The Value of Relationship Security
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 23, 2022
According to attachment theory, infants that have secure attachments are confident, willing to temporarily leave the comfort of their mothers and explore their surroundings, knowing their mother will be waiting for them when they are ready to return. The mother provides a secure base for the child to leave from and return to when needed.
During the early moments of a child's development, the shared smiles, the warm comforting during distress, and the emotionally present caregiver begins the foundations of secure attachment. John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, wrote that "these are first the pattern of secure attachment in which the individual is confident that his parent (or parent figure) will be available, responsive, and helpful should he encounter adverse or frightening situations. With this assurance, he feels bold in his explorations of the world (1988, Kindle location 1,511).
Securely Attached is a psychological term from attachment theory, referring to an individual experiencing security in their relationships, confidently relying on a caregiver (or partner) to provide the necessary support, care, and love.
Secure Attachment is Common
Out of the four identified attachment styles (secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized), secure attachments are the most common. Around 66% of children emerge from childhood with a secure attachment style (Keller, 2018). Most of us are blessed because secure attachments tend to impact many other aspects of our lives.
The Benefits of Being Securely Attached
According to an experimental study in Germany found that children at three years of age who "earlier (were) assessed as securely attached respond to potential failure with increased effort, whereas the insecurely attached do the opposite. In other words, the securely attached children are responding with confidence and hope that they can succeed whilst the insecure are already showing signs of helplessness and defeatism" (1988, location 2,040).
John Gottman wrote that "securely attached children did better in school, did better in social relationships, and generally fared better throughout life than insecurely attached children" (2011, location 3,944).
The key characteristics of a securely attached child is that they exhibit a sense of security that allows them to cope with problems and to adapt well to unfamiliar situations.
The child integrates an internal working model of relationships that supports the idea that intimacy brings a sense of security. This key component of trust allows for future relationships to flourish.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a recognized leader in the new science of relationships, has found that "a sense of secure connection between romantic partners is key in positive loving relationships and a huge source of strength for the individuals in those relationships."
Johnson states that among the more significant findings from her research of couples is that "when we feel generally secure, that is, we are comfortable with closeness and confident about depending on loved ones, we are better at seeking support — and better at giving it" (2008, location 274).
Secure attachment is built through everyday sensitive and "appropriately responsive parenting," according to infant mental health specialist Robin Balbernie. He explains that "the baby's brain seems 'designed' to adapt itself on a neurological level to the quality of the early relationships..." He continues to explain that the babies brain is "at its most responsive and adaptable phase of growth in the first 2-3 years of life, when its basic architecture is being put together during the phase of maximum brain growth, and this will be greatly influenced by the family setting" (2013, p. 210).
Secure Attachment Style and Depression
Research has found a negative association between secure attachments and depression. Basically, those who are securely attached experience less depression.
An interesting study conducted by Chris Fraley and his colleagues at the University of Illinois discovered was the impact of secure attachment on the recovery from traumatic experiences. They found from a study of "9/11 survivors who were in or near the World Trade Center. Eighteen months later, those who avoided depending on others were struggling with more flashbacks, hyper-irritability, and depression compared with those who felt securely attached to loved ones. In fact, the securely attached survivors, reported their friends and relatives, appeared to be even better adjusted after the attack than they were before."
Their study revealed that those with secure attachments "seemed to have been able to rise above the situation and actually grow from it" (2008, Johnson, Kindle location 3021).
Perhaps, the resilience factor is in play, creating a layer of protection against depression. Some researchers tie resilience to the secure base script that the child has internalized as a working model. "A child with a secure base script expects that when distresses, their signal for assistance will be met with a caregiver's comforting and regulating support, which will then enable them to overcome the challenge" (2020, Scott, et al., p. 417).
Scott and his colleagues hypothesized that it was trait gratitude that contributed to the depression correlation. They conducted a study with 157 Flemish children, testing for attachment style and symptoms of depression. The results of their research "fully supported the...hypothesis, suggesting that attachment is linked with trait gratitude." They concluded that "trait gratitude could ne a valuable factor explaining more securely attached children's resilience against the development of depressive symptoms" (2020, p. 424).
Attachment Styles are Self Re-enforcing
Our beliefs, especially primal world beliefs, are typically self-reenforcing. We see the world through these lenses and interpret experiences based on our beliefs. Unless, of course,, something so devastating or wonderful happens to shatter our primary assumptions, leaving us to rewrite our personal narrative.
