Attachment Theory and the First Year of Marriage

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

When a young man and woman are engaged to be married, they each study with a mentor the relevant Halachos, Hashkafos, and practical knowledge that they will need in marriage. Securing an experienced and wise Chosson or Kallah teacher is imperative to avoid all kinds of problems that can emerge in the absence of appropriate guidance. However, even if one has the best mentor in the world, the first year of marriage can present difficulties and complications. Young couples blissfully think, “That will never happen to me.” When it invariably does occur, they are blindsided and completely caught by surprise. Why is the first year so difficult? That is the vexing question that we will attempt to answer.

The first year of marriage is fraught with challenges such as learning how to share space, reconciling differences in routines and habits, confusion about time not spent together, shifting expectations, sharing finances, and loss of freedom and control. In this column, we generally offer a psychological perspective and therefore we will use attachment theory as the lens through which we will view the evolving relationship of the young couple.

Attachment theory was first developed to explain the different ways children relate to their parents or primary caregiver when they feel stressed as a predictor of long-term emotional health. This theory was later applied to adults as well. In the context of a marriage, we can break down the different attachment styles into four categories: secure, anxious, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.

Secure: When one has a secure attachment in a marriage, one is not concerned about the strength of the relationship and is not nervous about the commitment level of one’s spouse. Additionally, there is no fear of being smothered in the relationship and therefore the closeness of marriage does not provoke anxiety. Spouses feel comfortable depending on each other and they are not afraid to be vulnerable with each other.

Anxious: When one has an anxious attachment, one is very nervous and insecure about the integrity of the relationship. This leads to high levels of drama in the relationship as they are constantly questioning the commitment of their spouse. Although they greatly want a close relationship, their actions can often sabotage the very same relationship that they are trying to rescue.

Dismissive-Avoidant: A dismissive-avoidant attachment style is when one wants to be independent. This clearly will not work in a marriage. The bedrock of a marriage is the fusing of two lives so that they depend on each other. Human beings naturally want companionship, but sometimes people are in denial of this basic need. 

Fearful-Avoidant: Sometimes, someone can be so afraid of being hurt in a relationship that they avoid it entirely. Although they do not want to be independent, they often end up being isolated as they are too nervous to really commit to a relationship.

This now brings us back to the first year of marriage. The only attachment style that is healthy is a secure attachment. Spouses who are securely attached are not doubting the integrity of their relationship, they enjoy being dependent on each other, and are not trying to avoid deepening their relationship. However, in the early stages of a marriage, when the attachment is being formed, it is common for couples to temporarily pass through periods of the unhealthier forms of attachment.

The reason for this is that when couples struggle with their budding relationship, they are in reality struggling with the integrity of their marriage. Subconsciously, there are thoughts such as, “Is he really the right one if we are so different?”, or, “Is she really the right one if we can’t see eye-to-eye?” Seasoned couples do not view their differences as problems. They actually appreciate and celebrate the fact that they are not the same and each one offers something unique to the relationship. But in the nascent stages of a marriage, the differences can be terrifying. They are anxious about their relationship and can therefore become preoccupied or avoidant. They often even attempt to change one another to avoid the differences.

This is normal as long as it is only a phase. If a couple gets stuck in an unhealthy attachment, it is possible that there are unresolved relationship and attachment issues that are hampering their marriage. A clinician with wisdom and expertise can be a vital resource in helping them become unstuck.

Ultimately, a healthy marriage is one where the husband and wife use their differences to work together and continuously move forward in the evolution of their relationship. Then, they will not only merit genuine happiness and joy in their home, they will also be host to Hashem’s Shechinah.

Share this article: