Finding Security in Relationships

What the best partners have in common.

Posted Jul 10, 2019

“The most pernicious myth about love is the image of love as a closed system between two people. For love is a prism through which one loves the whole world. Every intimacy and every sweetness of love makes the whole world different and opens one up to the world’s reality rather than protecting one from it.”  —Al Carmines

In 1968 John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, wrote the first volume of his groundbreaking book Attachment and Love. In it, he described the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Although Bowlby was primarily focused on understanding the nature of the infant-caregiver relationship, he believed that attachment characterized human experience from "the cradle to the grave."

Nearly 20 years late, in 1987, Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver did research exploring Bowlby's ideas in the context of romantic relationships. They argued that the same motivational system that gives rise to the close emotional bond between parents and their children is responsible for the bond that develops between adults in emotionally intimate relationships. They noted that the relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners share the following features.

In both cases, we:

  • Feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive.
  • Engage in close, intimate bodily contact.
  • Feel insecure when the other is inaccessible.
  • Share discoveries with one another.
  • Play with one another's facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another.
  • Engage in "baby talk."

Some people feel secure in their relationships, confident that their partners will be there for them when needed, and are open to both depending on others and having others depend on them. The kinds of things that make an attachment figure "desirable" for infants, like responsiveness and availability, are the very factors adults find desirable in romantic partners.

Those who are insecure, however, may be anxious and worry that others do not love them completely. These people are easily frustrated or angered when their attachment needs go unmet. Others may experience what is referred to as an avoidant attachment. They appear not to care too much about close relationships, preferring not to be too dependent upon other people or to have others be too dependent upon them.

In 1994 researchers Judith Feeney, Patricia Noller, and Victor Callan demonstrated that just as children who use their parents as a secure base to explore their world, the same is true for romantic partners. Secure adults seek support from their partners when stressed and also provide support to their distressed partners.

Just like the securely attached children who show that they are thriving by being well-adjusted and resilient and getting along with their peers, securely attached adults thrive and generally enjoy partnerships that are characterized by longevity, trust, commitment, and interdependence.

In her book, Hold Me Tight, the psychologist Susan Johnson speaks about the significance of secure adult attachment for thriving romantic partnerships. She eloquently describes how when we are emotionally disconnected from our partner, terror erupts and it can easily turn into conflict. When we feel insecure, we become fearful, anxious, angry, controlling or withdrawn, avoiding contact and staying distant. At the root of these emotions is the feeling that we are fighting for our lives. The need to feel safe and secure is strong and primal. Experiencing an emotional and physical connection can soothe the pain of detachment. Blaming, shutting down, and stonewalling often characterize fights that follow disconnection. These behaviors are actually cries for help and connection.

The fact is that we are emotionally attached to our partner, and dependent upon them in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection. We live in a culture that prizes independence and can treat dependence as a dirty word. But healthy adult attachment is essential in order for any partnership to thrive. A safe emotional bond is what we all yearn for. And when we don't have it, we suffer. We feel gloomy, lonely, and even filled with rage at our partner, whom we see as being responsible when we don’t experience it. The intensity of these feelings is an essential part of the built-in survival mechanism that all human beings share. Without our interpersonal bonds, we would perish, and some deep part of us knows it.

Once we become aware of what we need in order to thrive, we can get busy creating it. We can then begin to act in ways that strengthen the quality of connection in our relationship. Marriage in and of itself doesn’t automatically accomplish that. But marriage can provide a container that can hold a shared commitment to our own and each other’s inner and interpersonal security. When we can relax into the certainty of being securely attached, that ease not only permeates our relationship, but enables it to become a safe haven from which we can venture out into the world of career and connections with others. The sky’s the limit.