What Is Secure Attachment and How Does It Impact Your Life

March 5, 2024

Have you heard of the term secure attachment? Understanding this concept is key to excellent emotional health and resilient relationships. Secure attachment, formed early in life, may shape our ability to build trust, seek intimacy, and communicate effectively as adults. Let’s explore what secure attachment means, how you can develop it, as well as how the therapists at Resilience Lab can help.

Key Takeaways

  • Secure attachment, characterized by comfort with intimacy and independence, stems from consistent emotional support and accurate responses to an infant’s needs from the primary caregiver, which may form the basis for managing relationships and conflicts later in life.
  • Attachment theory, developed decades ago by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, underpins the psychological connectedness between human beings and outlines four main attachment styles: secure, ambivalent-insecure, avoidant-insecure, and disorganized-insecure, which may affect individual development and relationships into adulthood. Researchers later began investigating these styles as related to adult relationships
  • Resilience Lab therapists work to help individuals develop secure attachments by promoting self-awareness, mindfulness, effective communication, and healthier relationship habits, as well as providing strategies to address and repair negative patterns inherited from early caregiver relationships.

What Is Secure Attachment?

A pattern of adaptive behaviors in relationships, known as secure attachment style, stems from early interactions with the primary caregiver. This attachment style is characterized by:

  • Comfort with both intimacy and independence
  • Openly expressing emotions
  • Maintaining appropriate boundaries
  • Exhibiting empathy
  • Feeling safe in relationships

These qualities foster a sense of security in interactions with others. The development of secure attachment is rooted in consistent emotional support and accurate responses to an infant’s needs from the primary caregiver. This nurturing environment fosters self-confidence and lays the groundwork for effective management of conflict and intimacy in later life.

Fostering a secure attachment style often results in individuals evolving into self-confident, trusting, and hopeful adults. They are capable of forming stable and satisfying close relationships. As such, secure attachment may be a critical aspect of a person’s overall emotional health and well-being.

What Is Attachment Theory?

British psychologist John Bowlby developed the attachment theory in the 1950’s, which elucidates the psychological underpinnings of emotional bonds and relationships between people. This theory focuses on the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings, which Bowlby observed in children’s distress and anxiety when separated from their primary caregivers.  Bowlby believed that children have an innate drive to form attachments, a trait he viewed as an outcome of evolutionary processes, aimed at ensuring survival by staying close to caregivers.

Key points of the attachment theory:

  • Emotional bonds and relationships between people are important for psychological well-being.
  • Children have an innate drive to form attachments with caregivers.
  • Children typically experience distress and anxiety when separated from their primary caregivers.
  • Attachment is a product of evolutionary processes.

Building on Bowlby’s work, Mary Ainsworth expanded the theory with her “strange situation” study, which identified four major styles of attachment:

  1. Secure attachment
  2. Ambivalent-insecure attachment
  3. Avoidant-insecure attachment
  4. Disorganized-insecure attachment

These attachment styles, influenced by factors such as opportunity for attachment, quality caregiving, and the infant’s temperament, may have significant implications for later life. For example, securely attached children tend to develop stronger self-esteem, perform better in school, and experience less depression and anxiety as they grow older.

Studies have indicated that the scope of attachment theory goes beyond childhood. Adult attachment styles, reflected in how we interact with our partners and friends, are shaped by our early attachment experiences. Insecure attachment styles can lead to a variety of mental health disorders, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Substance abuse

The Four Main Attachment Styles

Understanding our attachment style can shed light on our behaviors and emotions in relationships. As identified by attachment theory, there are four main attachment styles:

  1. Secure
  2. Avoidant
  3. Ambivalent
  4. Disorganized

Each of these attachment styles has its unique characteristics and impacts on our relationships.

Secure attachment

People exhibiting a secure attachment style, as previously mentioned, display the following characteristics:

  • Comfort with both intimacy and autonomy
  • Ability to express their emotions openly
  • Maintaining appropriate boundaries
  • Exhibiting empathy
  • Feeling a sense of safety in their relationships

This balance between intimacy and autonomy allows them to form meaningful relationships, enhancing their overall emotional health.

Secure attachment in adults, especially in securely attached adults, is often evident in their relationships. They tend to:

  • Be better at grounding themselves, possessing a solid relationship with themselves before extending that to others
  • Be capable of regulating their emotions
  • Engage in relationships intentionally, assessing compatibility before committing

Secure attachment also extends to their romantic relationships. Securely attached couples tend to:

  • Be emotionally available
  • Support and respect each other
  • Communicate openly to resolve problems
  • Adapt to their partner’s perspective
  • Be forgiving
  • Feel secure in their sexual relationship as part of emotional intimacy

Avoidant attachment

Contrarily, individuals with an avoidant attachment style typically steer clear of emotional closeness, cherish independence, and exhibit discomfort with intimacy. They often prefer independence to relational bonds, which can make it difficult for them to form close relationships.

