Family experience tends to shape attachment in relationships: Handling anxiety and avoidance with premarital couples

Many studies have explored the way in which there can be a gradual transfer of the form of attachment to parents and other significant relationships in the past, to future attachment towards a partner in a close relationship. Whilst research suggests that family experience tends to shape attachment in relationships, the results vary with some individuals becoming avoidant, whilst some are unconcerned and non-anxious about future relationships. Others tends to become fearful and anxious, or insecure about future relationships.

Judith Feeney, a researcher with the University of Queensland, conducted a study in which questionnaires assessing age, relationship length, involvement, relationship closeness, conflict, attachment dimensions (anxiety and avoidance), and attachment figures were completed by 107 young adults. The study was designed to “…to explore the role of individual and relationship variables in the transfer process.” (Journal of Family Studies, 2004, 10, 220-38).

Two important findings were:

  • Weak attachment to a partner was associated with the tendency to be avoidant in relationships and to be low in anxiety about relationships.
  • Individuals high in anxiety about relationships tended to report higher levels of desired than actual attachment.

The implication is that when we are working with premarital couples we should be alert to two possibilities associated with Feeney’s findings:

  • Some individuals may be under pressure to be in a close relationship, not due to their own motivation, but due to social pressure to conform. They may struggle to form a close and intimate relationship because they tended to be avoidant and unconcerned about relationships. The issue of motivation, and whether there is new set of possibilities in this new situation, can be explored with couples where one partner is in this position.
  • Other individuals may be very anxious and almost obsessive about their relationship and have needs for closeness that they will find very hard to satisfy. Helping couples to explore what is a reasonable and appropriately reassuring level of closeness will be an important strategy.

#PREPARE/ENRICH is a customised online assessment tool that identifies each couples unique strength and growth areas. Based on their assessment results, a facilitator provides feedback sessions, helping couples to discuss and understand their results while teaching them proven relationship skills.

For more information on PREPARE/ENRICH or support with a couple or to simply set up a couple on the tool, please contact: or call today (02) 9520 4049 #prepareenrich

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