Bowlby explains that both childhood attachments to caregivers and later adult relationships are severely impacted by insecure attachments, leading to continued broken relationships. For the child, Bowlby explains "an anxious ambivalent child is apt to be whiny and clinging, whilst an anxious avoidant child keeps his distance, is bad-tempered and prone to bully other children. In each of these cases the child's behaviour is likely to elicit an unfavorable response from the parent so that vicious circles develop" (1988, location 2056).
Unfortunately, insecure attachments continue to influence courting and intimate relationships in adulthood. Bowlby suggests the insecurely attached individuals are more likely to settle for unsuitable partners, and later, as the relationship develops, they are more likely "to make unduly heavy demands" and/or treat their partner badly (location 2133).
Researchers hypothesize that parental treatment that contributes to insecure attachments such as unresponsiveness to the child's needs, either though misattunement, inattentiveness, or indifference, is internalized by the child. "As a consequence of such interactions, children develop expectations about how others will respond to them" (Hazen & Shaver, 1994).
Hazen and Shaver expand on this concept by writing, "thus, the attachment orientation has been used to explain why some people are secure and trusting in close relationships, whereas others tend to be worried and unsure about their partners, and still others have learned that relationships are so fraught with danger and unpleasantness that it's best to keep others at a distance or avoid relationships altogether" (1994).
The working model of a secure base is burned into the securely attached child's brain. They see intimacy as desirable and worthy of trust. These children are more likely to achieve intimate and trusting relationships as adults further strengthening their internal working model. When they look around, they are more likely to see other relationships matching their privately held ideals. "Whereas negative exemplars were more available and accessible for avoidant and anxious-ambivalent persons" (1994, Kindle location 6,061).
Hazen and Shaver add to this discussion that "the positive feelings of secure persons that they are loved by significant others led them to the conviction that intimate relationships are rewarding and foster the desire to become intimate with people." They continue, "insecure persons' experiences with nonresponsive others teach them that attachment behaviors are painful and that other interaction goals and behaviors should be developed as defenses against the distress caused by attachment experiences" (location 6,086).
Life tends to validate our expectations. Whether we are securely attached or insecurely attached, our focus and behaviors fulfill our expectations, supporting our trust or by validating our fears.
Childhood Attachment Style Not a Lifetime Sentence
While attachment styles are fairly stable and resistant to change they are not impenetrable. Even Bowlby recognizes the possibility of escape. He wrote, "gloomy though these conclusions are, we must remember always that a disastrous outcome is not inevitable" (1988, location 2,136).
Hazen and Shaver encouragingly report that "despite forces favoring the stability of individual differences in attachment, change is always possible." They continue, "the experience of just one important relationship that disconfirms insecure expectations of unreliability or rejection increases the likelihood of forming a secure attachment in adulthood" (1994, location 5,620).
Sue Johnson also proclaims hope. She writes, "we are not prisoners of the past. We can change for the better...we can heal even deep vulnerabilities with the help of a loving spouse. We can 'earn' a basic sense of secure connection with the aid of a responsive partner who helps us deal with painful feelings. Love really does transform us" (2008, location 1,304).
A Few Final Words on Attachment
Since the early days of attachment theory much has been discovered in brain science. We now know there is much more to a child's attachment type than simply good or bad parenting. We can't dismiss parenting as irrelevant but we also should refrain from blaming the parent.
Understanding attachment and attachment styles may prove helpful as we navigate the complex world of social interactions.
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Balbernie, R. (2013). The importance of secure attachment for infant mental health. Journal of Health Visiting, 1(4), 210-217.
Bowlby, John (1988). A Secure Base. Basic Books; Reprint edition.
Gottman, John M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.
Hazen, P.; Shaver, P. R. (1994) Attachment as an Organizational framework for Research on Close relationships. In Close Relationships: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology). Editors Caryl E. Rusbult & Harry T. Reis. Psychology Press; 1st edition
Keller, Heidi, (2018). Universality claim of attachment theory: Children’s socioemotional development across cultures. PNAS.
Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown Spark; 1st edition.
Scott, V., Verhees, M., De Raedt, R., Bijttebier, P., Vasey, M., Van de Walle, M., Waters, T., & Bosmans, G. (2020). Gratitude: A Resilience Factor for More Securely Attached Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 30(2), 416-430.