Childhood experiences, especially experiences with parents or primary caregivers, have a lasting impact.
Research has shown that in adolescence and adulthood, the way a person thinks about themself, the way they interact with and relate to others, and the development of romantic relationships are all guided by the interactions they had with their main caretaker as an infant.1,2 This is because their view of the world as either a daunting and unsafe place or as an opportunity-rich and secure place begins forming at about the same time that they get their binky.
When an infant feels secure in their relationship with their caregiver, they are more able to explore the world around them and believe in themself. This is because they know that they have a safe place and supportive person to come back to. The opposite is true when an infant distrusts their caregiver; the infant is less likely to explore and less able to reciprocate the love for their caregiver and love for themself. This idea forms the basis of attachment theory.3
In short, attachment theory states that the experiences an infant has with their primary caregiver will lead them into one of four attachment styles: secure, avoidant, anxious, or disorganized.4,5 Each category has its own descriptors that set it apart from the others, but to summarize, the securely attached category is associated with positive self-identity and well-formed relationships, while the opposite is true of the three insecure attachment styles.5,6
Depending on our personal attachment styles, we are more likely to approach a relationship with high anxiety or low anxiety and high avoidance or low avoidance.6 High anxiety is characterized by negative self-view and an unhealthy tendency to rely more on others/less on oneself, and high avoidance is characterized by positive self-view and an unhealthy tendency to rely more on oneself and less on others. Those individuals with low anxiety and low avoidance are secure in their relationship, while those who approach a relationship with either high anxiety or high avoidance or both are denoted as insecure in their relationship.7
Through the lens of attachment theory, relationships and their outcomes can be more nuanced than they may initially appear. This is why Dr. Xiaomin Li and her colleagues, including Dr. Ashley LeBaron-Black, recently studied the link between young adults’ attachment styles, their financial habits in romantic relationships, and their romantic relationship satisfaction.8
These researchers asked questions to determine the anxiety and avoidance levels of each spouse. One year later, another survey was given to participants, and this time, it aimed at determining how a spouse handled money and how they viewed their partners’ financial behaviors (positively or negatively). A third and final survey was given one year after the second to determine how satisfied a wife/husband was with their marriage.
One conclusion was that relationships between two securely attached spouses were often more satisfied with their marital relationship than those who had at least one spouse who was significantly anxious or avoidant. Similarly, husbands and wives who perceived their spouse as mismanaging the couples’ finances reported lower marital satisfaction.
In another study,10 Dr. Li, Dr. LeBaron-Black, and colleagues examined a different sample, this time focusing on adults who were married or in a relationship with a significant other. 635 answered a survey, which included questions to determine their attachment style, their own financial behavior, their perception of their significant other’s financial behavior, their romantic relationship satisfaction, and their overall life satisfaction.
Findings from this second study revealed that those who were highly anxious or highly avoidant in their attachments reported lower life and relationship satisfaction compared to those who were secure in their attachment. Additionally, the researchers found that the satisfaction levels of highly avoidant individuals were linked with their perception of their spouse’s financial habits. For those who were securely attached, personal financial behaviors were associated with better life satisfaction and the better one’s partner managed finances was connected to better relationship satisfaction.
Based on these research findings, consider the following takeaways:
1. Understand your, and your partner’s, attachment style. Both studies showed that negative, or at least less positive, outcomes were associated with insecure attachment styles. To determine your underlying attachment strengths and weaknesses, you can take an attachment style quiz found here. Whether you are securely attached or insecurely attached, you will likely find something in your attachment quiz results that you can strengthen. Work with your significant other to understand each other’s attachment styles and how each of you best receives love.
2. Have open and honest conversations about your finances. Both studies concluded that perceiving a spouse as mismanaging the couples’ finances was linked to lower relationship satisfaction. Whether or not your partner mismanages money, whether inadvertently or on purpose, viewing them in a negative (financial) light may lead to you experiencing less satisfaction in your relationship.
Instead, having consistent and open financial communication together may help partners get on the same page with money. These conversations might include some give and take in money management, but understanding why each other manages money the way they do can help partners understand each other. These conversations might be more productive with the help of relationship and financial experts. In-person marital therapy can be found here or online therapy here, and financial counseling can be found here. These research findings suggest that any effort to improve in couple financial management—and understanding each other’s attachment styles—would be worth it.
1Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1). Basic Books.
2Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2012). Adult attachment orientations and relationship processes. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 4, 259–274. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1756-2589.2012.00142.x
3Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental psychology, 28(5), 759.
4Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1969). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41(1), 49–67. https://doi.org/10.2307/1127388
5Main, M., Solomon, J., Brazelton, T. B., & Yogman, M. W. (1986). Affective development in infancy. Ablex.
6Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation: Anxiety and anger. Basic Books.
7Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2009). An attachment and behavioral systems perspective on social support. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 7–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407509105518
8Li, X., Curran, M. A., LeBaron-Black, A.B., Jorgensen, B., Yorgason, J., & Wilmarth, M.J. (2021). Couple-level attachment styles, finances, and marital satisfaction: Mediational analyses among young adult newlywed couples. Journal Family and Economic Issues, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-021-09808-x
9Feeney, B. C. (2016). Adult romantic attachment: Developments in the study of couple relationships. In J. Cassidy, & P. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (3rd ed.). Guilford Press. 465-481.
10Li, X., Curran, M. A., LeBaron, A. B., Serido, J., & Shim, S. (2020). Romantic attachment orientations, financial behaviors, and life outcomes among young adults: A mediating analysis of a college cohort. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 41(4), 658-671. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-020-09664-1