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Secure Attachment: Exploring the Foundation of Attachment

Posted August 30, 2023 | Written by Stephanie Underwood, RSW


Unsplash Image source: a ship with an anchor dropped in blue waters

KEY POINTS

  • Safety at the Core: Secure attachment fundamentally revolves around the concept of safety, both physical and emotional.

  • Childhood Foundations: A child's relationship with primary caregivers lays the groundwork for future attachment patterns.

  • Secure Attachment in Adulthood: Traits of individuals with secure attachment include emotional openness, genuine trust, and a balance of intimacy and independence.

  • Relationship Dynamics: Recognizing personal attachment patterns and effectively communicating needs are crucial for cultivating secure bonds.

  • Empowerment through Awareness: Actively working towards a secure attachment involves introspection, education, and consistent effort in building trust.

 

From the day we're born to our adult years, there's one thing that plays a big role in our relationships: attachment. At the root of Attachment is the need for physical and emotional safety. During our infancy, it manifests in our cries for nourishment, our reach for a comforting embrace, and our instinctual desire to be close to those who provide care. It's the infant asking, "Do I feel safe enough to survive this world with you?" As we grow older and begin to navigate friendships, romances, and a myriad interpersonal dynamics, this question evolves as we seek relationships that offer trust, understanding, and authenticity: "Can I be my true self with you? Will you stand by me through the highs and lows?" Over the lifespan, the details of how we connect with others might change, but the foundation remains the same; the desire to feel safe, secure, and connected to others.


In this blog post, we'll talk about what a 'secure attachment' means, how it develops in childhood, the characteristics of people with a secure attachment, and how it presents in our adult relationships. We'll also discuss how we can work towards developing a more secure attachment style for those who have an insecure attachment.


Understanding Secure Attachment


At the heart of secure attachment lies an elemental need: safety. From an evolutionary standpoint, our ancestors depended on social bonds for survival. A securely attached infant, confident in the presence of a reliable caregiver, had better odds of survival in a world replete with threats. This early reliance on caregivers for protection and sustenance has evolved into our modern understanding of attachment, but the core principle remains the same.


A Secure attachment is an enduring bond, rooted in trust, that cultivates both physical and emotional safety. Babies are born and need to rely on a caregiver to survive. We often focus on meeting the physical needs of a child; providing them with a shelter, food, and shelter from the cold. However, meeting a child's emotional needs is equally as important and shapes the child's perspective of themselves and the world as they move across the lifespan. To develop a secure attachment, a child must feel unconditionally loved by their primary caregivers. Unconditional love refers to a type of affection and commitment that is unwavering and not contingent on any specific conditions or circumstances. It implies a consistent and undying love regardless of faults, mistakes, or shortcomings in the individual being loved. In essence, unconditional love means loving someone "as they are," without expecting anything in return or setting conditions for the love to continue. It's the knowledge that the child can express themselves, voice their fears, and share their joys, confident in the responsiveness and understanding of their attachment figure.


Here is an example of what conditional love looks like between a parent and a child:




Forming a Secure Attachment in Childhood


Every individual's journey of attachment begins in the cradle. The earliest experiences with the primary caregivers lay the groundwork for patterns of connection that last across the lifespan. Central to this foundational phase is responsive caregiving. When caregivers respond consistently and sensitively to a child's cues and needs, they instill a sense of security and assurance. This dynamic isn't about catering to a child's every whim but discerning and addressing genuine needs in a timely and loving manner.


This foundation of responsive caregiving paves the way for the child to experience both exploration and safety. With a reliable figure to anchor them, children feel emboldened to venture out and explore their environment. They can indulge their natural curiosity, knowing that they have a safe and secure base to return to should they encounter challenges or uncertainties. Central to this sense of security is the building of trust. Trust isn't an instantaneous product but a result of repeated experiences of predictability and reliability. When caregivers are consistent—when their actions match their words and when they're present both physically and emotionally— it fosters a deep-seated trust in the child, a belief that the world can be a reliable place.


Secure Attachment in Adulthood


The foundation laid in childhood by a secure attachment forms the bedrock for our interactions in adulthood. At its core, the desire for safety persists, driving many of our choices, behaviours, and relational dynamics. But what does this safety-centric secure attachment look like in the complex landscape of adult relationships?


Shaver & Hazan's 1987 study suggests that individuals with a secure attachment style often display traits such as low neurotic tendencies, increased agreeableness, and pronounced extraversion. These individuals are typically open about personal details with their close companions and maintain trust in them. They consistently value their relationships, even when faced with challenges. A characteristic of secure individuals is the stability in their emotional and social interactions. They often highlight the presence of strong social support, overall interpersonal contentment, and a balanced dynamic in friendships. When it comes to romantic relationships, they generally experience fewer negative emotions and perceive them as fulfilling and high in quality. They also exhibit strong social skills, feel less isolated, and frequently engage in compassionate and helpful behaviours. Their positive self-perception manifests in high self-regard, acceptance, confidence, and minimal personal distress. Based on the California Personality Inventory, there's a positive association between secure attachment and attributes such as sociability, understanding of others, adaptability in social settings, autonomy, and open-mindedness.


