How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Marriage
Anxiety and avoidance during times of conflict.
Posted December 26, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Abbie and Brad are about to have an argument. Abbie insists she needs to talk right now, but Brad says he’s got too much on his mind. Abbie starts voicing her grievances anyway, and Brad leaves the room. Abbie pursues Brad through various rooms of the house, criticizing him the whole time. Eventually, Brad grabs his car keys and drives away.
Next door, Cindy and Devon are also having an argument. In a shrill voice, Cindy lays out a laundry list of Devon’s faults. Devon gets defensive and goes on the counterattack, giving her a good piece of his mind. They shriek at each other, toss things, break things, and the shouting match continues until each collapses in a chair out of exhaustion.
Down the street, Erica and Felipe are having an argument as well. Their voices are raised in urgency. They’re both quite frank about their concerns, but they don’t say things out of spite, they don’t bring up irrelevant issues, and neither one tries to run away. Once they’ve each had their say, they calm down and reassure each other of their love and commitment.
These three examples illustrate common patterns of conflict in marriage. Moreover, the way each person responds in each case is based on their attachment style. We all have an attachment style, which is our mental model of how to interact with intimate partners, and we learned this as infants.
Most people have a secure attachment style, meaning that they trust their partners to meet their needs. However, others develop an insecure attachment style, which leads them to distrust their partners, especially in conflict situations. In the scenario above, Erica and Felipe both display secure attachment styles, so they can work through conflicts, trusting that their partners have their best interests in mind. The same cannot be said for the other two couples, who display typical insecure attachment styles.
We know that the best chances for a successful marriage occur when both partners have secure attachment styles, whereas the outcomes for marriages between insecurely attached partners is more variable. In a study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Polish psychologist Dariusz Kuncewicz and colleagues investigated the long-term trajectories of marriages between two people with insecure attachment styles.
Insecure attachment comes in two forms, anxious and avoidant. Persons with an anxious attachment style fear their partner will not be there for them when they need them most, so they tend to be clingy and demanding. Because they can be so overbearing, they often drive away the ones they want to be closest to.
Persons with avoidant attachment style also believe that their partner won’t be there for them, but that’s not what bothers them. They value their independence and know how to take care of their own needs. Instead, what they fear most is a partner who tries to get too close to them.
Kuncewicz and colleagues were interested in the long-term outcomes of marriages involving partners with insecure attachment. In theory, three configurations of “insecure” marriages should occur, namely anxious-anxious, anxious-avoidant, and avoidant-avoidant. However, their participant pool of 200 couples turned up little evidence of this last type, in agreement with other studies. For some reason, people with avoidant attachment styles are rarely attracted to one another.
Even among the other two configurations, an interesting gender difference emerges. Plenty of research shows that women are more likely to develop anxious attachment, whereas men are more likely to show avoidant attachment. Researchers speculate that sociocultural factors account for this. Specifically, anxious attachment fits with the social norm that women should desire strong emotional connections while avoidant attachment reflects the belief that men should be independent and self-reliant.
Marriages between men with avoidant attachment and women with anxious attachment were common among the participants in Kuncewicz and colleagues’ study, in agreement with plenty of previous research. In the vignette above, Abbie and Brad fit in this category. Couples in an anxious-avoidant relationship tend to fall into a demand-withdrawal pattern during times of conflict—when Abbie pursues, Brad retreats.
Kuncewicz and colleagues point out that anxious-avoidant relationships are initially attractive for both persons because their partners fulfill their prior beliefs of what intimacy is supposed to be like. Abbie, with her anxious attachment style, expects her lover to be distant and aloof, and when she confronts him, he naturally meets those expectations. Likewise Brad, with his avoidant attachment, believes all women are needy and demanding, and this is exactly how Abbie behaves.
Anxious-avoidant relationships can be powerfully attractive in the early stages, when each partner maintains an idealized image of the other. As time goes by, however, couples in this type of marriage grow weary of the incompatibility, and their satisfaction with the relationship erodes.
Relationships in which both the man and the woman have anxious attachment styles are also fairly common. Even here, though, we see a gender difference. In general, men with anxious attachment display lower levels than women. Again, researchers attribute this to the influence of social norms about women being dependent and men independent.
In the vignette about, Cindy and Devon illustrate what life is like when two people with anxious attachment get married. Such couples often fall into a “pursue-pursue” pattern. Thus, when one partner starts a fight, the other is ready to fight back, no holds barred.
Although a life of frequent bickering may sound uninviting to most people, those in anxious-anxious relationships somehow seem to get their emotional needs met. After all, people with an anxious attachment style expect their partners to be aloof and uncaring, but their spouse is anything but that. Thus, their relationship is “buffered” over time, and relationship satisfaction tends to remain high even after many years of marriage.
Attachment style is learned in infancy and tends to remain stable throughout adulthood. However, plenty of research shows that insecure attachment styles can be gradually modified over time either through counseling or through positive interactions with a securely attached life partner. One important way to gain insight into the dynamics of your own marriage is to understand your own attachment style as well as that of your spouse.
Kuncewicz, D., Kuncewicz, D., Mrozinski, B., & Stawska, M. (2020). A combination of insecure attachment patterns in a relationship and its quality: The role of relationship length. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520969896