Love is one of the most powerful feelings experienced by humans. Much has been said and written about love in the literature, movies, and pop culture. In more recent decades, a huge body of research on love and romantic relationships has been developed within psychology. One of the most interesting findings has suggested that romantic partners develop between them a strong emotional connection similar to the one between children and parents. This finding is important because it sheds light on the nature of love in adulthood and why/how couples establish a deep and strong emotional connection, and also what happens when this connection is threatened. In order to understand this emotional connection, we need to know more about the bond/attachment established between a child and a parent - called attachment theory.
So, what is attachment theory?
Bowlby was the first one that developed a theory to explain how children connect emotionally to their primary caregiver; suggesting that such connection was a primal human need as necessary for survival as food. The quality of the bond/attachment between parent and child is one that serves as a model for future relationships with significant others. When the bond is stable and consistent, it is said to be a secure attachment. Contrary, when the bond is unstable and confusing, it is said to be an insecure attachment, which can be divided into anxious and avoidant attachments. Even the insecure models can be refreshed and updated throughout one's life and have potential to develop into secure bonds with close people (i.e., partner, friend, adoptive parent).
How do we develop a safe attachment bond?
The quality of the attachment bond with a parent is influenced by how responsive and sensitive s/he is to the child's needs, especially in stressful situations. When children are distressed and communicate it to their parent, and the parent responds in a calm and comforting way, children learn that they can rely on the parent. Through this experience, children also learn to accept and deal with their own emotions, especially negative ones. Because they feel sure about their parents' support, children can risk to explore their surroundings without fear of "losing" the parents for they know they can count on them. This feeling of certainty regarding the parent's affection is the basis of secure attachment. In contrast, if in times of need, children ask but do not receive the soothing needed from their parent, they become even more distressed dealing with such distress by either becoming angry and desperate (anxious attachment) or keeping distance and not engaging with the parent (avoidant attachment).
What is the link between childhood attachment and adult love relationships?
Many studies demonstrate that couples who are happily together enjoy better physical and emotional health, and are more able to pursue successful professional lives. This is particular true because couples who are more satisfied tend to have a secure attachment to each other. This means that partners are able to communicate in a non-reactive way, which, in turn, leads their partner to respond in a soothing, supportive manner. In contrast, in unhappy relationships, when a partner becomes stressed (i.e., due to stress at work, being a new parent, moving to a new country, etc.) and perceives the other as not being supportive or when the other is not able to be supportive (i.e., overworked, suffering from depression or simply missing the cue for connection), similarly to what happens with distressed children, lovers react in two predictable ways: becoming angry or critical, or withdrawing and distancing themselves. Because these responses create a sense of vulnerability, of not being "safe" in the relationship, partners might develop an insecure bond between them. Often, this insecure bond takes the form of a vicious cycle that couples find themselves stuck in. Discussions tend to quickly lead to an argument, which escalates fast and does not lead to any sort of problem-solving. Paradoxically, this cycle is just an unworkable way the couple unwittingly co-creates but of which they are also victims. Once the cycle is triggered, partners seem to lose the ability to stop it amicably.
How is this knowledge relevant for couples especially couples going through tough times?
First, it helps to know that the vicious cycle partners are stuck in is a symptom of emotional disconnection between them, and not necessarily that they are doomed as a couple. Secondly, vicious cycles create an insecure bond, which helps explain why partners feel so scared, angry or withdrawn in the relationship. Finally, it is possible to move from an insecure to a secure bond by breaking the vicious cycle. Part of this process of breaking the cycle, is to act in less reactive ways towards your partner and try to understand each other's perspectives. When couples are not able to do this themselves, therapy is an option to help you break the cycle.