Attachment theory has emerged as a leading tool for understanding the deeper roots of the dynamics in a close relationship. Originally developed to explain attachments of children to their caregivers, this theory has been especially fruitful in couple therapy as it helps to explain how adults come to depend on one another.

Attachment is viewed as an affective connection between two individuals that provides them with a firm emotional foundation from which they can interact with the world, an imperative in close romantic relationships. Adult attachment can be conceptualized on three dimensions of; anxious attachment, avoidant attachment and secure attachment.

Anxious attachment is associated with a negative self image, an over emphasis on the approval of others and fears of rejection and abandonment.

Avoidant attachment on the other hand is characterized by a negative image of others, social withdrawal and a fear of depending too much on others. (Berry, Warden & Barrowclough, 2007).

Secure attachment is evidenced by, long-term relationships based on trust. Other key characteristics of securely attached individuals include having high self-esteem, enjoying intimate relationships, seeking out social support, and an ability to share feelings with other people.

Hollist and Biller (2005) argue that the quality of a romantic relationship depends on the type of attachment between partners. Most conflict in relationships is considered to be the result of insecurities about love and abandonment, consistent with the anxious attachment style (Hollist & Biller, 2005).

Individuals who adopt this attachment style will often experience love obsession, great desire for reciprocation and union, experience of emotional highs and lows, extreme sexual attraction and jealousy. Relational aggressive behaviour is also common in this type of attachment style.

Partners with avoidant attachment style fear intimacy and they are usually uncomfortable in getting too close to others (Hollist & Biller, 2005). Individuals with secure attachment are reported to experience marital quality and they are said to be comfortable with emotional intimacy and report higher relationship satisfaction.

The goal of the couple therapist from an attachment perspective is to help the client develop a more secure attachment with their partner (Purnel, 2004). To build a more secure relationship, couple therapists may encourage clients to:

  1. Share positive emotions and feelings about each other.
  2. Communicate more empathically
  3. Develop insight into childhood attachment experiences and how this may relate to current perspectives and reactions to their current partner
  4. Learn how to remain calm in times of conflict

Goals of Therapy

  1. Provide a secure therapeutic environment
  2. Explore the way each partner engages in the existing relationship
  3. Explore the relationship with the therapist as an example of general attachment style and pattern of relating with each partner
  4. Use of transference as a way of understanding past attachment style with significant others from childhood
  5. Review how current attachment patterns may reflect past experiences.

Source: (Purnel, 2004)