By now many of us have heard about the idea of attachment in infancy. There is a strong movement for attachment-informed parenting which promotes consideration of attachment research in child-rearing practices. Since we now know that attachment style in infancy has long-reaching implications most psychologists advocate that parents familiarize themselves with this information as they shape their own parenting behaviors and family culture. And there is good reason to consider attachment! Securely attached infants are observed to be more resilient, tolerate stress better, explore their environment more, settle more easily and derive more comfort from their caregivers.
As they mature they tend to be preferred by peers and into adulthood suffer less psychological problems such as depression, substance abuse and even divorce. We now know that secure attachment in childhood provides a significant advantage in one's adult life. According to work by Feeney, Noller, & Callan (1994), securely attached adults are more satisfied in their relationships than insecurely attached folks. Their relationships have more trust, last longer, involve more mutual and satisfying interdependence, show more commitment and even involve using their partners more as companions in their exploration of the world (Fraley & Davis, 1997). Think of that lovely older couple who retires and travels the world together, exploring new and exciting cultures and growing together rather than apart.
Not only are securely attached adults more likely to get support from their partners when distressed, they are more likely to give support to their distressed partners (Simpson et al, 1992). Their relationships are truly reciprocal, fair and interdependent. And as if that's not enough reason to promote secure attachment for relationship health, these secure partners even view and interpret the behavior of their partners during and after conflict in ways that reduce negative feelings. For example, if my partner and I are arguing about where we will spend Christmas this year, when he brings up how uncomfortable he is around my chaotic family I would be more likely to hear this as a gentle reminder of previous years where we both were frustrated with my family dynamic rather than hearing "I hate your family and how insensitive you are to make suffer by forcing me to see them". Thus it's not only the behaviors that secure partners emit that make the relationship so secure, it's how the secure partner does not project negativity into their partner's statements even when the conversation gets heated. One can see how this generous style of interpreting communication, where the best rather than the worst is assumed, can smooth over many potentially combustible situations.
So what are our chances of reaching adulthood with secure attachment? Most research puts secure attachment rates at about 50% in infants/toddlers. Attachment systems are thought to be somewhat malleable until the age of 13 and can even change after that if a large enough stressor is applied (abuse/neglect, severe trauma, etc). Fortunately for those of us who did not achieve secure attachment in childhood there is still hope! The concept of earned security has been investigated over the past few decades and results indicate that even people who had insecure attachment in childhood can learn secure patterns by adulthood. According to Dan Siegel, MD, this "Earned secure/autonomous status is most often achieved through supportive personal or therapeutic relationships (for example, marriage or psychotherapy). The implication of these findings is that even with difficult past childhood experiences, the mind is capable of achieving an integrated perspective – one that is coherent and that permits parenting" (and I would argue partnering) "behavior to be sensitive and empathic. If integration is achieved, the trend toward transmission of insecure forms of attachment to the next generation can be prevented. Achieving coherence of mind thus becomes a central goal for creating emotional well-being in both oneself", one's marriage and "one’s offspring."
If you or your spouse had a difficult childhood or find it hard to maintain satisfying intimate relationships you may have an insecure attachment style. Therapy can help you to learn the skills necessary to model secure behaviors, thus allowing you to reap the benefits of security mentioned in the research above.
Thanks to our amazing brains we can overcome where we have come from. The rewards are tremendous and I encourage you to consider taking the journey.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.