various forms, stemming from when the caregiver is inconsistent in her interaction with the baby, sometimes responding with touch, soothing words and care, and at other times not. The baby’s response in such cases is one of resistance or ambivalence.  These infants seem preoccupied with their mothers while expressing either anger or passivity during stress and are not comforted by the mother’s presence.  In the marital relationship this anxious behavior results in clinging, pursuit, and even aggressive attempts to obtain a response from the loved one.

Another type of insecure attachment results when the mother figure fails to respond to her baby’s cries of distress, has an aversion to physical contact, is often angry and shows little face-to-face interaction.  In stressful situations, the infant either ignores or avoids the mother since he has learned that she offers no response to his cries for help.

In adulthood, these babies will relate to significant others in their lives by dismissing them. Because the person with an avoidant attachment style learned early in life that dependency on others is futile; he/she enters the marital relationship with the mindset that his/her needs will not be met. His/her way of dealing with conflict in marriage is by withdrawing and in so doing, compounding problems within the marriage. This individual suppresses attachment needs and shuts down emotion.

When the caregiver fails to make repair in the relationship, the child, in an effort to maintain some semblance of security, safety, and connection with the caregiver, is compelled to repair the relationship by negating any emotion that might be unacceptable or upsetting to the caregiver. In such cases the child may not say what he feels or thinks, may not feel what he feels, and may not ask for what he wants.(Fosha, Attachments  as a transformative process p.258) In such cases the child’s main focus is on not “rocking the boat.”

In the marital relationship the insecurely attached individual interprets these inevitable ruptures as catastrophes and devaluing statements of him/her, rather than misunderstandings. Their anger or silent withdraw to any misconnection makes repair to the relationship difficult if not impossible. While ruptures, in any relationship, are inevitable; prolonged disconnection is extremely damaging and a source of pain for the couple.  If change within the relationship is going to take place repair of inevitable ruptures needs to be done promptly and throughly.

Review the characteristics of both styles and consider writing some of the emotions you experience when in a conflict with your spouse. Do you feel that although the conflict was not fun you resolved it successfully? Or do you experience other emotions such as anger, loneliness, sadness, frustration, disappointment, rejection, shame, abandonment, etc. if so; try to think of other times even long before marriage when you remember feeling those same emotions; then answer the following questions:

  • What is my fear, anger, etc., about?
  • When was the first time I remember feeling this way?
  • Who was there when I felt that way?
  • What did they say, or how do they look at me?
  • Is there any relationship to what I felt then and how I feel and respond now?


One key tool for helping couples to avoid the frequency or intensity of their conflict is their ability to stop blaming each other and instead question themselves. Once you realize the true cause of the problem lies in unmet childhood needs, seek to separate the past from the present.