Characteristics of Secure Attachment

Characteristics of Secure Attachment

Let’s look at how to develop secure attachment in relationships.

Secure attachment is a way of existing in the world and relating to other people (Bowlby, 1979). It is a way of interacting in which we can create, establish, and maintain healthy relationships. We are secure in our abilities to depend upon other people, while also maintaining independence. We can move closer to and further away from other people as we need to.

People with secure attachment see the people they are close to – whom in attachment theory we often call “attachment figures” – as both a safe haven and a secure base (Bowlby, 1979). This is probably easier to understand if we think about secure attachment among children first. A securely attached child sees their caregiver as a safe haven: when they are worried or stressed out, they know they can turn to the caregiver for reassurance and support. They also see their caregiver as a secure base – somebody from whom they can safely venture out into the world and explore.

In adult relationships, secure attachment looks similar: it means you can confide in and trust the person, but also trust them to support you as you pursue an independent existence. Importantly, people with secure attachment are able to do this because they know how to ask for both closeness and distance, and they trust other people will not reject them for these needs.

Another way to look at secure attachment is through the official measures that psychologists have created to measure it. For example, the main scale that psychologists use to study attachment in adults breaks down into subscales measuring the ability to be close to others, the ability to depend on others, and fear of being alone or unloved (Kazan & Shaver, 1987). People with a high ability to be close to others, a high ability to depend on others, and low fear of being alone and unloved are said to be securely attached; they also experience more trust in other people, higher self-esteem, and show more positive beliefs about human nature (Collins & Read, 1990). 

“A secure attachment is the ability to bond; to develop a secure and safe base…”
― Asa Don Brown

Benefits of Secure Attachment

People with secure attachment styles tend to be psychologically healthier than people with insecure attachment styles. In a very interesting study, Researchers determined the attachment styles of a group of scientists, then observed how these scientists fared psychologically as they worked at an extremely remote Antarctic research station for 12 months (Caputo et al., 2020).

There are two primary, fascinating findings in this study. First, people with secure attachment styles reported less psychological stress and showed little reactivity to stress in their bodies. Second, their genes associated with stress changed much less over the 12 months than the genes of people with less secure attachment styles. The researchers observed that people with secure attachments seem to be more resilient in the face of stress.

Experimental research suggests that it is the imagining or recalling of attachment figures – people with whom we have experienced secure attachment – that helps us deal effectively with stress. For example, people who cope with frightening situations by thinking of people close to them are less fearful of those situations when they encounter them again (Toumbelekis et al., 2021) – and this is something that it is much easier to do when you are securely attached.

There is also research that indicates that people with more secure attachment are more effective leaders in their professional roles (Ronen & Zuroff, 2017). This seems to be attributable to their ability to form effective relationships and manage conflict.

How to Develop a Secure Attachment

Psychologists write about the ability to “earn” secure attachment in adulthood. People who find new attachment figures, such as close friends, partners, therapists, or mentors, and build healthy relationships with them, can develop secure attachment styles (Saunders et al., 2011). These adults can experience the benefits of secure attachment once they have established it (Roisman et al., 2002).

This is easier said than done: building a healthy, secure relationship when one has not experienced this before is no easy task. It takes many experiences over time for these experiences with an effective attachment figure to generalize to our understandings of the world at large (Gillath et al., 2008).

Secure Attachment in Romantic Relationships

One of the most popular and effective therapies for couples – Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) – is based entirely on the premise of attachment theory (Johnson, 2019). EFT therapists help couples experience moments of secure attachment with each other, and healthier relationships result. This is also no small task because most couples that seek therapy do so because their insecure attachment styles make it harder to get and stay close to each other (Simpson, 1990). At the heart of almost all healthy relationships, however, is a foundation of secure attachment that allows the couple to navigate life’s challenges together.

In Sum

While attachment styles tend to be stable, they absolutely can and do change (Waters et al., 2000). Just as negative experiences with attachment figures can lead to insecure attachment, positive experiences of intimacy and relationship can move us toward more secure attachment.

References

● Bowlby, J. (1979). The Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(4), 637–638.

● Caputo, V., Pacilli, M. G., Arisi, I., Mazza, T., Brandi, R., Traversa, A., … & Macrì, S. (2020). Genomic and physiological resilience in extreme environments are associated with a secure attachment style. Translational Psychiatry, 10(1), 185.

● Collins, N. L., & Read, S. J. (1990). Adult attachment, working models, and relationship quality in dating couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(4), 644–663.

● Gillath, O., Selcuk, E., & Shaver, P. R. (2008). Moving toward a secure attachment style: Can repeated security priming help? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(4), 1651-1666.

● Johnson, S. (2019). Attachment in action—changing the face of 21st century couple therapy. Current Opinion in Psychology, 25, 101-104.

● Roisman, G. I., Padrón, E., Sroufe, L. A., & Egeland, B. (2002). Earned–secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect. Child Development, 73(4), 1204-1219.

● Ronen, S., & Zuroff, D. C. (2017). How does secure attachment affect job performance and job promotion? The role of social-rank behaviors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 100, 137-148.

● Saunders, R., Jacobvitz, D., Zaccagnino, M., Beverung, L. M., & Hazen, N. (2011). Pathways to earned-security: The role of alternative support figures. Attachment & Human Development, 13(4), 403-420.

● Simpson, J. A. (1990). Influence of attachment styles on romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5), 971–980.

● Toumbelekis, M., Liddell, B. J., & Bryant, R. A. (2021). Secure attachment primes reduce fear consolidation. Depression and Anxiety, 38(10), 1078-1086.

● Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71, 684–689