What Exactly Does a Secure Attachment Feel Like? - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

secure_attachmentFeeling comfortable, cared for, and respected is an important part of any strong relationship. Laying the groundwork for the expectation of this begins very early on. If done with care this will most likely lead to what is referred to in the biz as a “Secure Attachment.”

When we measure a child’s attachment style, there are four different types. Three are considered to be “insecure” (avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized) and one is a “secure” attachment.

Several things are at play here, but a secure attachment can be boiled down to the idea that the child trusts and believes that caregivers will return after they leave, the child will welcome them back when they arrive, he or she is able to be soothed by the caregiver, and feels free to explore the world while always maintaining their caregiver as a “secure base.”

The Strange Situation

The laboratory technique that measures this is called the Strange Situation. It’s a several step assessment where a baby and his or her caregiver are in a lab together and at various times the caregiver may leave the lab, a “stranger” (usually a warm, inviting person, not as scary as the name suggests) comes in to sit with the baby, and the caregiver returns. This is repeated with different combinations and the baby’s reactions are recorded.

  • Does she turn away from daddy?
  • Does he run to mommy while crying?
  • Does she get excited when seeing dad and “melts” into his arms?
  • Does he have a mixture of tears and excitement, but takes a while to be soothed by mom?

An “attachment style” is assessed by looking at all of these responses together. As you probably guessed, the Secure Attachment is when the child acknowledges the caregiver; he/she may be upset, but can fairly quickly be calmed by their parent; and then returns to playing or whatever she/he was doing.

Leaving babyland, does any of this sound familiar for adults?

The Stickiness of Secure Attachment

The research says that a person’s attachment style measured at age 1 is highly likely to remain the same barring a trauma (if you started out with a secure attachment) or intervention (for an insecure one.) This means that the expectations that are formed when you were not even speaking stay with you as you interact with friends, authority figures, and romantic relationships into your adult life. You have an adult attachment structure. (And if you have your own children the cycle restarts…)

An issue that arises for us grown-ups is that our version of a Secure Attachment may differ from our partner’s. Just take a look at the questions on OKCupid to know more:

  • Is it important for you and your partner to have some form of communication every day?
  • How important to you is it to have a regular Girls or Boys Night Out without your SIGO?

Who’s to say what’s Secure?

Generalizing Expectations

In answering these questions it’s important to note if this is your style with everyone (friends, family, ex’s) or if it’s only with your current partner, or even a particular friend where this seems to come up a lot.

Look at it this way: It’s probably about your attachment style if early on I learned that I can cry for quite a while without anyone bringing me food, changing me, or comforting me in some way, and this experience has led to an expectation as an adult that if I don’t hear from my partner for several hours, I get panicky, I starting thinking they could be cheating on me, I wonder “why” they didn’t call. They don’t care about me any more? I’m not that important?

And on and on…secure_attachment_2

Maybe these are early relationship jitters, but if they are still present after months of building a foundation with your partner, you may want to take a look at your expectation for what a secure attachment is–especially if this same sense of anxiety isn’t new.

Yes, of course there are people who may try to make you jealous and try to keep you in this state–an indication of a relationship you may be right to question. This is why I encourage thinking about how general these expectations are or if they are concentrated on this one particular person.

Finding Attachments That Match With Ours

As adults, we get to choose the kind of relationship we want. If we want someone to call us every hour we can best be happy if we meet and fall for someone who also expects a call every hour. If you never want to spend a night away from your partner, it would serve you well to find someone who wants exactly the same thing. If you want a lot of attention and your friends are calling you “desperate” as you meet potential spouse after potential spouse, maybe you just need to meet someone who will meet your need.

This all gets most concerning when you can’t see a relationship any other way. Some people can feel very secure having a lot of alone time. Others’ secure attachment is when they always remain together. Looking down or judging someone else’s relationship, especially if they are perfectly comfortable in it and no one is being hurt, is an indication of rigid expectations for others which can find their way into your own relationships.

More and more is being discovered about attachment theory all the time. If relationships–getting into one, staying in one, or discomfort while in one–is an issue for you, please get in touch for a free phone consultation or shoot me an email. Relationships should be adding to your life. You deserve to have one that does just that.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.