Here’s What Happily Married Couples Tend to Have in Common

What’s the secret to a happy marriage? Shared values? Regular date nights? Compromise? 

While all of these things can help, research shows that there’s actually a psychological reason underpinning marital satisfaction – and it comes down to attachment theory. 

What is attachment theory? 

Coined by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s, attachment theory explores how a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver ​​impacts their social, emotional and cognitive development.  

“Attachment styles are a learned experience, developed in our earlier relationship dynamics through how we bonded with our caregivers and those closest to us,” shares family therapist and attachment coach, Jessica De Silva. “We carry these ways of relating into our adult relationships with partners, friends, family and colleagues.”

There are three primary attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and secure. Each style links back to a corresponding style of care-giving. 

People who are securely attached tend to have the healthiest relationships. So, this is the attachment style we should strive for. 

Securely attached people feel safe, stable and satisfied in their relationships

During their childhood years, the caregiver of a securely attached person made sure they felt supported, valued and reassured. “A parent who is able to soothe their child and anticipate their child's needs appropriately tends to raise them with a healthy sense of self-esteem,” explains psychotherapist Alyssa Mancao, noting the grounds for secure attachment. 

She explains that this style is, “characterized by a healthy balance of intimacy and independence. They have a good understanding of their feelings and needs, and generally have good communication skills.”

Being raised to appreciate your own self-worth means you don’t fear being on your own, but you also find satisfaction in close relationships. You generally are able to maintain your emotional balance, feel comfortable trusting your partner, and choose healthy ways to manage conflict.

This all forms the basis of a healthy, stable relationship. 

Insecure attachment styles affect your peace of mind in relationships

By contrast, individuals who relate to the other two attachment styles will likely have early experiences where their caregivers couldn’t meet their needs. As a result, they frequently experience anxiety and overwhelm in their relationships.

“With an anxious attachment style, there is a hypervigilance around wondering if your partner still likes you or wants to be around you, assuming that something can go wrong any minute,” says Mancao. People with an anxious style have childhood experiences of unpredictable care-giving. They learned that their caregiver was unresponsive to their needs and, as an adult, they continually seek approval and validation from their relationship.

Where anxious types look to the people around them for reassurance, people with the avoidant attachment style are distrustful of others. Their caregiver may have been strict or emotionally distant, so as a child they become highly independent and aloof. 

“The avoidant prefers time alone and can find vulnerability uncomfortable,” says Stefanie Bullock, couples therapist. Bullock notes that they may feel the “urge to run, hide or put emotional walls up when faced with vulnerability.”

A predictor of relationship contentment

Given the emotional experiences intertwined with each of these attachment styles, it’s understandable that individuals with secure attachment styles report higher levels of marital satisfaction than insecure types. 

As Mancao notes, this is because anxious and avoidant individuals suffer from, “fears of rejection, abandonment and difficulties with communicating their thoughts, wants and needs.” All of this makes it challenging to nurture a healthy, mutually fulfilling relationship.   

But the research gives us another interesting fact – despite individuals with anxious and avoidant attachment styles having polarizing needs, they often find themselves drawn to each other. 

Why anxious and avoidant attract each other

“The anxious-avoidant relationship dynamic is so common, yet they can’t be more different,” explains De Silva. “Anxious attachments have a need for closeness, togetherness, physical and emotional intimacy, while avoidant individuals prefer space, independence and autonomy.”

The combination couldn’t sound more futile. 

Yet, there’s a reason these individuals are so often attracted to each other. Psychologists believe that each is trying to fulfill the emotional needs their caregiver couldn’t at a subconscious level. 

In his book, Attached, Dr. Amir Levine explains the push-pull phenomenon that happens when the anxious and avoidant styles collide. For the anxiously attached, the avoidant’s distance becomes a challenge. They eagerly seek to overcome that distance as a way to win the emotional connection they’ve so long craved. 

Whereas for the avoidant, the anxious partner’s need for intimacy reinforces their belief that relationships are overwhelming and that they’re better off alone. 

As this dance plays out, the relationship tends to be characterized by turbulence, drama and a lack of satisfaction. In fact, research shows that avoidant-anxious couples are far more likely to be deeply dissatisfied with their relationships. 

When you look at their opposing needs, it’s easy to see why. “Often, one partner will express feeling ‘smothered’ or describe their partner as too ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ while another may express feelings that their partner is ‘distant’ or ‘emotionally unavailable,” explains Bullock. “This can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts and even loneliness within a relationship.”

A spectrum, not a label

If you’re wondering where you and your partner fall within the attachment triad, it’s not as simple as assigning yourself a label. “We all fall on a spectrum when it comes to attachment styles,” says De Silva. “They are fluid and can shift with relationships, significant life events, traumas and healings.” 

The research backs this up, finding that anxious and avoidant individuals in relationships with securely attached partners can become secure. But people with insecure attachment don’t need to depend on someone more secure to change their attachment style. They can make significant improvements by themselves and by working with their partner. 

“By understanding your attachment style, you gain awareness into how you and others experience love, the root causes of your insecurities, your emotional needs, your triggers, communication style and so much more,” De Silva explains. She highlights the importance of healthy self-reflection, whatever your attachment style.   

From there, tools like mindfulness and self-regulation can be of great help. As Bullock notes, self-acceptance is vital. “For an anxiously attached person, instead of labeling yourself as ‘needy,’ accept and observe that this feeling stems from childhood, and consciously choose behaviors that reflect a more secure attachment style.”

It takes two 

Self-development, of course, is only part of the equation – particularly where both partners have an insecure attachment style. To become more secure, they need to put in a mutual effort. 

“Commit to learning about each other's attachment style and how/why these behaviors occur, regularly communicating your thoughts, feelings and needs to each other. Practice active listening and validating each other's emotions, even if you don't fully understand or agree,” says De Silva. 

For people who find communication and vulnerability challenging, couples therapy can also be beneficial. “Therapy can help both partners see how they uniquely experience relationships, as well as how they may give and receive love differently,” De Silva says. “Essentially, therapists can teach couples how to cultivate a secure attachment style so they can experience more relationship satisfaction.” 

Undoubtedly, there is plenty of hope for individuals with insecure attachment styles. As they begin to heal, the most important thing they can do is be kind to themselves and their partners. After all, this is a journey that takes time, not an overnight switch. 

“Remember that developing a more secure attachment style is a gradual process that requires mutual effort, patience and commitment,” concludes De Silva. “I work with many couples that are in the anxious-avoidant trap. These relationships can be successful as long as both people are committed to understanding each other and doing the work."

Hannah Pisani
Hannah Pisani is a freelance writer based in London, England. A type 9 INFP, she is passionate about harnessing the power of personality theory to better understand herself and the people around her - and wants to help others do the same. When she's not writing articles, you'll find her composing songs at the piano, advocating for people with learning difficulties, or at the pub with friends and a bottle (or two) of rose.