Don’t String Me Along: Love and Marriage and Attachment Theory

A very interesting and thorough look at the mechanics of love through the lens of […]

David Zahl / 6.11.10

A very interesting and thorough look at the mechanics of love through the lens of Attachment Theory appeared in Psychology Today via the article “In The Name Of Love”. Rather than compatability or attraction, attachment theory puts security and threat at the center of romantic dynamics. We feel loved to the extent that we feel safe, and we feel unloved to the extent that we feel imperiled. Assurance being such a central part of the Good News, there are more than a few echoes of vertical, Winwood-esque “higher love”, not to mention a healthy dose of human bondage, even if a Mockingbird might argue that love precedes vulnerability (assurance engenders affection, etc) not the other way around. But certainly the intimate link between the two is inarguable. Of course, it also casts divine love as even more unique, the nature of grace being fundamentally “un”attached, in the sense that it is not bound to what it receives in return, it is not dependent on the recipient in any way. Perhaps this is why the Parent/Child relationship tends to be more prevalent an analogy for God’s love than any other in the Bible. Happy Valentine’s Day:

being_john_malkovich_by_purityofessence-d4d9x6vAs a marital therapist, my job is to help people experience love, to move from distance and alienation to contact and caring. But in order to help distressed couples change, I realized early on that I needed a model of what a good relationship is. For too long, the choices have been confined to two. There is the psychodynamic, or psychoanalytic, view, which holds that adult relationships are more or less reflections of childhood relationships—replays of old conflicts. And there is the behaviorist view: Love is a rational exchange in which couples make deals based on their needs, and they succeed to the degree that they master the negotiation process. Love is then either a crazy compulsion or, after couples calm down, a kind of rational friendship where the partners make good deals.

As I watch couples, I see that raw emotion, hurt, longing, and fear are the most powerful things in the room. Couples seem to have a desperate need to connect emotionally—and a desperate fear of connecting…

The core elements of love are the same for children and adults—the need to feel that somebody is emotionally there for you, that you can make contact with another person who will respond to you, particularly if you are in need. The essence of love is a partner responding to a need, not because it’s a good deal—but even when it’s not. That allows you to sense the world as home rather than as a dangerous place. In this sense, we never grow up.

The most basic message of attachment theory is that to be valid adults, we do not need to deny that we are also always, until the end of our life, vulnerable children. A good intimate adult relationship is a safe place where two people can experience feelings of vulnerability—being scared, feeling overwhelmed by life, being unsure of who they are. It is the place where we can deal with those things, not deny them, control them, or regulate them, the old John Wayne way…

Our attachment needs make dependence on another person an integral part of being human. Self-sufficiency is a lie.

The couples I see have taught me that it is almost impossible to be accessible, responsive, emotionally engaged with someone if you are not able to experience and express your own vulnerabilities. If you cannot allow yourself to experience and show your vulnerability, you cannot tell others what you need and explicitly ask others to respond to you. But troubled couples naturally want to hide and protect their vulnerability, although that usually precludes any satisfying kind of emotional contact.


Love is transforming—not just of the world but of the self. We find a whole new way of contacting another human being, and this emotional engagement opens up new possibilities of becoming ourselves. That is the intoxicating thing about the relationship. It modifies how people experience themselves and how they see other people…

What couples are really fighting about is rarely the issue they seem to be fighting about—the chores, the kids. It is always about separateness and connectedness, safety and trust, the risk of letting someone in to see the exposed, vulnerable self… Self-defeating as it may be, anger is an attempt to discourage a partner from further distancing.

The language of love is the language of vulnerability. While Western psychology focuses on the value of self-sufficiency, in our personal lives we struggle to integrate our needs for contact and care into our adult experience.