Attachment Focused Couples' Therapy
Updated: Nov 8
Imagine the following situation: You meet someone who feels like a perfect fit. You have enough shared interests and values that you can imagine a life together. The first eighteen months are perfect, like a falling in love montage from a rom-com. Then you have a fight, which could be a normal thing, except you keep having the same fight. Maybe one person needs space to cool during the fight, which triggers the other person into feeling anxious and abandoned. Or maybe one person really needs to talk about their feelings in great detail and the other finds this excruciating, so the talker talks more about how much they need to be heard. Sound familiar? These are common conflict patterns that are rooted in attachment needs. Most of us don’t have a different fight with our partner every time - we fall into a particular pattern that it can be hard to get out of without professional support.
Many of the couples I meet as a therapist have fallen into one of these cycles and are feeling stuck - maybe even at a crossroads in their relationship, where they’re not sure what the future will look like if they can’t get out of this cycle. One way to get unstuck is through attachment focused couples counselling.
Finding a Couples Therapist in Vancouver
At Stillwaters Counselling, our couples’ counsellors practice from an attachment lens. What this means in practice, is that attachment style can play an important role in couples counselling because it shapes the way individuals interact with their partners and how they interpret and respond to their partner's behaviour. Attachment theory suggests that the way we relate to others is shaped by our early experiences with our primary caregivers.
We can think of attachment styles as a kind of “blueprint for intimacy” that we receive from our family of origin. Even if we came from a basically happy family, we may not have a secure attachment - and two children from the same family may also have completely different attachment styles. Our attachment style is thought to be developed in early childhood, and comes from many different factors, including our caregivers’ emotional attunement to our needs. Although it’s possible to break these down further into subtypes, there are essentially three main attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. It’s important to remember that some people may have a combination of these styles, or have a different pattern of behaviour in different situations or relationships.
The Attachment Styles and Couples Therapy
People with an anxious attachment style tend to be preoccupied with their relationships and may rely on their partners to help them emotionally regulate. They may worry about their partner's love and commitment, and may seek ongoing reassurance from their partner. They may fear abandonment and feel anxious or overwhelmed when their partner needs space. They may have been conditioned in childhood to expect their emotional needs to go unmet, or struggle with a feeling of abandonment that persists into their adult relationships.
People with an avoidant attachment style tend to distance themselves from their partners and may have difficulty with emotional intimacy. They may fear being hurt or rejected and may avoid getting too close to their partner. They may have difficulty expressing their emotions and may seem emotionally detached or unresponsive. They may also be uncomfortable with displays of affection and may prefer to keep their distance from their partner. Avoidant partners may have learned in childhood that emotions are overwhelming or unsafe, possibly from being exposed to uncontrolled emotions from a depressed or angry parent.
Securely attached people tend to feel comfortable with emotional intimacy and are able to communicate effectively with their partners. They trust their partner and feel confident in their relationship. They are comfortable with closeness and autonomy, and are able to regulate their emotions well. They are able to express their needs and emotions in a constructive way and are generally responsive to their partner's needs. Secure attachment is actually the least common attachment style, with only an estimated 25% of the population appearing securely attached.
Research suggests that over time, in a healthy relationship, it is possible for people with anxious or avoidant attachment to become more secure. This can happen on its own, or it can happen with the support of an attachment focused therapist, actively teaching the couple the skills associated with secure attachment.
Couples counselling can help partners understand their own attachment styles and how they impact their relationship dynamics. For example, a person with an anxious attachment style may feel neglected or unloved when their partner spends time alone or with friends, while a person with an avoidant attachment style may feel smothered or overwhelmed by too much closeness. This can lead to the types of conflicts I described at the beginning of the post, which in therapy we call “pursue-withdraw” or “minimize-maximize” cycles. There are more than a hundred different types of conflict cycles that have been identified by psychologists! By understanding these patterns and cycles, couples can work together to build a more secure and fulfilling relationship.
What is Attachment-Focused Couples Therapy?
Attachment-focused couples’ counselling is based on the idea that our early relationships with caregivers shape our expectations and behaviours in intimate adult relationships. Therefore, an attachment-focused counsellor will help you to identify your attachment styles and explore how they impact relationship dynamics.
Your counsellor will work with you to develop a deeper understanding of each partner's needs and emotions, and how they relate to attachment patterns. The goal of this approach is to develop a more secure attachment to each other by building trust and improving communication - a new blueprint for intimacy. Many people find this work very healing, because it allows them to identify, understand, and start to correct unmet needs from childhood. Attachment focused therapy takes the view that the relationship itself can be a powerful tool for healing - even if we are stuck in a painful conflict cycle in the present.
An attachment-focused couples counsellor may also use interventions that are specific to attachment theory, such as emotion-focused therapy (EFT). EFT seeks to address underlying emotional needs and strengthen the trust between partners by deepening empathy for the other’s experience. An attachment-focused couples counsellor will work with you to build a more secure and fulfilling connection. This approach can be particularly helpful for couples who have experienced past trauma that is impacting the relationship.
5 Benefits of Couples Therapy
Attachment-focused couples counselling can offer several benefits for partners seeking to improve their relationship. Here are some of the potential benefits:
Increased understanding of attachment styles: Through attachment-focused couples counselling, partners can develop a deeper understanding of how their past is showing up in their present. This awareness can help partners to recognize patterns of behaviour and communication that may be hindering their connection.
Improved communication: If a relationship is a house, communication is the foundation of that house. Attachment-focused couples counselling can help partners to improve their communication by teaching them how to express their needs, emotions, and concerns in a way that is clear, constructive, and tailored to their partner’s unique attachment needs.
Strengthened emotional bond: Attachment-focused couples counselling can help partners to build deeper intimacy by addressing underlying emotional needs and developing strategies for meeting them. One of our goals as couples’ counsellors is to help couples feel like they are on one team against the problem, instead of adversaries against each other.
Increased trust and security: When partners feel emotionally secure in their relationship, they are more likely to trust each other and feel confident in their connection.
Greater overall satisfaction in the relationship: When we are not anticipating the next conflict or waiting for the cycle to start all over, we can relax into our relationship and start to truly enjoy and appreciate our partner again.
If you are stuck in a cycle of conflict that feels impossible, your feelings are very normal. These patterns hurt us precisely because they trigger the same early wounds that actually draw us into dysfunctional cycles of conflict in relationships. An attachment focused therapist takes the perspective that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you - it just means you are trying to get your needs met in ways that you learned early on. The same relationship that is feeling impossible right now might actually be a powerful tool for hearing, and the stuck feeling may actually be very workable with the support of an outside perspective.