There is a substantial amount of research indicating that attachment patterns are set in early childhood and persist throughout our lives. An individual is either “secure” or has one of three possible “insecure” patterns. A secure style comes from consistency, reliability, and safety in one’s childhood. As an adult, those with a secure attachment style can reflect back on their childhood and see both the good and the bad that occurred, but in the proper perspective. Overall, they generally feel that someone reliable was always available to them in their formative years. In adulthood, they enjoy close, intimate relationships and do not fear taking risks in love.
Patterns of Insecurity
The three insecure patterns are “avoidant,” “ambivalent” and “disorganized.” An avoidant pattern is characterized by having a dismissive attitude. This person shuns intimacy and has many difficulties reaching for others in times of need. Those with an ambivalent pattern are often anxious and preoccupied. These people may be viewed as “clingy” or “needy,” often requiring much validation and reassurance. The disorganized pattern is often the product of trauma or extreme inconsistency in one’s childhood and is characterized by vacillation between an avoidant and an ambivalent state.
The good news is that one does not have to be a victim of their past, unable to change or grow. For those who are less fortunate and do not have a naturally secure style, there is the possibility of “earned security:” developing a secure style through relationships and interactions in adulthood. Security may also flourish in the context of friendships and psychotherapy, however, it comes primarily through adult romantic relationships. The strategy for creating an earned secure adult attachment style involves reconciling childhood experiences, as well as making sense of the impact the past has had on the present and future. That is; it is imperative to develop a coherent narrative about what happened to you as a child. You also need to explore the impact it has had on the decisions you may unconsciously have made about how to survive in the world.
Earned security takes an average of three to five years according to the prevailing attachment literature. A good relationship is imperative to change your sense of security. Characteristics of a good relationship include both parties being mutually caring, supportive, respectful and loving toward one another. This, in turn, shifts the insecure attachment victim’s internal negative model. Our brains, thanks so neuroplasticity, begin to change as well. Then we can integrate these new experiences into our lives. It can help us trust that a reliable and consistent caregiver (like our spouse) will be there for us in our times of distress—the very opposite of what we may have learned in childhood.
When we are triggered by our current partner, we may be responding to earlier, buried and non-conscious memories of our childhood experiences. Sometimes couples get into repeated patterns of this same sort of interaction and do not know how things got so “out of hand.” They may be fighting about a “surface issue,” yet insecure attachment triggers are underlying such interactions. The emotional arousal and reactivity can at times seem very out of proportion to the situation. Depending on how severe this becomes, a couple’s therapist, particularly one with an attachment orientation, might be required to help facilitate changes in the safe environment of the therapist’s office.
The road to earned security is a challenging one with much risk-taking and vulnerability, but it can bring you the kind of love you have always wanted. The reward is well worth the work, as an “earned” secure attachment style can change your life and your relationships for the better, permanently.
By Marni Feuerman
Benu Lahiry is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco specializing in Couples Counseling Pacific Heights. Her work is especially helpful for people experiencing anxiety, depression, self-doubt, lack of motivation, and for couples with intimacy issues. She is experienced in many evidence-based therapy modalities, including attachment theory, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic principles, mindfulness practices, and solution-focused therapy. Her therapeutic style is best described as warm, direct, and collaborative.