How Attachment Affects Intimacy

As we have discussed briefly before in our article on intimacy in the counselling room, a client’s attachment style have have an effect on how intimacy develops within the therapy room. In addition, a counsellor should also be aware of their attachment when fostering intimacy in a therapeutic setting, as this can also alter how it develops.

The following article distills some of the key training that was provided to Brighton Therapy Partnership workshop participants (delivered by Jenny Riddell) on the topic of attachment and its interplay with intimacy.

Defining attachment and intimacy

Before considering the correlation between our early attachment experience and our adult intimacy patterns, it is worth establishing what we mean by these terms.


Bowlby believed that there were four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

  • Proximity Maintenance: The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
  • Safe Haven: Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of fear or threat.
  • Secure Base: The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
  • Separation Distress: Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Versions and echoes of which we see and feel in our experience of adult intimacy.


We gave a few definitions of intimacy in our previous article on the topic, but here are a few suggested by Jenny Riddell. What do we mean by intimacy?

  • A situation in which you have a close friendship or sexual relationship.
  • Things that are said and done only by people who have a close relationship with one another.
  • The state of having a close, personal relationship with someone.

Notions of love, trust and respect arise, often a romantic relationship, but can equally be platonic, as in a good therapeutic alliance. Jenny stated “My premise is true love is developmental, live and dynamic.” Often we look at intimacy in the therapy room as being about cutting through defences, sometimes even shocking the client.

From the cradle to the grave

During the attachment and intimacy conference, Jenny Riddell’s presentation took us through an attachment approach to couple therapy, orientating us around Shakespeare’s seven stages of man: infancy, schoolboy, teenager, young man, middle aged, old man, dotage and death.

Whilst “attachment behaviour is held to characterize human beings from the cradle to the grave” the focus is on the infant-carer relationship. However, as the prototype for “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby 1977) it is helpful to recognise our early attachment experience in our adult, intimate relationships.

dynamic intimacy

Following the seven stages of man, we can see how our needs in relationships change as we age, but also how attachment alters.

Reviewing intimacy across the lifespan of a person, with the various tasks, needs and requirements that steer this path, we understand love/attachment as ‘…developmental, live and dynamic’. Dynamic in the sense that it arises within a social, relational context, out of which our familial narratives are scripted. Applying a systemic lens to our attachment patterns with the created couple in therapy, gives us a framework for understanding that can depersonalise our behaviour.

The evolutionary foundation of attachment takes a developmental approach, applied across the lifespan. How this plays out in our adult intimate relationships, is not just in moments of regression, but in our basic need for a ‘secure base’ from which to explore the world. The importance of adult intimacy, is indicated by the correlation of social isolation and mental health issues, with a rise in addictive disorders, expressing narcissistic self reliance at their core. Turning toward a non-animate self object, that supplants our need for intimacy, suggests adaptation to an early years rupture of care (P. Flores 2004). The addictive substance appears not to make unpredictable demands on the individual as the fourth phase of attachment development, ‘goal-corrected partnership’, asks us to accommodate.

Exploring beyond the self

As the infant begins to experience themselves as a being amongst beings, they also begin to negotiate their needs in the context of the needs of the other(s). A theory of mind emerges from around three years, alongside language development. Communication implies a ‘me and you’, indeed an ‘us’ world, in which I can understand and be understood, laying the foundations for reciprocity, interdependence and mutuality. Bowlby argued that the fourth phase of attachment development – the goal corrected partnership, would characterize future close relationships, as it develops our capacity to get our needs met in synchrony with the needs of others.

developing attachment

As we progress through infancy, we take our first steps into understanding the needs of others around us, which sets us up for relationships in the future.

Goal corrected partnership

According to Bowlby’s ideas of attachment, goal-corrected partnership is the last stage that a child experiences. It usually happens around age three. As the child begins spending more time with their caregiver, they begin to realize that their caregiver has goals and ideas of their own that may not concern the child. Because of this, the child begins to “mold their behavior in order to please or impress the caregiver”. This type of bond is most likely to occur between the infant and the mother.

Understanding others

The art of negotiation, compromise and mutual understanding has long-term benefits, with short-term frustrations – for example, waiting whilst a parent settles the baby, so that we can read a story in peace together. In this vignette, we have the role of other family members influencing how the subject gets their needs met. However, what is missing is the interactive influence of parent’s known and unknown needs, desires and fantasies beyond their psychological availability to the child. Questions and ruptures arising in adult intimate relationships, may also stem from this obviating the other as in our early attachment relating. Couple therapy that challenges our personal perceptions, assumptions and interactions, asks us to address our goal-corrected partnership within the created couple – with our developmental equal.