Avoidant attachment style can result from experiences such as parental unavailability or rejection during infancy. Such experiences can lead to a pattern of avoiding emotional closeness in adulthood, often manifesting as discomfort with intimacy and a marked preference for independence. In contrast, an anxious attachment style may develop from inconsistent or unpredictable caregiving during early childhood. A related concept is fearful avoidant attachment, which shares some characteristics with both avoidant and anxious attachment styles.

Avoidant individuals, when in adult relationships, might show significant unease with intimacy and closeness. They tend to value their independence, often preferring to maintain emotional distance in their relationships. This can impact their ability to form meaningful connections and may lead to challenges in their relationships.

Ambivalent attachment

Conversely, individuals with an ambivalent attachment style are distinguished by an intense need for closeness, a fear of rejection, and a reliance on partners for self-validation. This can lead to a pattern of clingy or codependent behavior in relationships.

Ambivalently attached individuals often display a heightened need for closeness and fear of rejection. They may rely heavily on their partners for self-validation, which can create a dynamic of overdependence in their relationships. This pattern can be challenging to navigate, both for the individual and their partner.

This attachment style may reveal itself in adult relationships as a battle with fears and anxiety concerning their partner’s affection. Ambivalently attached adults may behave in a clingy or codependent manner, often seeking constant reassurance and validation from their partners.

Disorganized attachment

Finally, individuals with an insecure attachment style, specifically those with a disorganized attachment style, often display extremely inconsistent behaviors, typically a result of childhood trauma. This inconsistency can affect their ability to trust and connect with others. In adult relationships, they may find it challenging to self-soothe emotions, may see relationships and the world as frightening, and sometimes replicate abusive patterns seen in childhood.

In adult relationships, disorganized attachment can manifest as:

  • Difficulty in self-soothing emotions
  • A tendency to see relationships and the world as frightening
  • Replicating abusive patterns seen in their childhood, further complicating their ability to form healthy relationships

How Does Secure Attachment Form in Early Childhood?

Consistent emotional support from the primary caregiver helps form secure attachment in early childhood. When infants or children feel threatened, they naturally seek proximity to their primary attachment figure for reassurance and safety.

This consistent emotional support and accurate response to their needs foster a sense of security that encourages them to explore and learn.

Secure attachment forms when the caregiver provides a stable and safe environment, especially in moments of stress. This encourages the infant to explore and learn, fostering a sense of security and promoting healthy development.

What Are Common Symptoms of Secure Attachment?

Secure attachment is associated with a range of positive characteristics that contribute to healthy development and relationships. These include:

  • Self-confidence
  • Emotional awareness
  • Effective conflict resolution
  • Satisfaction in close relationships

Securely attached individuals often demonstrate healthy boundaries, establishing a sense of self and respecting both their own space and that of their partners. They maintain solid social networks and encourage their partners to develop connections outside of the romantic relationship.

Open communication is another hallmark of secure attachment. Securely attached individuals can express their needs and desires clearly, creating a space for mutual understanding and growth. They also show genuine interest in their partner’s life, goals, and daily activities, further deepening their relationship.

How Does Secure Attachment Impact Your Life?

Various aspects of an individual’s life are positively influenced by secure attachment. For instance, securely attached individuals tend to:

  • Have a positive self-image
  • Be effective in managing stress
  • Have constructive beliefs, viewing problems as manageable and stressful events as opportunities for learning

In relationships, secure attachment often manifests as:

  • Trust
  • Intimacy
  • Open communication
  • Marital satisfaction

Securely attached couples tend to be emotionally available, support and respect each other, and communicate openly to resolve problems.

Secure attachment has several benefits, including:

  • Providing psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities
  • Contributing to emotional well-being
  • Building resilience in coping with stressful life events
  • Acting as a protective factor against maladjustment

How Resilience Lab Therapists Can Help

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.

Our therapists at Resilience Lab can help people develop a more secure attachment by guiding them to reflect on their attachment style and how they approach relationships. We guide our clients to develop healthier habits and patterns that foster positive relationships.

We can help people in:

  • Understanding their attachment styles
  • Exploring the origins of these styles in their relationships with early caregivers
  • Promoting mindfulness and self-love
  • Identifying better partners
  • Being more comfortable with being alone
  • Developing skills and patterns of behavior that align with a more secure attachment style

Our therapists also provide strategies and tips for individuals to improve their relationships by becoming warmer, more reliable, and attentive in the way they engage with others, mirroring the positive aspects of secure attachment. We help clients identify and address patterns of neglect, avoidance, or abuse learned from caregivers that may be hindering the formation of healthy relationships.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.