Attachment Theory And Other Ways To Understand Why Your Spouse Was Put On This Earth To Make You Crazy

If you're struggling to understand your partner and why they act the way they do, try using attachment theory.

Couple close to one another, touching Lauren Rader | Unsplash

Attachment theory is a tremendous field of research that is fascinating to read about. For our purposes, I will sum it up very quickly:

The way our parent/primary caregiver interacts with us when we are a baby determines how we will interact with romantic relationships for the rest of our lives. When we are about this size (1 year), a baby can react a few different ways when Mommy walks out of the room and leaves us with someone else, and then returns soon after. Mine freaks out which is why I only work part-time. But, moving on.


If he is securely attached, he becomes upset when Mommy leaves, but is soothed and plays with the other person, and then is happy to see Mommy return. This attachment style derives from experiencing that Mommy is both there for comfort when the baby wants it but also allows him to explore when he wants to do that.

The caregiver can balance between being a secure base for the child and encouraging his independence, and her attunement to the baby’s cues allows her to determine at any given moment whether the baby needs comfort and security, or wants to play on his own.

This parenting experience allows the baby to grow into an adult who can be confident and independent within romantic relationships but is also adept at giving and receiving love and comfort. This is ideal and allows this securely attached baby to be a healthy and securely attached partner.




Then it gets more interesting.

RELATED: How The 4 Attachment Styles Affect Relationships — And How To Know Which Is Yours

Ambivalent Attachment Style

If the baby is insecurely attached and is ambivalent, he will not be easily soothed, won’t really play with the other person, will keep watching for Mommy to come back, but will then be angry at her when she does. (FYI, Levi is happy to see me return although he flips out when I leave. This means he’s secure but sensitive. Oh well little guy, you will make someone a loyal husband one day.)


This is thought to come from a pattern of parenting where the primary caregiver does not respond in an attuned way to the child. The child learns Mommy might leave or be distant at any moment, so he is hypervigilant in trying to keep her attention on him, and angry that she is unreliable. This also happens when a mom is intrusive, always getting in the baby’s face to play or interact when the baby just wants to relax.

When ambivalent children grow up, they become preoccupied. This person always wants to be close, wants to be texted their partner’s whereabouts at all times, and worries whether their partner really loves them. Their relationship is paramount to them and they usually choose to spend time with their partner over anything else, but the time together can be fraught with conflict. Borderline Personality Disorder is an extreme version of this.

RELATED: Can Your Attachment Style Change Later In Life?

Avoidant Attachment Style

If the baby is insecurely attached and avoidant, he will pretend not to care when Mommy either leaves or returns, and will just keep playing (but we know he cares as much as the others because of heart rate studies). He has learned that Mommy would prefer he just go and play on his own and be independent, and there is not much emphasis on comfort or soothing.

Avoidant children become avoidant adults — this is the partner who doesn’t seem to need anyone, can take or leave falling in love, and often values career and hobbies over relationships. They think of feelings as messy and prefer sex to verbal or emotional displays of affection (yes, women too, but of course, you will recognize in this description the classic emotionally unavailable man).


Unfortunately, preoccupied and avoidant partners find each other- each confirms the other’s view of the world. Preoccupied people expect others not to want them around and to be unreliable, and avoidant partners assume relationships will be smothering and overwhelming. So a perfect storm is created when these people meet each other. Other terms for this pattern are pursuer and distancer. In Frozen, Anna is the pursuer/preoccupied and Elsa is the distancer/avoidant. Don’t you know many of these relationships? Are you in one?



RELATED: How Can You Tell If Your Attachment Style Is Compatible With Your Partner's?

The first step to getting out of these patterns is to become self-aware.


So, here is a quiz to determine your attachment style. (If you’re preoccupied, you’ll want to call your partner at work to discuss it immediately.  If you’re avoidant, you probably lost interest in this blog post already.)  Let me know what you get. And, now that you have a background in attachment theory, read here about how attachment panic makes you and your spouse fight. And for more, read the book Hold Me Tight.

RELATED: Are You An Anchor, Island, Or A Wave? Knowing The Answer May Save You Years Of Heartbreak

Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.