Opinion | Family

Your Childhood Wounds May Be Hurting Your Marriage

Lessons from attachment theory on building secure and trusting intimacy.
Your Childhood Wounds May Be Hurting Your Marriage
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My first engagement did not culminate in the wedding of my dreams. I was fearful, clingy, and manipulative. He was prone to relational claustrophobia, compelling him to demand “space”—which triggered more insecurity on my end. This dynamic caused us such pain and grief that he eventually ended the relationship. Though we weren’t able to articulate it at the time, our struggle was in part due to conflicting attachment needs.

Early lessons

Psychologist John Bowlby released his groundbreaking studies on human attachment beginning in the late 1950s. He believed that a child’s emotional and physical well-being depended upon a finely attuned mother-child relationship and that early breaches in this relationship might impede one’s ability to bond with others—even in adulthood. At that time, Bowlby’s detractors criticized his theories as one-dimensional and deterministic. Decades later, many psychologists and therapists now believe that the principles of attachment theory not only help parents meet their children’s emotional needs, but they can also help adult couples connect with each other more consistently and love more fully.

Perhaps because of his own experiences of parental neglect, Bowlby understood that all children have the fundamental need to be in secure, bonded relationships. Bowlby, along with his colleague Mary Ainsworth, believed that children discover who they are and learn how to connect through the mother-child relationship. They posited that if mothers (or other caregivers) do not consistently, lovingly provide for a child’s physical and emotional needs, the child may grow up to be a relationally impaired adult who harbors doubts about whether he or she is truly lovable.

In Becoming Attached, psychologist Robert Karen explains, “[Early in life], one forms images of the self and others and of how they fit together, which have a powerful hold on the personality and serve as a blueprint for future relationships.” If our childhood blueprint tells us we are intrinsically flawed, that needing others is an indication of character weakness, or that others cannot be trusted to provide for our needs, we will likely have to create a new blueprint in order to experience healthy relationships as adults.

Created to connect

Studies in the field of human development bear out what Scripture and our own experience make clear: God intends for us to attach. Homo sapiens are the most intelligent species on earth and yet, in comparison to other animals, we are the most dependent upon parental care for the longest period of time. In most industrialized cultures today, it would be considered unthinkable for a child to live alone prior to age 16 or 17. This lengthy period of dependence teaches us to rely on our parents or caregivers. By expressing our needs (via tears and protest early on and through words after age two) and then having our needs met by those who love us, we learn that needs are good, that expressing those needs results in relational connectedness, and that others can be trusted to provide for us.

When parents lovingly provide for their children’s needs, they model God’s love and lay the foundation for their child’s future relationships—including marriage and his or her relationship with God. Psychologist Sue Johnson, a pioneer in applying Bowlby’s attachment theory to couples’ therapy, posits, “The relationship between God and people of faith can be understood as an attachment bond, in which God is a safe haven, a secure base, and the ultimate source of comfort and care.”

God, in his very essence, models for us what an attuned, securely attached relationship looks like. As the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist and interact in perichoresisa community of being. We glimpse this divine connection when Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). Jesus’ oneness with and “attachment” to the Father empowered him to love lavishly and refuse the Enemy’s temptations (Matt. 4:1–11). In our own relationships with God, as we grow in secure attachment and intimacy, we are strengthened to resist lies or accusations and we are enabled to fulfill our calling to love God and one another (Deut. 6:5; 1 John 4:7–21).

Varying attachment styles

According to attachment theorists, most adults exhibit one of four attachment styles: secure, avoidant, anxious, or disorganized. Securely attached adults believe that they are lovable, are aware of their limitations, and are comfortable asking for help. For them, conflict does not generate insecurity. When a couple is securely attached, they are able to weather significant challenges, have productive conflicts, and offer each other empathy.

In contrast, if a child grew up with a parent who was emotionally disconnected, passive, anxious, fearful, or unavailable (perhaps due to chronic sickness or mental health issues), or if children were consistently shamed when they expressed need, they may become insecurely attached. Adults with anxious attachment styles tend to tune in to minor fluctuations in their partner’s moods and expect rejection or abandonment (particularly during conflict). Jealousy often becomes an issue. When fears or insecurities surface, anxiously attached adults may try to control or manipulate their partner in the hope of gaining reassurance.

