How to develop a secure attachment style
Our intimate relationships are some of the most important we have, and how we relate to and connect with our partners, close friends, and family members can have a profound effect on our overall mental health and well-being.
If you’re struggling in your closest relationships, you’re not alone. There are a lot of factors that can keep us from developing the healthiest bonds with our loved ones, and many adults struggle to sustain secure relationships. Fortunately, there are also proven strategies you can use to become a more secure partner, parent, and friend.
What is attachment theory?
Before we get into the different types of attachment styles (and how this knowledge can help you develop healthy relationships), let’s talk about attachment theory.
Attachment theory is a widely accepted concept about early relationships and human development. Scientists think that the way a child forms attachment bonds with their first primary caregiver (aka “attachment figure”) sets the tone for how a child will form intimate relationships throughout the rest of their life.
Bottom line: in general, securely attached children who can count on their primary caregiver for consistent comfort and devotion to their needs are more likely to form healthy, stable adult relationships later in life. A child who receives an inconsistent or less attentive parenting style may grow to have an insecure attachment style, meaning they have more difficulty forming healthy relationships as an adult.
So how did this theory come about? It’s based on a 1969 experiment run by Mary Ainsworth called the Strange Situation, which went like this: very young children played in a room with their mothers. After a period of time, the mothers left the room, and returned. Researchers observed the children’s reactions, and used those to establish the four “attachment styles.”
What are attachment styles?
The first, “secure attachment,” is thought to be the result of getting consistent care, emotional support, and affection from birth.
Secure attachment: During the experiment, “securely attached” children were upset when their mothers left and felt comforted when they returned.
- Adults with a secure attachment style generally seek out healthy relationships and are capable of being reliable partners themselves.
The other three styles or patterns of attachment are considered types of “insecure attachment,” thought to be a result of inconsistent, less attentive, or abusive care from birth.
Anxious attachment: During the experiment, children demonstrated “anxious attachment” by becoming extremely upset when their mothers left, and difficult to comfort when they returned.
- Adults with an anxious attachment style may be seen as “clingy” or “needy” in relationships, needing constant reassurance and comfort.
Avoidant attachment: During the experiment, children demonstrated “avoidant attachment” by barely reacting as their mothers left and returned.
- Adults with avoidant attachment styles often come across as overly independent and emotionally guarded. They may have difficulty intimately connecting with others.
Disorganized attachment: This type of attachment style, also known as fearful-avoidant attachment, is the least common. In the study, these children had erratic or incoherent reactions to their mothers leaving and returning during the experiment.
- Adults with disorganized attachment styles may be more likely to live with mental health conditions. Although they may crave close connections, they will often push people away.
- Although not always, this type of attachment style is sometimes the result of a particularly abusive or traumatic childhood.
While the “attachment styles” theory has many decades of research backing it up, it’s important to remember that it’s simply a framework to help understand the way people relate to one another intimately.
These attachment styles exist on a spectrum, and not everyone will be a perfect fit for a single style. While it may be tempting to self-diagnose your own “attachment style,” it’s always useful to work with a mental healthcare professional if you’re concerned about your ability to form intimate relationships or connect with others.
What can influence attachment styles?
Your early childhood relationship with your primary caregiver is thought to be the biggest influence on your emotional bonds and attachment style. That said, adult attachment styles can be reinforced, influenced, or even changed over time.
Careful work, particularly with a qualified mental healthcare provider, can help anyone develop a more secure attachment style.
Attachment styles describe how you relate to others in close relationships—including friend, family, and romantic relationships. With that in mind, self-regulation, or the practice of monitoring, evaluating, and reinforcing your own behavior, can help you make adjustments to your relationship and social skills.
Monitoring your behavior includes paying attention to the ways you relate to others. Evaluating means reflecting on your actions and reactions after the fact, ideally with the guidance of a mental healthcare professional like a therapist. Finally, self-reinforcement can be practiced by rewarding yourself—say, with a message of self-affirmation—for appropriate behavior.
Here’s an example of how you can put it into practice:
Say you have a “nervous attachment style” but are looking to shift to a secure one.
Perhaps you opt to pay attention to the way you react when your spouse leaves for a work trip. In the past, you may have attempted to make them feel guilty for not going, or encouraged them not to go, but this time you opt to share a meaningful goodbye, then wish them well. After noting this behavior (self-monitoring), you discuss with your therapist whether this was a healthier response to your spouse’s trip (self-evaluation). Once you’ve decided it was, you may praise yourself for your growth (self-reinforcement).
Process your childhood
Since attachment styles develop during childhood, it’s important to process any childhood experiences that may have contributed to your insecure attachment style so that you can work on developing a healthier one. While it may be tempting to do this on your own, this work is best attempted under the direction of a counselor, therapist, or other qualified mental healthcare professional.
Self-compassion may sound like wellness chatter but science tells us that it is an important tool that can help us foster healthy relationships with others. Some researchers think that practicing self-compassion stimulates emotional pathways that are associated with secure attachment and feelings of safety, as well as higher self-esteem.
So how do you practice it? Self-compassion involves showing yourself kindness instead of being critical, accepting your thoughts without judging or over-identifying with them and recognizing that flaws and hardships are part of the human experience.
Treat underlying conditions
It can be difficult to achieve a secure attachment style if you’re dealing with an underlying mental health condition, such as a personality disorder, as mental health conditions can contribute to insecure attachment behavior.
Working with a qualified professional to control the symptoms of any mental health conditions can have a positive impact on your journey towards a secure attachment style.
Only a qualified healthcare professional can diagnose a mental health condition. If you think you may have a mental health condition, the first step is seeking out a professional. Treatment works, and can make a huge difference in your symptoms and overall quality of life, including developing a secure attachment style.
With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home, and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.
While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.