On Creating Couple Safety: FHSS Expert Jonathan Sandberg

Note: This is a guest post from Dr. Jonathan Sandberg, a professor in FHSS’s School of Family Life. Professor Sandberg is involved in the Marriage and Family Therapy Programs at BYU, a Certified Emotionally Focused Supervisor with the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute, and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Utah.

sandberg, jonathan
Jonathan G. Sandberg, Photo by: Elisa Tittle/BYU Copyright BYU PHOTO 2008 All Rights Reserved

I once heard from a young person something very insightful, a comment like this: “I guess I am just in love with the feeling of being in love.” Yes, feeling deep love from and for another person is a sublime experience. But, it is about the deep, serene, and settled sense of safety and security that comes with mature romantic love I write about today. That type of safety within a couple relationship has a name; it is called “attachment security”. The concept of secure or insecure attachment actually has its roots in parent-child research. John Bowlby (1), and later others (2), proposed that when a child feels a parent is accessible (“I can find you”) and responsive (“you reach out to me and comfort me when I call”), a secure attachment can develop. Accessibility and responsiveness become key attachment behaviors.

Other researchers have since proposed that a similar process occurs within a romantic relationship (3), namely, when a partner can consistently reach out for and find love and reassurance from her/his spouse, a secure bond of attachment is created. Sue Johnson has described this bonding as engagement (4,5). Accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement are three key attachment behaviors, and when present in a relationship, couples are more likely to feel satisfied and stable in their relationship, as well as communicate more effectively (6).

How then can a couple promote these key attachment behaviors in their relationship. Permit me to suggest a few do’s and don’ts.

Attachment Do’s and Don’ts

To be more accessible,


  • answer her/his phone calls
  • schedule and follow through on plans to spend face-to-face time (not facetime) together


  • place work, church service, or children above the marriage
  • give too large a portion of your time to hobbies

To be more responsive,


  • put down or put away all electronic devices when together with your spouse—this appears to be the primary impediment to responsiveness in modern marriages
  • develop good listening skills (look at your partner when s/he is talking to you, validate, etc.)


  • ignore or dismiss your partner or her/his feelings
  • give the silent treatment

To be more engaged:


  • be warm and reassuring when your partner is in distress
  • express your commitment to and confidence in your spouse


  • criticize or give advice when your partner reaches out to you
  • take over her/his problem, which conveys a message that you think they are not competent
22146076165_539f75c0db_h Man yelling at woman courtesy Flickr InfoWire dk
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

We can all take small steps to increase our accessibility and responsiveness to and engagement with our spouses. These steps can make a difference in our marriage. If you are interested in learning more about attachment and how to create security and safety in your relationship, I suggest you read one or both of Dr. Sue Johnson’s books which are listed below.

What are your thoughts on these do’s and don’ts? What has worked for you in creating attachment security?

  1. 1.Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  2. Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment (pp. 1-94). In B. M. Caldwell & H. N. Ricciuti (eds.), Review of child development research (Vol. 3). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Feeney, J. A. (2008). Adult romantic attachment: Developments in the study of couple relationships (pp. 456-481). In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  4. Johnson, Susan. (2008). Hold Me Tight. Little Brown, NY.
  5. Johnson, Susan. (2013). Love Sense. Little Brown, NY.
  6. Sandberg, J. G., Busby, D. M., Johnson, S. M., & Yoshida, K. (2012). The brief accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement (BARE) scale: A tool for measuring attachment behavior in couple relationships. Family Process, 51(4), 512-526. 


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