Fostering Secure Attachment in Your Relationships

By Paige Sutula, MA, MFT-C

Attachment styles can be a helpful tool to discover how you show up as a romantic partner. These styles are formed in childhood and center around how we learn to ask for and receive comfort and connection. As adults, we often find ourselves in relationships with people who have different attachment styles than us. This can create conflict and confusion in our relationships, as we tend to respond differently when tension arises. Ultimately, the goal is to create a securely attached relationship. But what does that really mean? And how do we get there? First, let’s look at the different attachment styles to see which style you identify most with. 

Anxious attachment can manifest as an intense desire for closeness paired with a fear of abandonment. Those with an anxious attachment style often seek reassurance and validation, to help calm the underlying fear and anxiety surrounding the future of their relationships. People with anxious attachment styles can feel overwhelmed with the thought of missing potential clues or signs that their partner is questioning the relationship or doesn’t care as much about them. This can lead to behaviors such as the desire to spend every second they can with their partner, seeking constant reassurance that their partner loves them, and experiencing emotional ups and downs. In romantic relationships, people with anxious attachment styles seek closeness as the solution to conflict. 

Avoidant attachment can manifest as the hesitancy to fully engage in emotional intimacy. People with avoidant attachment styles tend to prioritize independence and require “alone time” to be able to fully process and reflect upon their emotional experience. In romantic relationships, people with avoidant attachment styles often pull away when they feel they are getting too close to their partner. This can be a form of self-protection against getting too close and being rejected or hurt. This attachment style can lead to challenges in forming and sustaining close bonds with partners, as the fear of dependence and intimacy can be overwhelming. When conflict arises, people with avoidant attachment styles tend to withdraw and emotionally disengage. They seek distance and space as the solution to conflict.  

Disorganized attachment is a complex and often challenging pattern where people exhibit inconsistent and unpredictable behaviors in relationships. Stemming from experiences of unresolved trauma or inconsistency from caregivers in childhood, people with a disorganized attachment style may display a mix of anxious and avoidant behaviors. This can manifest as contradictory responses in stressful situations, as people struggle to identify how to ask for comfort or safety. People with disorganized attachment often seek closeness in their relationships and then suddenly pull away and withdraw when the closeness is given. They struggle to identify what they need most in moments of conflict. 

Secure attachment manifests as a strong emotional bond characterized by trust, open communication, and a sense of safety with one’s partner. Individuals with a secure attachment style feel comfortable expressing their needs and emotions while also being responsive to their partner. They are supportive during times of distress, creating a stable and nurturing environment. People who are securely attached can be flexible within their relationships. They can hold an understanding that their partner may respond differently, or have a unique perspective on the situation without attaching fear and doom that the relationship is on thin ice. They feel confident in navigating the complexities of life and relationships, knowing that they have a secure base to come back home to.

Once you identify which attachment style you most align with, we can begin to work towards fostering secure attachment within your relationship. But how exactly do we move towards secure attachment? Below are a few tips to begin your journey. Remember, building secure attachment requires time, patience, and mutual effort from you and your partner.

  1. ARE Acronym We can work to create a safe environment where communication is open, and we know our partner will be there to listen to us without avoidance or explosiveness. The main question we want to know in relationships is ARE you going to be there for me? Are you going to be Accessible when I need to share something with you? Will you be Responsive in a way where I feel heard and appreciated? Are you going to Engage in a meaningful conversation with me? This acronym can be a great place to start when trying to cultivate secure attachment. 
  2. Intentional TimeWe can spend hours with our partners without really feeling connected. Try to schedule one hour a few times a week where you both can dedicate intentional time to the relationship. This time can be spent exploring one another’s hobbies, trying a new local restaurant, or playing a game together. The Gottman’s have a free app called “The Love Deck” that has tons of questions that provoke meaningful conversations. These questions span from exploring your shared values, to discovering creative ways to build intimacy. The goal here is to intentionally build upon the foundation of your relationship through shared experiences or conversations.
  3. Weekly Check-Ins

In our work life, we often have built-in meetings to discuss the progress of current projects and check in on the state of the company. This can be done in relationships too! Find a consistent time to meet for a weekly check-in, where you can celebrate the good moments over the past week, as well as provide feedback for one another. Take the time to share with your partner the things that you appreciate about them, while also being open to hearing feedback to strengthen the bond within your relationship. By having a built-in time to check in with one another, we don’t have to worry or create stories in our heads about all of the things that could go wrong. 

Ultimately, having a securely attached relationship will look different for everyone. The goal is to find a balance where each partner’s needs are met, and compromises are made to create an environment that feels safe and connected. Even in the most secure of relationships, we can still slip back into old patterns of engaging in avoidant or anxious behaviors. Sometimes our attachment tendencies can even change or show up differently depending on the relationship we are in. If you are feeling stuck or unsure of how to move out of these patterns, therapy can be a wonderful place to understand the barriers that exist and work towards building a foundation of trust, connection, and security with your loved ones.

Resources 

The Attachment Theory Workbook by Annie Chen, LMFT

Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson

Gottman Love Deck Free App

References 

Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (Eft) with individuals, couples, and families. The Guilford Press.

Johnson, S. (2011). Hold me tight: Your guide to the most successful approach to building loving relationships. Piatkus.

Johnson, S. M. (2020). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection (3rd ed.). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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