As we consider the characteristics and functions of the ‘affectional bond’ between infant and carer, it is clear how these patterns re-emerge in our adult life, and how they are thereby liable to rupture and need repair.

To understand the affectional bond, we need to understand that it…

  • …is persistent, not transitory.
  • …involves a particular person who is not interchangeable with anyone else.
  • …involves a relationship that is emotionally significant.
  • …the individual wishes to maintain proximity or contact with the person with whom he or she has an affectional tie.

The individual feels sadness or distress at involuntary separation from the person. An attachment bond has an additional criterion: the person seeks security and comfort in the relationship

As these characteristics of the primary relationship between the infant and carer typically form the basis of adult intimate relationships, how they might trigger or repeat early conditioning is self evident. However, Hazen and Shafer (1987) found that the key factor in our adult attachment style was the perception people had about the quality of their relationship with their parents, as well as their parent’s relationship with each other, in terms of norms and expectations. It is not so much what we suffer, but how it’s interpreted, and the level of containment we can access, at a personal and interpersonal level. Our inner resources, stores and stories built up in childhood, will arise as we tread the path of our seven ages. The therapeutic setting gives us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast our relational understanding, with perhaps a genogram map to help us find our way around. This position presents insight and awareness, but most importantly empathy, rooted in goal corrected partnership, rewarded with intimacy.

A therapeutic view of our universal need for attachment, alongside our unique pattern, gives us a reflective framework in which to see ourselves. As we compassionately recognise the wounds of unmet needs or early adaptations in our behaviour, we foster an essential intimacy with self. Using our attachment constellation as a map, gives us a vantage point from which, as Jung suggests, we can ‘grow bigger than our problems’. Significantly, it is through the dilemmas, crisis’ and ruptures faced by our current intimate relationships (or their lack), that buried patterns are uncovered, and opportunities for growth emerge.

Healing and growing in relationships

With this understanding of how intimacy and attachment can develop between couples, we can explore how our wounds may be both exposed and healed by the intimate other. This may be in how we are triggered but also in how links from our own suffering can help put in graphic relief a partner’s suffering, allowing both to be felt and seen. For example, as old age prevents a husband from driving and a wife from playing piano, they help one another to face the reality and personal meaning of this loss. When a couple can recognise their shared problems, though personal pain, there is a platform for the growth of intimacy.

Understanding attachment and our past conditioning is increasingly prevalent in popular psychological literature that our Google searches may reveal. It is therefore not uncommon for clients to arrive with their (and maybe their partner’s) attachment ‘diagnosis’ to hand! It also appears that as therapists we should be able to define someone’s attachment pattern, although this can be a challenge. Whilst our fundamental attachment pattern will exert itself in times of stress, in different contexts, we will exhibit different attachment styles. Neuroplasticity, even amidst the ruin of dementia, continues until we die. There is then a fluid, even encompassing quality to our relational style. Crucially, we have the potential to achieve ‘earned security’, within trusting adult intimate relationships, that our partners, therapists, supervisors and the like, can enable.

Dynamic intimacy

Our seven ages from cradle to grave of attachment need, clearly move with time, but not necessarily in an orderly fashion. Each stage of life gives new roles for intimacy to perform, from identity forming, to the management of crisis, betrayal and loss. However, as each new life-cycle milestone is reached, the unresolved trauma or unmet need from our past may also arise in the dynamics of enactment. It is both our conscious and unconscious libido that hunts out our partners, resulting in a ‘compulsion to repeat’, that an understanding of underlying attachment patterns can help elucidate. A therapeutic perspective may offer the couple an opportunity to see and be seen, as they are and have been, becoming a resource, rather than problem for one another. It might be helpful here to consider the myth of Zeus’ punishment that split humans in half, that set us on a quest to find our ‘other half’. Each intimate relationship, its attendant ruptures, offers an opportunity for recovering another piece of our quest, perhaps.

Attachment theory’s focus on the primal merger, infant carer relationship, seems to obscure the wider family context. Couple therapy by its nature, raises the question of the role of fathers, but also of the family of origin, how it has and does influence the couple’s intimacy. By holding stories from each partner, the therapist holds up a third lens for a couple to see themselves through. How their separate stories somehow fit – however fractious – together, can witness moments of felt intimacy in the room.

In The Search for a Secure Base (2001), Jeremy Holmes explores the link between attachment and narrative, as psychological life is embodied in stories. He describes himself as a host and catalyst, inviting patients and colleagues into a space where creative thinking can occur. This narrative approach, allows new meanings to emerge out of old stories. New chapters can be written, that allow characters to grow and meet their need for individuated intimacy, from a place of earned security. After all, “… true love is live, dynamic and developmental.”

This article was written by Charlotte Hastings of Therapy Kitchen.

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