The Science of Relationships

Understanding Secure Attachment

Of the attachment styles, secure attachment is primarily the experience of knowing and trusting a caregiver as a source of safety, soothing, and regulation.

Secure/Autonomous Attachment Style

  • A positive view of self and others
  • Find it easy and comfortable to be emotionally close to others
  • Comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them
  • Don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept them; comfortable with distance from others
  • Believe they are valuable and worthy as individuals and also that others are trustworthy and dependable
  • Exhibit a balance of intimacy and independence that is a hallmark of secure attachments
  • Report greater satisfaction and adjustment in relationships

      Secure attachment is primarily the experience of knowing and trusting a caregiver as a source of safety, soothing, and regulation.

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      In the strange situation experiment, the gold-standard protocol developed to measure attachment in infants, infants are exposed to a stressful separation from their caregiver and their behavior is carefully observed and classified into four attachment categories: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. These categories describe different relationship patterns that first emerge as adaptive survival strategies early in life. In the strange situation experiment, secure infants are marked by behaviors that balance both proximity-seeking and the ability to both self-soothe and receive soothing from a trusted caregiver.

      The infant has learned that her caregiver is dependable and consistent, and this expectation of care creates security for the infant. The infant is free to explore away from her caregiver only because she has learned that she can return to the caregiver if needed, and that the caregiver will be able to soothe, help, and protect in an emotionally satisfying way. In this way, the proximity-seeking behavior of infants such as crying, reaching, or moving toward are met with welcome, warmth, acceptance, and usually the quick return to calm and comfort.

      Through these repeated experiences, infants develop not only trust in others but also a positive view of themselves. The repeated warm welcome communicates something like, “hey, you’re pretty great, I love connecting with you.” From this place of security and self-worth, secure infants often alternate between independent, exploratory behavior and affectionate, proximity-seeking behavior.

      Secure Attachment - An Optimal Human Adaptation

      Secure attachment is at its core an optimal human adaptation to our relational environment. We are deeply social creatures, and proximity to one another is a primary way that we not only survive but also thrive.

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      In secure attachment, early experiences are characterized by predictable, consistent, and “good enough” responses to our needs (we’re not talking about perfect parenting here---there’s no such thing!). In an infant, this looks like changing a diaper when it is wet, feeding when a child is hungry, and holding and soothing when an infant is upset or lonely. Secure parents are able to regulate themselves through self-soothing or regulation with other adults, and are able to approach their children with a mostly calm and non-anxious presence. The message conveyed is “I’ve got you! I’m up for the job of taking care of you!”

      “I’ve got you! I’m up for the job of taking care of you!”

      Usually, an early pattern of security endures into adulthood (and even into generations beyond!). Secure adults are able to do four things well in their relationships:

      1. Give care. The ability to show up for others and to be responsive to others’ needs.
      2. Receive care. The ability to let others show up for you.
      3. Practice autonomy. The ability to pursue and value your own desires, dreams, and needs.
      4. Negotiate needs. The ability to set boundaries and compromise when your needs are in conflict with the needs of others

        Overall, secure adults balance the needs of the self with the needs of others. They are able to navigate the complex and nuanced attachment dance with others by reading and responding to their own cues, as well as the cues of others. Secure attachment is associated with lifelong well-being, health, and satisfaction. Because we are deeply connected to one another as humans, the ability to create and sustain emotionally healthy relationships provides an essential protective buffer for surviving and thriving in a complex world.

        We are all at different places along the spectrum of being secure attachment figures, and the good news is that the brain is malleable into adulthood and we can all still change and grow in this area. To learn more about how you can grow in being a secure attachment figure check out our article on earned secure attachment.

        About the author

        Kelley Munger

        PhD, LPC, NCC

        Kelley holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. She is passionate about leveraging the power of relationships to promote developmental flourishing across the lifespan.

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