Secure Attachment for Couples: Think Like Anchors
Want a healthy, thriving relationship? Understanding attachment styles can get you there.
Most partners want to share their lives with someone they can trust and feel secure with. What does it mean to be securely attached to your partner?
What Is Secure Attachment?
The concept of secure attachment can be traced to British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. The search for comfort or security is an inborn need that begins at birth, according to Bowlby. Infants depend upon caregivers to protect them from danger and enable them to thrive physically, mentally, and emotionally. This model has extended to the science of intimate relationships.
Three Attachment Styles
Dr. Stan Tatkin, Psychologist and author of Wired for Love by Dr. Stan Tatkin,counsels couples to help them develop a secure relationship.
He describes three types of attachment styles:
Those with an Island-ish or Wave-ish style have elements of insecurity in their attachment. Waves tend to be anxiously attached, wanting attention and closeness, but frequently stiffening and reacting angrily when it is offered. Island partners tend to avoid closeness, need lots of alone time, and may have negative reactions to touch.
Securely attached individuals are referred to as Anchors. They tend to be collaborative, balance alone time with partner time, and believe in mutuality and fairness in the relationship. (Read more about these attachment styles here).
Insecure Attachment in Childhood Carries Into Adulthood
Many children grow up without secure care from a primary parent or caregiver. These early experiences of unreliable parenting can carry over into adulthood and can cause problems in relationships. Early beliefs that a caregiver will not consistently be there when needed (Wave) or is not interested (Island) are at the root of insecure attachment styles.
Secure Attachment for Couples
Adults tend to choose partners who provide a familiar emotional environment. As a result, couple therapists often see pairs from an insecure attachment base:
- Wave + Wave
- Island + Island
- Wave + Island
Couples in secure relationships are comfortable with proximity-seeking and proximity-maintaining. In an Anchor-like fashion, they search for closeness and create periods of physical and emotional intimacy with their partner. Once together, they can maintain this close stance for sustained periods of time as they don’t fear being overwhelmed by their partner. And when secure partners reunite after being away, they often express a true smile, with eyes showing delight and their face radiating joy.
Characteristics of Secure Functioning Relationships
The secure couple is collaborative. Important decisions are made together. Partners bring their concerns and ideas to one another first before talking outside the relationship.
The opposite of collaboration is when partners act as free agents, where decisions are made separately and then announced to the other partner.
The secure couple values mutuality. A secure partner is cooperative and counts on cooperation in return. Partners work out the details of how they will manage their relationship and put each other first. In secure relationships, any actions taken must pass a test so that each partner can say “It’s good for me, good for my partner, and good for our relationship.”
Secure couples feel free to express themselves. Secure partners don’t keep secrets from one another. They are open and truthful about their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. They trust their partner will be curious, understanding and will have their back.
They use interactive communication skills. When one partner is upset, the other partner attends to them.
Partners put down their phones, avoid interruptions, and face one another with a soft eye gaze when they discuss sensitive topics. They value what their partner says, and they listen attentively. Often, they will touch their partner in a supportive way by holding hands, rubbing their partner’s back, or entwining arms.
Secure couples handle conflict without threats. These partners know how to reassure one another and to calm each other down when a conversation begins to ramp up into an argument. They do not harm the relationship with name-calling, bullying, threatening to leave, or physical abuse. Partners in secure relationships make quick repairs when they say or do something that hurts their partner. They are not afraid to say, “I’m sorry.” (Also read “4 Favors People With Low Self-Esteem Want You To Do For Them”)
Inside Secure Relationships, You Are Not Alone
The world is a complex place with many challenges. When you have a partner and feel secure attachment in your relationship, you recognize that you aren’t alone—you are part of a team that advocates for one another and faces difficulties together. You know what it means to lean on your partner and have them lean on you. You can address one another’s worries and soothe each other’s nervous systems. It is a partnership of equals.
Being collaborative underscores the value of two heads being better than one. You have more resources to throw at problems when there are two of you who value and preserve the relationship. Within this realm, you become a power couple, able to do more and achieve more in life than couples who become mired in conflict and self-interest.
The great news is that couples can learn to be secure functioning. PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy), an attachment-based couples therapy, employs major advances in psychology and neuroscience to the challenge of repairing and maintaining relationships, with a goal of making the relationship secure for both partners.
Couples interested in learning secure functioning can work with a PACT couple therapist, attend a PACT couples retreat or read We Do by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, a helpful guide with exercises on how to develop a relationship based on trust and true partnership.
If you have an opportunity to share life with a partner who loves you and has your back, why not take a risk and say yes? You can then reap the bounty that comes to couples who navigate life together with security.
Keep reading about secure attachment styles here.