Poets, songwriters, and storytellers have long celebrated, questioned, and agonized over love. More recently scientists have begun to study love. These scientists have been making amazing discoveries that can help us stay married through all the different stages of our lives. They have discovered the foundational importance of “secure attachment.”
It’s All about Attachment
The idea that a safe, secure, nurturing attachment is important first occurred to scientists about 50 years ago. Shortly after World War II, Dr. John Bowlby noticed that hospitalized children who were prevented from seeing their parents for extended periods of time failed to thrive. Children really can’t stand to be alone.
But it isn’t just children who can’t stand to be alone. Neither can adults—which is the reason why solitary confinement in prisons is such a terrible punishment. Scripture proclaims this insight as early as Genesis 2, where God declares that it isn’t good for Adam—and by extension, any human—to be alone. It turns out that, when it comes to marriage, secure attachment is more important than common interests, great communication skills, fair fighting, and the ability to be self-sufficient.
Think of it this way. Underlying every marital exchange and every marital challenge is some version of the basic question “Are you there for me?” Sue Johnson, in her book about adult love and attachment (see sidebar), lists these versions of that basic question:
Do I matter to you?
Do you approve of me?
Do you have my back?
Will you come when I call?
When spouses behave in ways that sound like “yes” to these core questions, they stand shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, and better tolerate the stresses of life, including the inevitable challenges that being in a relationship brings. But when the answer sounds more like “no,” unease, uncertainty, and suspicion set in.
The rugged individualism of the Marlboro Man and the solitary power of the Virginia Slims women (remember them?) are actually bad for our health, longevity, self-esteem, and, yes, even our earning potential. Adults in nurturing and emotionally responsive relationships with other adults are happier, healthier, live longer, have less depression and anxiety, recover from heart attacks faster, have shorter hospital stays, and even, on average, make more money. It’s important to note here that marriage is not the only place where such relationships are formed. Singles, widows, widowers, or divorced folks can also enjoy lives that are happy and fulfilling. These folks have built secure attachments in community with others, including their family, their friends, and their church.
Brain Science Supports the Need for Attachment
Contemporary scientists are finding corrobating evidence for every person’s need for attachment. In one study, Virginia researcher Jim Coan put women inside an MRI machine and explained that they would receive small electric shocks. He asked the women to rate their pain, and he also measured their pain objectively by watching the women’s brains in the MRI machine. Women who were alone when they were shocked reported more pain than those whose hands were being held by strangers, and their brains registered more pain than those women. The women who experienced the least amount of pain, by far, were those whose hands were being held by a beloved partner. A secure attachment gives people the emotional stamina they need to face bigger challenges.
Similar studies by neuroscientists have discovered that emotional rejection—the opposite of secure attachment—and physical pain are coded identically in the brain. In other words, the pain of rejection is not a metaphor. People really feel it.
The bottom line is that the kind of love that will last for a lifetime, from early marriage through the parenting years, empty nesting, and beyond, is love rooted in secure attachment. It isn’t that good conflict resolution skills and frequent, great sex don’t matter at all. It’s just that love in each of these phases of marriage is rooted in secure attachment: a deeply felt emotional bond of safety and security with another person—your safe haven, your immoveable rock in the changing river of time.
When Couples Lose Sight of Attachment
Of course, even securely attached couples mess up from time to time. Misses are inevitable. No one can be emotionally responsive and accessible all the time. The real trouble begins, however, when we fail to realize that the emotional core of many of our conflicts are not so much about the presenting issue—the dishes or finances or whatever. The core of the conflict is really about that emotional disconnect.
As the Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarette ads suggest, our culture teaches us to prize independence. By implication, we may feel ashamed of vulnerability and our need for emotional connection with a significant other. So when couples argue about finances or sex or who does what in the house, it is counterintuitive to think that the real issue might be something deeper and more profound.
Marital conflicts are often, at root, about some form of attachment distress. They are a result of emotional distance. Spouses are really asking, “Can I count on you?” “Will you rely on me?” Understanding that helps couples be curious about how it is that they might, often inadvertently, be causing emotional insecurity in the other.
Refocus on Attachment
The operative word here is inadvertent. Couples who are securely attached understand and sense deeply that fights or distance are about loneliness and vulnerability, not about intentional slights or misses. Securely attached couples are not perfect, of course, and sometimes they too get lost for a time in surface arguments. But eventually they get to the level of tending to each other’s core fears of abandonment and disapproval—fears that haunt all of us on a deeply spiritual level.
The God of Attachment
The Christian faith is big on attachment. In the beginning, Adam’s complaint of isolation and loneliness turned to attachment joy when he exclaimed, “Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.”