Individuals with a secure attachment are often hallmarked by a deep-seated sense of trust and comfort. They possess:

  • Trust: A foundational belief in the reliability and predictability of their attachment figures. This trust extends beyond just physical safety and encompasses emotional well-being.

  • Comfort in Intimacy: A willingness to be vulnerable, rooted in the belief that their emotions are valid and will be met with understanding and care.

  • Ability to Set Boundaries: A reflection of both self-respect and trust in others, understanding that true safety includes respecting personal limits.

For securely attached individuals, safety is the assurance that, both physically and emotionally, they are protected, valued, and understood. Adults with a secure attachment carry a unique blend of self-awareness, emotional openness, and resilience. They often exhibit:

  • Emotional Openness: They feel comfortable sharing their feelings, trusting that they will be met with empathy and understanding.

  • Self-Awareness: A reflection of their emotional security, they possess an understanding of their needs, strengths, and areas for growth.

  • Comfort with Both Intimacy and Independence: They understand that true emotional safety involves both closeness and respecting personal autonomy.

Secure Attachment In Relationships


Securely attached adults often cultivate relationships that mirror the safety and trust they experienced (or have come to foster within themselves). They typically display:

  • Equal Partnerships: A dynamic where both parties feel seen, heard, and valued, promoting a shared sense of security.

  • Healthy Conflict Resolution: Conflicts, rather than being avoided, are approached as opportunities to deepen understanding and reinforce the relationship's safety net.

  • Genuine Trust and Mutual Respect: An unwavering belief in the reliability of their partner, coupled with a respect that further solidifies the relationship's safe foundation.

  • Balancing Intimacy and Independence: Recognizing that a truly safe relationship celebrates both togetherness and individuality. They are able to be close, share vulnerable moments, yet also give space when needed, understanding that individual growth enhances collective strength.


Developing a Secure Attachment in Adult Relationships


The journey towards establishing a secure attachment in our relationships begins with an intrinsic need for safety — the very heart of our relational needs. Here's how it unfolds:


Recognizing Patterns

  • By being aware of our current attachment style, we can discern the safe harbours and the tumultuous seas in our relational interactions. Understanding these patterns helps us make conscious decisions that align more with our desire for safety and connection.

Communication

  • Open dialogue is the keystone of any relationship transformation. By communicating our needs, fears, and desires, we create a safe space where both partners feel heard and valued, laying the foundation for a secure bond.

Seeking Support

  • Therapy or counselling can offer a safe environment, helping us navigate our attachment concerns. Professionals, with their expertise, can provide guidance and emotional safety, allowing us to delve deeper into understanding our attachment needs for safety and how to acquire this in our relationships.


Actively Cultivating a Secure Attachment Style


A secure attachment isn't just an end goal; it's an ongoing journey, a commitment to ensuring safety in our inner world and our relationships.


Self-awareness

  • Self-awareness allows us to recognize and understand our attachment patterns, making it easier to address and change them. By being conscious of our insecurities and reactions, we can work towards building healthier, more secure relationships with others.

Mindfulness and Emotional Regulation

  • Techniques like mindfulness keep us anchored, allowing us to experience emotions without getting overwhelmed. They guide us to process emotions in a healthy way, ensuring our internal world remains a safe space.

Educating Oneself

  • The more we learn about attachment theory, the better equipped we are to ensure safety in our interactions. Knowledge gives us tools, strategies, and insights to reinforce the safety nets in our relationships.

Building Trust in Small Steps

  • Trust is the foundation of safety. By taking incremental steps, celebrating small victories, and reinforcing trust in our relationships, we ensure that the sanctuary of safety we build is both enduring and robust.


Final Words


Rooted in our earliest experiences with caregivers, a secure attachment forms the foundation of our ability to trust, to love, and to engage meaningfully with the world around us. The hallmarks of this attachment style—consistency, reliability, and a genuine sense of safety.


It's crucial to recognize that while our childhood plays a significant role in the molding of our attachment styles, the journey doesn't end there. As adults, we hold the power to reshape and nurture a more secure attachment within ourselves. Through introspection, conscious effort, and perhaps with the guidance of professionals, we can foster safety, trust, and a deeper sense of security in our relationships.


Emphasizing safety as the crux of secure attachment not only underscores its importance but also offers a clear direction for those seeking to cultivate it. In a world replete with uncertainties, the sanctuary of a secure attachment provides an anchor—a testament to the enduring human spirit, ever yearning for connection, understanding, and, above all, love.







 

References


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum


Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.


Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood:

A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Monographs

of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50, (1-2, Serial No. 209), 66-106.


Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of a new, insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment

pattern. In M. Yogman & B. Brazelton (Eds.), Affective development in infancy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.


Sara H. Konrath1,2, William J. Chopik1, Courtney K. Hsing1, and Ed O’Brien1; Changes in Adult Attachment Styles in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis.


Vaughn, B., Egeland, B., Sroufe, L., & Waters, E. (1979). Individual differences in infant-mother

attachment: Stability and change in families under stress. Child Development, 50, 971-975.

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