Attachment Styles and Attachment Injury in Intimate Relationships
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Many psychologists regard that a secure attachment style is key to a happy life. How we form bonds to significant others, therefore how we relate, is undoubtedly an important part of anyone's life- since we all need others around us, to different extents, in order to grow and flourish. We are, after all, social beings. Intimate relationships are often considered as the greatest arena for emotional growth. But what is attachment style, and how can we overcome potential attachment traumas, if they occur in our intimate relationships?
Attachment theory is currently one of the most promising and prominent theories about adult love relationships. Originally formulated by John Bowlby, it first concerned infants. The hypothesis is that an infant seeks proximity with a familiar caregiver when they are alarmed or distressed, expecting they will receive protection, security and emotional support.
The sort of emotional bonds we form with our primary caregivers (i.e. parents) becomes the foundation of the way we will later be able to attach to our romantic partners, in intimate adult relationships.
As beautifully described in this informative video, "we learn to love in familiar ways".
Attachment Style, as shown on the graph below, is determined by the levels of Anxiety and Avoidance one demonstrates towards intimacy and closeness to others. Put simply, the extend on which someone can easily depend on and feels anxious about significant others determines where this individual will belong in the Attachment Styles quadrant.
Individuals may either form a secure or an insecure attachment style, but insecure attachment is further divided in more categories. During early childhood, an infant may form either a secure, an anxious/resistant (also called ambivalent), anxious/avoidant, or disorganized attachment style to its primary caregiver.
In adults, the attachment style categories slightly change names, but still correspond to the originally formulated attachment styles in children: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.
Therefore, if we had a secure attachment style with our parents, chances are we will not find it extremely challenging to securely attach to and depend on romantic partners later in life; and the same applies for insecure attachment styles.
This probably sounds like jargon, so let’s delve into the attachment levels before we move on...
Securely attached adults tend to have higher self-esteem, as well as more positive views of their partners and their relationships. They feel comfortable with emotional intimacy, while they are also independent in their relationships, maintaining a good balance between the two.
Anxious-preoccupied adults require high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from their partners, often described as overly dependent or “needy” in their relationships. They may have trust issues and less positive views about themselves and their partners. They also have a tendency to show high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsivity in their relationships. They may have more favorable views of their partner than of themselves.
Dismissive-avoidant adults are characterized by high levels of independence, as if they avoid close relationships altogether. They regard themselves as self-sufficient and not needing someone else close to them. This pattern reflects a defense mechanism, where these adults distance themselves from intimacy in order to protect themselves from rejection and hurt. They may have more positive view of themselves than of their partner.
Fearful-avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, at the same time desiring intimacy and feeling uncomfortable with it. Same like dismissive-avoidant adults, fearful-avoidant adults have difficulties with emotional expression and proximity. They may have negative views of both themselves and of their partner.
Interested in finding out about your own attachment style?
There are online questionnaires available, such as this one, based on the Adult Attachment Interview, or this one, based on the ECR Scale (Experiences in Close Relationships).
While the attachment style of each individual has strong foundations in our early childhood, it is in fact a dynamic concept. For example, one may have had an overall positive childhood, but traumatic events during adolescence or adult life may have changed their attachment style later on.
Fortunately, we can learn to change our attachment style to approach attachment security, which is the optimal attachment style. This depends on our willingness to become more secure in our relationships, our personal efforts in this direction but also the partners we may come across.
However, this change can happen both ways: Negative emotional events that occur in close relationships may spur us to become less trustful and less willing to desire emotional closeness. Sometimes this event may be so intense and severe, that we are actually talking about an “attachment injury”.
An attachment injury, according to Johnson and colleagues (2001) who introduced the term, occurs when one partner violates the expectation that they will offer comfort and caring to the other in times of danger and distress. This incident can become a recurring theme and can actually block relationship repair, even if individuals enter couples therapy. Sadly, it is very likely that we’ve all been there at some point in our lives; we may have felt that our partner abandoned us or betrayed our trust during a critical moment of need.
This traumatic incident defines the relationship as insecure from then onward, and maintains distress between the two partners, because it is constantly used as a “dark standard”, a point of reference, for the (lack of) dependability of the offending partner.
