What is a Romantic Attachment?
How people form an attachment to a romantic partner is one of the most studied topics in the relational sciences (please note, this section is adapted from the work of Bowlby, Ainsworth, Shaver, Hazan and Zeifman’s work on attachment theory).
A romantic attachment (also called pair-bonding) is a deep emotional bond to another individual. The tendency to form a deep emotional bond to another individual is an universal feature of human life.
The attachments we form to our romantic partners are designed to keep people together. When we form an attachment to a romantic partner—we want to be near that person. And we tend to feel safe and secure when our partners are around. Overall, forming an attachment was designed to help create stability.
Not only do we form attachments to our romantic partners, but the loss of a partner can be devastating. If you are attached to someone and the relationship comes to an end, the sense of loss can be overwhelming—including feelings of uncertainty, fear, and despair.
Humans are designed to form a strong attachment to a romantic partner because human offspring are born extremely immature (unable to care for themselves). Individuals who formed a deep attachment to their sexual partners were better equipped to raise offspring. And over millions of years of human development, evolution favored people who formed a deep emotional bond to a sexual partner. As such, people living today are all the descendants of individuals who formed an emotional bond to their romantic partners in the past.
Not only are humans designed to form a deep emotional bond to a sexual partner, but the process by which we do so is very similar to how infants form a bond to their primary caregivers.
Human infants universally form a deep emotional attachment to the person who provides the most care (usually a mother). This attachment is designed to keep infants close to their caregivers, which ultimately helped ensured an infant’s survival. When infants form a deep emotional attachment to their caregiver—children feel safe and secure. For infants, attachment figures (caregivers) provide a sense of security and comfort. When separate from their attachment figure, infants will stage a protest (crying and screaming) designed to get their caregiver’s attention.
How do infants know who to form an attachment to?
Infants form an attachment to the caregivers based on the nature and amount of physical contact they have with others. Infants form an attachment to the person who provides the most physical contact—the most kissing, cuddling, caressing, and so on.
And adults do the same when it comes to forming a romantic attachment. Adults form a deep emotional attachment based on intimate physical contact—kissing and cuddling, etc. If you have repeated intimate contact with another person, you will most likely form a deep attachment to that person. Once an attachment is formed—people want to spend more time together, feel safe and secure in each other’s presence, and they will experience loss when the relationship comes to an end.
Again, romantic attachments are designed to keep people together because over the course of human evolution people, who stayed together, had an easier time raising offspring than people who only came together for the purposes of sex.
While attachments help create stability, there is a downside. Attachments are less concerned that you are happy with your partner and more concerned that you stay together. In fact, many people form an attachment to someone who they do not like as a person. It is quiet possible to form a deep bond to someone who is less than an ideal romantic partner—this happens everyday.
The lesson to be learned? Be careful about whom you have repeated intimate contact with—you are likely to form an attachment to that person. And once an attachment is formed, it can be very difficult to break.
So, going slow at the start of a relationship, especially when it comes to sex, is important. It is good to learn as much as you can about another person before you become heavily involved. Many relationship problems could be avoided, if people did not rush into forming an attachment with someone.
Not only are humans designed to form an attachment to a romantic partner, but there are some important differences in the types of attachments people form....