Secure and Insecure Attachments
Attachment theorists discuss people as have secure or insecure attachment styles. I believe we all are insecure in our attachments—at some point, a beloved did not meet our need for love. That’s an inevitable part of two humans having a relationship: sometimes, our beloved is going to not notice or misinterpret our needs; sometimes, we’re going to be too driven by our fears to offer love in a way that is helpful to our beloved. AND, I believe that, even with our insecure attachments, we can all be securely attached—simultaneously (see my blog, Who am I? Who are You? for a discussion on the Principle of Complementarity).
I spent a good part of this past summer sailing the North and South Ionian Seas. Often, we stayed ‘on the hook’—trusting a 55 lb. anchor and some chain to keep a 21,000 lb. sailboat in place. Amazingly, most of the time, it did! Similarly, most of the time, our small insecure selves are able to feel and offer momentous love—but every now and then, the holding is just not good enough or we don’t have enough chain for the depth of the water, and we slip from secure to insecure attachments.
As adults, our attachment style affects both how we perceive love that is offered to us and how we extend love to others, our caregiving.
When we are feeling securely attached, we are confident that the people we love will be available when we need them. We believe we will be able to reestablish feelings of security and emotional well-being by turning to our beloved—or just thinking about our relationship with them. In addition, we are prone to view our beloved’s attempts at soothing us as effective. We are more likely to give our beloved the benefit of the doubt regarding their behavior. We can dismiss minor transgressions by our beloved as situational. In sum, we believe we are worthy of love—we feel connected and experience ourselves as worthy.
Our caregiving system is activated by seeing someone in danger, stress, or discomfort; the person may be seeking help, or we believe that they would benefit from help. In addition, our impulse to care is activated when we see someone with the opportunity for exploration, learning, or mastery—for growth—where we could help them take advantage of these opportunities or validate their efforts and accomplishments. Caregiving requires that we have great sensitivity: we must accurately interpret the needs of the person we seek to help, know our abilities and resources, and assess the environment. For help to be useful, it needs to be responsive: validating the person’s needs and feelings, respecting the person’s beliefs and feelings, and resulting in the person feel cared for and understood. Our ability to respond appropriately to others is affected by our current sense of security and chronic attachment schemas. Feeling secure promotes the smooth activation and functioning of loving by weakening or eliminating our attachment worries and defenses. Reciprocally, providing well-received care helps us feel worthy of love, increasing our attachment security.
When our prior relationships have led us to develop an internal working model that attachment figures are not reliable, appropriately responsive, or supportive, we develop insecure attachments. We worry about our lovability.
There is evidence that early experiences of lovelessness, combined with a genetic propensity, lead to either hyper- or hypo-activity of the autonomic nervous system; at its most severe, this can predispose a person to schizophrenia, anti-social and violent behaviors, or other psychopathologies. More commonly, insecure models lead us to feeling lonely and unlovable.
Loneliness is a sign that we are feeling insecure about our attachments to others. Loneliness often becomes a viciously reinforcing cycle whereby we ensure the fulfillment of our expectations of being unloved. As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy describes in Together, “It’s a fear of being hurt, aimed at those who might reject us. And it’s a fear of being abandoned, which can turn to anger—and even violence—at those perceived to be leaving or ignoring us.” Unacknowledged, fears of abandonment can be expressed as anxious attachment or avoidant attachment.
When we operate from an anxious attachment model, we are worried about our beloved’s availability to us, so we engage in hypervigilant strategies and energetic attempts to gain greater proximity, support, and protection from our beloved. We worry about non-responsiveness or abandonment by our beloved. We may engage in attention-seeking behaviors—trying to draw attention to our distress—as we lack confidence that our beloved will provide support. In general, we have more intense emotions and are highly sensitive to environmental cues. We are more likely to generalize a hurtful interpersonal experience as a rejection and experience negative feelings about ourselves. We may view ourselves as unworthy of love. Understandably, depression is more common than for securely attached adults, based on our fear of abandonment and rejection.
When we observe suffering in others, it can trigger either love or fear. When we are in the anxiously attached mode, suffering in others will trigger fear. This will lead us to social skill deficits, depletion of psychological resources, and egoistic motives that hamper our ability to provide responsive care. As anxious caregivers, we can be hyperactive in our caregiving. Hyperactive caregiving is intrusive and poorly timed, as it is motivated by a wish to make ourselves indispensable, or feel competent and admirable. We all want to be seen and feel important—we all have a need to contribute. Therefore, hyperactive caregiving is a common trap. For me, this is certainly true. To remind myself when my care is unneeded and potentially detrimental—and that the most loving thing that I can do is bear witness rather than try to ‘solve’ my beloved’s predicament—I have developed the mantra, “This is not my problem to solve.” At hyperactive caregiving’s most extreme, we may coerce the recipient to accept our help or neglect our own needs—and, then blame the recipient for our depletion.
When we operate from an avoidant attachment model, we believe that our beloved will not or is unable to help us soothe our distress; therefore, we withdraw. We distrust our beloved’s goodwill, responsiveness, or availability. To minimize our distress, we try to ignore upsetting information. We are less reactive to social cues, appear less concerned about approval from others, and show dampened emotional expressiveness. I noticed some years back that when certain colleagues would tell me about their professional accomplishments, I would feel insecure rather than happy for them—generally, I am congratulatory of and excited about colleagues’ successes. Recognizing this allowed me to see how I was withdrawing from them and blunting my affect—that I was missing out on possibly rewarding relationships due to interpreting their accomplishments as diminishing my value. When we are working from an avoidantly attached model, we deny needing others as we believe we are our only reliable source of comfort and protection. We are uncomfortable with closeness and reluctant to rely on others. In situations involving severe stress, we will exhibit heightened distress as our denial mechanisms fail us. Again, depression is more common than for securely attached adults.
When we are feeling avoidant attachment, we withdraw our caregiving. Our caregiving will be orientated towards alleviating our distress—we want them to stop suffering NOW so that we can stop feeling uncomfortable. One day as a new parent, I could take my infant’s crying no more—instead of feeling love and concern for her suffering, I just wanted her to be quiet. I put her in the middle of my bed, surrounded by pillows so that she couldn’t roll off, walked out of the room, and shut the door. After a minute or so, I was able to reenter. But, at that moment, recognizing my avoidant caregiving impulses and making a safe choice for both of us was the best I could do. When our caregiving is avoidant, we lack a desire to help—we may provide half-hearted assistance, or no assistance at all. If we do help, we may insist on emotional distance, demand reciprocity, or make the cared-for feel indebted to us. Our discomfort with the beloved’s distress makes us unable to empathize with them (see my blog, Empathy: What It Is and What It Isn’t, for more on empathy).
In summary, research shows that adults have attachment styles, but that these styles also evolve and change with situations, experiences, and relationships. Researchers speculate that insecure attachments were evolutionarily advantageous in dangerous environments as they keep us focused on our relationships and close to our beloveds. Secure attachments, which allow greater exploration, were evolutionarily advantageous in safe environments. Just like my ability to calm my desire to exit my flipped kayak (see my blog, Implicit and Explicit Knowing, for the full story), my implicitly-driven expectation that a beloved may not meet my needs can be challenged with memories of when I have experienced love and useful care. And, as I accept my lovability—not just despite, but even because of my insecurities—I can access my secure attachment, and am able to offer loving care to myself and others. My small, damaged, fallible self can be an anchor of love, capable of providing stability to myself and others, even in gale force winds.