In other words, when we experience these attachment traumas, if the relationship does not immediately break up, no matter how much we may be willing to restore the balance and move on, this process may be extremely hard to achieve, in order for us to restore the sense of trust in our partner.
These attachment injuries tend to reemerge, much alike traumatic flashbacks, and this experience is emotionally intense, even overwhelming, to the individual. The injured partner ruminates excessively about the traumatic event, seemingly unable to “get out of that dark place”. Only too often, the damage may be irreparable without a psychotherapeutic intervention.
But why is it so difficult then?
Especially when both partners, after such an incident, are consciously aware that they do want to try and mend the broken parts of the relationship, put the pieces back together with the glue of trust- yet it just doesn’t happen.
There are two occasions: One, the offending partner fails to establish a reassuring and reparative response towards the hurt partner. This means that, despite the promises that one “will try their best to make things better”, this effort doesn’t actually take place- or it does, but it is considered "not enough" by the hurt partner. Perhaps the offending partner just continues to live life as if nothing happened, in a “back-to-normal” approach. Obviously, this is not enough; the hurt partner usually expects to see a conscious effort of improvement and change.
The second reason why these attempts to fix a wound within a relationship may fail, is that the hurt partner may be unable to accept the reassuring actions from the side of the offending partner. The trust wounds that have occurred don’t allow the hurt partner to even recognize that the offending one does actually make an effort! It may feel as if the two partners communicate on different wavelengths, speak a different language, and the message of their respective needs can not go through to the other.
In other words, the expectations of the one who is hurt may now be so high, that “nothing is enough” in order to prove to him/her that now things are different and thus should feel safe in the relationship again. Both occasions may sound familiar to most of us, yet perhaps the way that we can get out of this downward spiral may look difficult, if not impossible…
These failed attempts to repair the damage may in turn create distance and alienation between the two partners, who seem unable to repair the previously more secure emotional bond. At this point, it is significant to emphasize that the concept of attachment injury does not place so much focus on the content of the specific painful incident, but on the attachment significance of this event. For example, whereas infidelity between couples may be considered as an attachment injury, not all infidelity events are experienced as such.
Happily, these wounds can be healed; the attachment injury can be resolved. Couples therapy places a special focus on the recovery from attachment injury, and there are special steps to be taken towards resolution of the trauma.
In order for recovery to take place, the relationship must be perceived as a “safe haven” by both partners again. The most essential -and probably most difficult- step towards recovery is forgiveness; however this has to be an in-depth, conscious forgiveness, where the injured partner fully understands and empathizes with the offending partner before being able to forgive them completely.
If you find yourself in the shoes of the offending partner, and would like to do your best to restore the relationship into its previous quality, then it is necessary to acknowledge responsibility for the attachment injury, while showing empathy and understanding towards the injured partner and becoming more emotionally engaged with him/her.
Subsequently, both partners take an active risk in reengaging into the relationship: the injured partner takes the risk to ask for comfort and caring, while the offending partner actually risks by becoming vulnerable and accepting responsibility for the traumatic event. It takes conscious effort and many small steps, but in the end it is definitely possible to redefine a wounded relationship into a secure, supportive and reconstructed one, built on trust, where love can flourish.
Many people claim that they are not afraid of commitment, but they do not want to open up and get hurt again. This actually means they are afraid of commitment! As discussed above, in the cases of attachment injury both partners take an active risk to reengage in attachment. Is it possible to come closer without risk? Unfortunately, the answer to this is a flat “no”.
There is no intimacy without vulnerability, and no vulnerability without risk. Trust, that is a necessary component of every intimate relationship, by default entails the possibility and openness to be wounded by the other person. No-one can ever guarantee that this will not happen again, if you’ve been hurt before. However, this should not stop you from allowing yourself to heal!
***Interested in reading more about resolving conflict with your romantic partner?
The book Hold me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson is a great read in this direction!
If you have suffered or caused an attachment injury in your intimate relationship, know that is is possible to heal. I am here to offer support if you'd like to process it further through therapy. You can contact me here.
Johnson, S. M., Makinen, J.A., & Millikin, J.W. (2001). Attachment injuries in couple relationships: A new perspective on impasses in couples therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 27 (2), 145-155.
Makinen, J.A. & Johnson, S.M. (2006). Resolving attachment injury in couples using Emotionally Focused Therapy: Steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1055-1064.