According to social psychologist Rachel Heller and neuroscientist Amir Levine in their book Attached, avoidant adults tend to “prefer autonomy to intimate relationships.” They see commitment as constricting and may be perceived as aloof. Additionally, they have a highly sensitive radar for manipulation that, when triggered, compels them to disengage in order to maintain some level of control and independence.

Finally, disorganized attachment occurs when parents are unable to discern their children’s needs or if the child experiences trauma, abuse, or neglect. Adults who grow up in such environments may lack discernment about who is and who isn’t trustworthy and may tend to focus on the others’ needs while detaching from their own.

A new blueprint for our marriage

When couples routinely experience unproductive conflict or consistently feel disconnected, these sorts of attachment issues may be at play. This was certainly the case for my fiancé and me during the failed round one of our relationship. Thankfully there was, eventually, a round two and today we are happily married.

After our breakup, it took two years of counseling, prayer, and brutally honest conversations before we finally understood how our mismatched attachment styles contributed to our relationship’s initial demise. Due to a combination of parenting deficits and my highly sensitive personality, I grew up believing that if I expressed my needs or made too many mistakes, I would be shamed and perhaps abandoned. My husband’s own attachment blueprint caused him to lean toward narcissism, which is not uncommon for avoidantly attached men.

As we became engaged again and eventually married, we had to jettison the shame and self-hatred we carried and instead allow God to create a new relational blueprint for both of us. In order to refute the lie that having needs disqualified me from receiving love, I prayed Scripture that affirmed God’s love for me (such as Rom. 8:38–39). Gradually, I learned how to trust God and my husband, which diminished both my anxiety and my tendency to manipulate him in order to get my needs met. This new vulnerability gave my husband the opportunity to respond authentically to my needs. We were growing.

Conflict, however, continued to vex us, in part because we flipped roles. I withdrew, physically and emotionally, so terrified of being abandoned that it sometimes took hours before I could articulate my feelings. He pursued, demanding that we work things through immediately. Such maddening push-and-pull is common for couples who lack secure (or who have opposite) attachment styles.

Obviously, attachment styles are not the only issue that can cause crazy-making marital conflict. Cultural and personality differences, as well as other factors, can also come into play. Over our years together, my husband and I have learned that in marriage, even if couples have a toolbox full of conflict management skills, they will probably continue to miss each other unless they become aware of their fundamental differences, tune into each other’s attachment needs, and refuse to engage in unhelpful patterns such as defensiveness, lashing out, or withdrawing. Couples may also need to stop fixating on the proverbial tip of the iceberg—what’s visible but largely inconsequential—and instead hone in on what really matters. (For example, facing one’s insecurity about being abandoned or one’s fear of being overtaken.)

Becoming securely attached

Though many of us may have received a faulty attachment blueprint and may struggle to consistently connect with our spouse, we are not doomed to relational failure. Research supports the idea that secure attachment can be learned and that vulnerably loving each other will help us transition from an insecure to secure attachment style. As we grow in experiencing and trusting God’s love for us, he will heal our relational deficits.

Moving toward a more secure attachment style takes time and intentionality. The first step is to recognize when we feel disconnected and then work backward to discern what provoked that feeling. Was it conflict? A harshly spoken word? Our spouse’s perceived unavailability? In those moments, if we de-escalate our attachment-related reactions and share our needs non-defensively, we can stop reacting and begin connecting.

For example, I recently felt a growing anxiety about an ongoing health issue. In the past, I would have withdrawn or blamed my husband for not intuiting my needs. This time, I communicated my insecurity about how he might react if my health continued to decline. He acknowledged my concerns, expressed his sorrow about the seemingly intractable nature of my illness, and then affirmed that he’s not going anywhere. Circumstantially, nothing changed, but the emotional connection that we made mitigated my fears.

In Hold Me Tight, Johnson observes:

When we learn to foster safe, loving interactions with our partners and can integrate new experiences into models that affirm our connections with others, we step into a new world. Old hurts and negative perceptions from past relationships can then be put away and not allowed to orchestrate our way of responding to our lovers.

As we accept the reality that we are wired for intimate connection, come to understand our own attachment styles, and then work to meet our spouse’s attachment needs, we can fulfill God’s calling to love each other—and can transform our marriages in the process.

Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful. You can find more of her work on DorothyGreco.com or via her Facebook page. She and her husband have been married for 26 years and have raised three sons together.

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