By Matthew T. Saxey
In one of his poignant, heartfelt love songs released in 2020, “Conversations in the Dark,” John Roger Stevens—known as ‘John Legend’—declares to what one can only assume is his wife, Chrissy: “My love is everywhere you are.” Is Legend’s statement wishful thinking or might his love—in a way—truly be everywhere his wife goes? Perhaps without knowing it, Legend’s heartfelt message might have empirical truth to it when seen through the lens of attachment theory.
This theoretical perspective is associated by many with the quality of connections developed in childhood, but recent research is showing how these attachment patterns can persist and influence adult romantic relationships.
For some background, the theory originated in the 1970’s with Mary Ainsworth who tested relationships between children and their parents through “the strange situation.” Toddlers were brought into a room with a caregiver, a research assistant, and plenty of toys for the child. After a few minutes, the caregiver—often the mother—leaves the room, the research assistant tries to console the child, and, eventually, the mother comes back—this process is repeated several times while observing how the child reacts.
Through analyzing how children react to this ‘strange situation,’ researchers found three main themes—or attachment styles—including anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and secure attachment.2 These same patterns—in adult form—show how sometimes people can be clingy, distant, or connected in their close relationships.
Figuring out your attachment style can happen in about four minutes by taking this survey developed by researchers. Although these questions can help identify your attachment style, in all, it usually ultimately comes down to two basic questions: “Do I feel I am I loveable?” and “Can I trust you?”3
For anxiously attached—essentially, clingy—individuals, they likely would say they are lovable but may not trust others as easily.3 Specifically, clingy folks love to be extremely close to their partner, but they often fear that their partner does not want to be as close as they do. Clingy partners also expend a lot of emotional energy into the relationship, are sensitive to mood fluctuations based on partner’s actions, often take things too personally, and frequently act out and say things he or she later regrets.3 Having a clingy attachment style might be related to childhood patterns and can, unfortunately, lead to decreased relationship satisfaction in adult romantic relationships.
For avoidantly attached—more or less distant—individuals, he or she may not believe they are lovable, but might not trust their partner. Yes, sometimes distant people prefer “being their own person” or “doing me” instead of relationships. Though distant people still seek out romantic relationships, he or she is likely uncomfortable with closeness and keeps their partner at an arm’s length. Partners of distant individuals often complain that their partner does not open up to them.3 Like clingy attachment, distant attachment can be influenced by how someone was parented and can lead to decreased relationship satisfaction in adult romantic relationships.5
However, just because the average relationship with clingy or distant people is usually less satisfying does not mean that clingy or distant people cannot have healthy relationships.
For example, clingy individuals might easily feel jealous, but if their partner attends to their needs, such as the need for reassuring physical touch, then the jealousy can be overcome. Likewise, if distant individuals’ negative expectations of relationships are overcome by someone they find they can deeply trust, he or she can become less distant and have a healthy, long-term relationship. Transcending distant or clingy attachment styles takes getting to know your partner’s needs and making concerted efforts to meet those needs.
For securely attached—in other words, connected—individuals, they believe both that they are lovable and can trust their partner. Connected people enjoy feeling close in a relationship and do not worry too much about their partner leaving. Moreover, connected partners share successes and problems with their partners, do not get easily upset over relationship matters, effectively communicate their needs and feelings to their partner, can read his or her partner’s emotional cues, and respond to these bids for connection productively.3 Even though a connected attachment does not mean that these couples have a perfect relationship or that each had an untroubled childhood, they have found ways to create in their relationship a well-connected attachment that works for both partners.
Before coming back to John Legend, consider the importance of having strong separate identities that connect, rather than enmesh. This balance of tending to self and caring for others can be helpful in building a healthy relationship, too. The idea of differentiation “is a developmental process by which individuals learn to balance the human drives for both deep connection and unique identity.”
Since our world includes many comings and goings with a partner, those connected in healthy ways love to be with their partner, but also have their own lives and interests. They don’t need to be within each’s proximity all day and every day to be happy, satisfied, and content, knowing they have their partner’s love and support no matter whether they are together or apart. As Legend notes, he and his wife “got places [they] both gotta be.”1
So, let’s think about it. When partners attend to each other’s needs and are appropriately differentiated, their partner’s love, quite literally, can be everywhere they are. The attachment is strong and plays its role, rather than getting in the way of living a beautiful life together. In other words, even when separated by time and space, partners who trust their partner, believe they are lovable, and know that their partner loves them can confidently feel the strength of that connection wherever they are—just like John Legend so meaningfully suggests.
Legend, John. (2020). Conversations in the dark [Song]. On Bigger Love. Columbia Records. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUD2GxTeVcI
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2012). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find-and keep-love. Penguin.
Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self‐report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46–76). Guilford.
Slade, R. (2019) Relationship sabotage in adults with low self-esteem from attachment trauma in childhood. Family Perspectives, 1(1). https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/familyperspectives/vol1/iss1/11
Kim, K. J., Feeney, B. C., & Jakubiak, B. K. (2018). Touch reduces romantic jealousy in the anxiously attached. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(7), 1019–1041. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407517702012
Stanton, S. C. E., Campbell, L., & Pink, J. C. (2017). Benefits of positive relationship experiences for avoidantly attached individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(4), 568–588. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000098
Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Hardy, N. R., & Fisher, A. R. (2018). Attachment versus differentiation: The contemporary couple therapy debate. Family Process, 57(2), 557–571. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/famp.12343