We’ve evolved to make a few individuals precious to us. Selection favoured attachment as it provided a survival advantage. In prehistoric times, those with somebody who deeply cared about them were more likely to survive than those who relied solely on themselves. Although we all have a basic need to form close bonds, the way we create them varies. In a dangerous environment, it would be less advantageous to invest energy in just one person because they would not likely be around for too long; it would make more sense to get less attached and move on (hence, avoidant attachment). Another option in that environment is to act in the opposite way and be intensely persistent and hyper vigilant about staying close to attachment figures (anxious attachment). In a peaceful setting, the bonds formed by investing greatly in particular individuals would yield greater benefits (secure attachment).
As a child, survival depends on attachment figures. Unresolved emotional patterns from insecure attachments are unknowingly recreated in our adult relationships. Psychologist John Bowlby described this: “Starting during his first months in his relation to both parents, [a child] builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him … and on all those models are based all his expectations … for the rest of his life.” These models influence intimacy, behaviour, and our perceptions of others. They are also influenced by our genes and life experiences.
Most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When our partner is unable to meet our needs, we experience a chronic sense of unease. Although the ability to self-soothe alone sometimes is important, it is a balance. The assumption that one should always control their emotional needs and self-soothe in the face of stress is wrong. Other people can help regulate our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. The instinct to have proximity to important people in stressful situations is normal, not a weakness.
When emotional needs are met and people are more effectively dependent on one another, the more independent they become. This is the “dependency paradox.” When we have a secure base, someone safe and dependable who can reassure when times are hard, we can turn our attention to the other aspects of life that make existence meaningful. We can take risks, be creative, and pursue dreams.
An attachment style is the regular manifestation of particular traits in relationships. These develop during childhood and remain into adulthood unless amended through corrective experiences.
There is secure attachment, and there are three insecure attachment styles. Most people experience traits across the continuum of attachment styles; however, typically we all adopt one primary attachment style.
Secure Attachment Style
Attachment security can occur when a relationship can provide support during emotionally difficult times. Securely attached adults learned that others are dependable. They feel loveable and able to love. They are able to depend on themselves and on others, can engage in healthy expressions of intimacy, and can also respect their own and other’s need for separateness. They have appropriate boundaries and are confident and trusting.
Secure adults are capable of constructively handling interpersonal difficulties by discussing issues to solve problems, rather than withdrawing or attacking. They can communicate emotions appropriately. They are compassionate, responsive, psychologically flexible and able to consider options and ask for advice. If a relationship ends, they tend to be more resilient. They can grieve, learn, and move on.
They do not portray their childhood as trouble free; they are objective regarding the positive and negative qualities of their parents. They may have worked through painful issues from childhood and can discuss these issues without much anxiety; have insight into the effects of early negative experiences; understanding and some level of forgiveness towards their caregivers. Secure adults have ups and downs like everyone, but their overall mature approach to relationships makes this the healthiest attachment style.
Here are a few tips from Parent Help on how to develop secure attachment:
Although many factors can shape attachment (e.g., temperament, context, early trauma), the keyway in which attachment develops is based on how the caregiver responds to and interacts with the child when they are young.
How consistent and reliable is the caregiver in meeting the needs of the child – such as providing basic needs (food) and most importantly the emotional need for comfort, support and security. How the parent responds to the child is what promotes attachment and includes behaviours such as:
Smiling and affectionate looks (e.g., see “the still face experiment” to experience how much facial expressions matter to infants)
Talking and listening (open and warm communication)
Physical touch and hugs (affection)
Laughter and play time together
Comforting the child when they are upset
Making amends (e.g., saying “I’m sorry”)
Structure and routine in daily activities (e.g., mealtimes, bedtimes)
Being available (e.g., attention directed at the child, not smartphone)
Accepting and validating feelings (e.g., “you sound upset, that must have been very hard for you!”)
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume II: Separation, anxiety and anger. In Attachment and Loss: Volume II: Separation, Anxiety and Anger (pp. 1-429). London: The Hogarth press and the institute of psycho-analysis.
Heller, D. (2019). The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2011). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find- and keep-love.