Attachment, defined as a connection or feeling of being emotionally close to someone, is a major component of love. 1 People have a built-in tendency to be attached to others emotionally from infancy. While one can be attached to someone or something and not be in love with the object of attachment, love sometimes cannot exist without attachment. The word attachment brings about fear in some individuals because it sounds like one is exclusively dependent on or constantly in need of another person. However, there are healthy kinds of attachment that are a necessary part of a loving relationship. Healthy attachments can provide a sense of safety and reduce anxiety or stress.
Couples in different categories of attachment differ in the way they attain intimacy and experience love. Researchers have identified three attachment styles and have studied how couples in these categories react to conflicts. The three categories include the following: secure, anxious-ambivalent, and avoidant. Attachment styles influence the way people trust their partners for support and their own willingness to offer support.
- Secure: Securely attached couples have high self-esteem and do not fear closeness. They enjoy feelings of love and trust their partner's displays of love. They are usually willing to change their own behaviors and overlook their partner's faults. 3 People in this category of attachment feel comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. One major benefit of a securely attached relationship is that couples deal with conflicts constructively. 3 They tend to see conflict as an opportunity to communicate and share their feelings. Resolving a conflict can strengthen their confidence in their partner and in the relationship. This sort of attachment is very healthy in a relationship and usually brings the couple closer together.
- Avoidant: Individuals in the avoidant category are fearful of emotional dependency which can limit their ability to develop intimate relationships. 2 In times of conflict, avoidant people do not show distress or anger during interaction, they are more prone to turning to passive-aggressive behaviors. These, in turn, can lead to feelings of anger and resentment for both partners. After a conflict, these individuals are more likely to see their relationship as less close. Avoidant individuals do not look for help or support from their partner. In fact, they may alienate helpers due to their possessive, dependent, or controlling ways.2 This sort of attachment can be potentially dangerous to the relationship.
- Anxious-Ambivalent: Anxious-ambivalent attachment usually leads to jealous forms of love. People in this category tend to have low levels of trust and interdependence, and they are usually less satisfied with their relationship than are securely attached partners. Since they feel an excessive desire to merge with their partner, they tend to be "clingy, suspicious, dependent, jealous, controlling and even at times domineering.” 2 They tend to worry excessively that their partner does not love them or is going to leave them; therefore, they feel underappreciated and see others as undependable. Any conflict with their partner can make them feel more anxious and stressful. Due to their fears of loss and abandonment, discussing relationship problems can be difficult for them. Conflict usually brings about doubts and negativity about the relationship or the partner. Furthermore, after a fight they see the relationship as having less love and commitment. In coping with such feelings, they try to prepare themselves for the loss of the relationship by belittling their partner. This is a type of attachment that can drive people away from each other and potentially put an end to the relationship.
There are many different theories that try to categorize love into different stages or types. Below we characterize two different models of love.
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who studies love, predicts that there are three different phases of love in your brain. She says that these phases of love can be felt for the same person at the same time, or they can be experienced completely independently from one another for different people. 4
- LUST—also known as the human sex drive evolved to get humans looking for a variety of different potential partners. Lust is the type of love that one feels when they see a good-looking person walk by, or when they “fall in love at first sight,” with the way someone looks. The physical wanting or liking of another person usually characterizes lust. You can be in lust with someone before you even have a conversation with them. Lust is simply the physical attraction that we feel for someone.
- ROMANTIC/PASSIONATE LOVE—involves the infatuation and focus on another person, when this other person takes on special meaning, and one’s thoughts become obsessive about them. Romantic love is the feeling that most people would associate with “falling in love” with a person, or “being in love,” during the honeymoon stage of the relationship.
- ATTACHMENT—where levels of anxiety have subsided and where one might feel deeply connected with their partner, creating a lifelong bond. Attachment is usually found in couples who have been together for a while, who have a deep understanding of one another and see each other as life partners. Attachment can also be felt for one’s parents, children, family, or friends.
These different stages of love also correspond to different brain systems that operate via different neurochemicals, giving us more insight as to why we might be in love with one person feel attached to another, yet still find other people attractive!
Robert Sternberg's Types of Love
Robert Sternberg says that there are different categories of love or types of love. One may label these feelings as lust, infatuation, puppy love, intimacy, and so on. While each of these fit into the category of love, they also reveal some of the varieties of love. According to his Triangular Theory of Love, there exist three main cornerstones: intimacy, passion, and commitment. In this theory, each of these parts must match up in order to develop and maintain and satisfying relationship. 5
- INTIMACY—This is the part of love that makes one feel close to their partner. It involves feelings of trust, security, and self-disclosure. It usually develops over time as people get to know each other better. Intimacy should make one feel comfortable talking to their partner and opening up to them.
- PASSION— This is the feeling of being physically attracted to a partner. Passion is the feeling of always wanting to be near your partner and always thinking about them. Passion usually characterizes the first stages of a relationship. Passion can, however, be similar to infatuation or lust and can be expressed in many ways including sexually or romantically.
- COMMITMENT— This is the decision one makes to be loyal and faithful to their partner in many ways. It involves openly and honestly deciding that both partners want to develop and maintain a satisfying and lasting relationship. This involves planning for the future, working out problems, and consciously avoiding doing things that may hurt your partner.
Again, it is important to understand that all of these types or phases of love (however you choose to define them) can be felt for one person or for three different people. For example, following Fisher’s theory, we can feel in lust with one person, in love with another, and a deep sense of attachment with a third person. Moreover, following Rosenberg’s theory of love, some people do report feeling a sense of commitment, intimacy, and passion for the same person. This is possible, but it does take great communication and effort. A great way to keep the spark a live with a long term partner is to do romantic things for each other, to surprise each other, or to try new and exciting activities together. No matter what stage or phase of love you are in, educating yourself and learning more about the literature on love can only help increase the satisfaction in your relationship.
1. Miracle, Tina S., Andrew W. Miracle, and Roy F. Baumeister. Human sexuality: Meeting your basic needs. Prentice Hall, 2003.
2. Simpson, Jeffry A., and William Steven Rholes, eds. Attachment theory and close relationships. Guilford Press, 1998.
3. Smith, Eliot R, and Diane M. Mackie. Social Psychology. Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2000. Print.
4. Fisher, Helen. Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. Macmillan, 2004.
5. Sternberg, Robert J. "A triangular theory of love." Psychological review 93.2 (1986): 119.
Last Updated March 14, 2014