Jesus’ agonized words from the cross were a cry of the most profound attachment distress the world has ever heard: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God could not let that cry go unanswered; three days later God repaired the attachment by raising Jesus up from death. There is even a sense in which the unity of the three persons of the Trinity—a unity so profound that we speak of one God—is a model for human attachment. We are, after all, God’s image bearers.
When just-married couples strive to emulate that God-like attachment, they can look forward to staying married a long time. And when those who’ve already been married through retirement and beyond tell their friends and grandchildren what actually kept them married that long, they will echo themes of emotional safety and security—stories of secure attachment.
Canadian Sue Johnson has written a very accessible book for couples about the attachment approach to adult love relationships called Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. You can read an excerpt at www.holdmetight.net.
Archibald Hart and Sharon Hart Morris are Christian authors who have written about marriage from an attachment perspective. Their book is Safe Haven Marriage: Building a Relationship You Want to Come Home To.
Want to hear Professor Jim Coan talk about his research with women in MRI machines? Go to YouTube and search for “Jim Coan.” Googling “physical pain and emotional rejection” will pull up numerous articles reporting on this research.
Mike and Linda’s Story
Mike and Linda have been married for 10 years. Mike balances work deadlines and kids’ soccer games. Linda juggles a full-time job, parenting responsibilities, and a passion for community theater. Lately they’ve been arguing a lot. After the arguments, silence and sadness set in for both of them.
Until recently, relationship books and most marriage counselors would have taught Mike and Linda to fight fair, plan date nights, and seek out common interests. These approaches suggest that fixing relationships is a matter of getting the technique of marriage right. And it is not as if technique doesn’t matter at all. But these days, marriage therapists are more likely to help Mike and Linda look at their attachment needs and longings. Here’s how that works.
Mike often comes home from work tired and grouchy. Underneath his fatigue and grouchiness, Mike is worried that he can’t do it all. He wonders how good a husband and father he really is. Mike needs reassurance. Reassurance is an attachment need.
But Mike doesn’t ask for reassurance. Like many of us, Mike has been taught that attachment needs are a sign of weakness. So instead he becomes quiet. To Linda, Mike seems distant and uninterested in her. She tries to snap him out of it by snapping at him. It is a moment of disconnection.
Moments of disconnection happen in every relationship. What happens next can make all the difference in the world for Mike and Linda’s relationship. If they can stop the withdrawing and snapping, and instead take a moment to reach out tenderly to the other with a touch, a look, or a word that conveys something like, “Hey, let’s stop this negativity. We’re here for each other, remember?” they’re on the way to repair and reconnection.
These days, though, Mike responds to Linda with defensiveness and anger—and Linda’s snappiness of late is indeed something to avoid! Feelings of rejection and panic set in. Losing connection like this endangers Mike’s sense of security and safety. He further retreats into himself and into his laptop. Linda responds by spinning out a negative interpretation in her head: “He always comes home out of sorts. What’s the matter with him, anyway? He’s just a miserable man to be around.” She snaps again. Underneath her snappiness and anger Linda also is feeling lonely. Mike does shut her out with his fatigued face and laptop.
If Mike were in an MRI machine while having these feelings, the amygdala, the part of his brain highly sensitive to threat, would light up in a nanosecond. So would Linda’s. Both feel threatened. The trouble is, a brain with a highly charged amgydala doesn’t take the time to think; it just reacts. And it reacts in one of only two ways: by running from danger, leaving it far behind, or by fighting it into submission, thus taming the danger.
Mike and Linda are triggering each other. Mike’s dismissiveness or defensiveness suggests to to Linda that her feelings don’t really matter. Mattering is an attachment need. So, Linda, who yearns to matter to Mike, insists that yes, it does matter that Mike is so distant and grouchy. To Mike, she looks dangerous. Since his need for safety is not being honored in that moment, he protects himself by minimizing—running from—her concerns. Mike perceives that his laptop is safer than Linda. Both Mike and Linda end up feeling lonely and isolated and unhappy. And lately this negative pattern has become so entrenched in Mike and Linda’s relationship that even little concerns set off this damaging cycle.
When couples don’t take the time or don’t know how to repair moments of disconnection, these moments eventually take on their own momentum, and the couple is trapped in a never-ending negative cycle that unravels their attachment.
Fortunately Mike and Linda sought help. The negative cycle they were caught in when they called had been going on for quite a few years. Each was feeling very wounded and on guard. It took patience and difficult honesty for them to look at how their arguments went deeper than the surface issues. But they persevered. Today Mike and Linda still find themselves in stuck places once in a while, but they’re much better able than they used to be in slowing things down and taking the time to really connect emotionally before going on to tackle the problem of the day.