Though people who tend to form secure and stable attachments may not feel like the dynamics of their relationships are interesting or worthy of discussion, we can all stand to learn from them. Indeed, being able to spot the signs of a secure attachment style can help you identify your own relational strengths or pinpoint where you might have room for growth.
“We all know these people [with secure attachment], and oftentimes it’s like they’ve been touched by magic,” says psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Amir Levine, MD, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of Attached. “Things go easily for them at work and in their relationships. The thing is, we often miss them because there’s no drama, and they [rarely] complain about anything.”
But to overlook secure attachment would be a disservice to us all. “Research shows that those who develop secure attachment styles in childhood are less likely to suffer from a mood disorder, substance-use disorder, or stress-related illness,” says clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Krista Jordan, PhD. Which is why, it’s well worth your while to learn the common signs of secure attachment in action—and discover ways that you can move toward a more secure attachment style if these signs don’t quite resonate with you.
Experts In This Article
- Amir Levine, MD, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, and author of Attached, The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love
- Avigail Lev, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, certified mediator, and founder of Bay Area CBT Center
- Krista Jordan, PhD, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and couples therapist
- Patrice Le Goy, Phd, LMFT, Phd, LMFT, MBA, international psychologist and adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology
What exactly is secure attachment?
Secure attachment is one type of attachment style, or way that we relate to others and establish intimacy. It comes from attachment theory, which is a basis for understanding how we form relationships credited to the joint work of British psychiatrist John Bowlby, FRCPsych, and American-Canadian developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, PhD.
Dr. Bowlby initially came up with attachment theory to explain how a child reacts when separated from their caregiver. And Dr. Ainsworth later developed what’s referred to as the “strange situation test”—wherein a caregiver leaves their child alone for a brief period, then returns to the room—as a means for perceiving different kinds of attachment in action.
“That moment during the reunion [in the strange situation test] is when [Dr. Ainsworth] identified three attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure,” says Dr. Levine. “It all had to do with: How effective is the bond in helping the child regulate their emotions? And how quickly do they calm down and then become interested again in the toys around them?” The ability to effectively regulate your emotions in the wake of being detached from a loved one is a keystone of secure attachment.
“People with secure attachment have a larger window of tolerance, meaning their capacity for distress is greater.” —Avigail Lev, PsyD, clinical psychologist
Put another way, when people have a secure attachment style, “their window of tolerance is larger, meaning their capacity for distress is greater,” says clinical psychologist Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder and director of Bay Area CBT Center. “The window of tolerance refers to the space in which we can handle stress before becoming overly triggered and too physiologically aroused for our prefrontal cortex [which controls things like problem-solving and decision-making] to function effectively.”
Having a large window of tolerance and high capacity for distress is why those with a secure attachment may be more likely to trust a partner or friend, and get vulnerable with them without any concern that they’ll lose interest (or worse); while those with an anxious attachment style might continue to question whether someone likes them, seeking reassurance before volunteering intimacy, and those with an avoidant attachment style might reject closeness of any sort for fear of abandonment.
Where does your attachment style come from?
Traditionally, it’s been thought that your attachment style is largely influenced by your early interactions with a caregiver; if you felt supported and loved unconditionally, you may have developed a secure attachment with a large tolerance for distress. Whereas, if you didn’t feel as if your needs were met or often got mixed signals from a caregiver about whether they were going to be there for you, you may have formed an anxious or avoidant attachment style as a coping mechanism, leading you to have a low tolerance for distress and either cling to a partner (anxious) or reject intimacy (avoidant).
But according to a 2019 article reviewing recent developments in attachment theory, it may also be possible to have had a supportive caregiver as a child and then become insecurely attachment as an adult, or vice versa. “Researchers agree that even though there’s a certain attachment style [formed] in childhood, that’s not necessarily the attachment style that you’re going to have as an adult,” says Dr. Levine. “There’s a chance that even if you’re secure as a child, you may not be secure in your relationships as an adult.”
“More and more, people see [attachment as] less categorical and more on a spectrum.” —Amir Levine, MD, neuroscientist and psychiatrist
And you may not fit squarely into one box, either. “More and more, people see [attachment as] less categorical and more on a spectrum,” says Dr. Levine. “Even though we do have one style that is easier for us to revert to in certain relationships, we can also exhibit behaviors that are consistent with other [styles] in other situations.”
For example, it’s possible to have one type of attachment style in relation to a love interest and another in relation to a friend, given the different ways in which you’ve experienced romantic relationships and platonic friendships throughout life. “There’s the anxious domain and the avoidant domain, and you can fall anywhere along those domains in different relationships,” says Dr. Levine.
4 key signs of a secure attachment style
1. Being a pro at problem-solving
If your colleagues or friends often turn to you for guidance during a crisis, that’s one of the clearest signs that you may have a secure attachment style.
People with a secure attachment style are “adept at resolving conflicts,” says Dr. Lev. “They can tolerate the uncertainty of unresolved issues and self-soothe back into a regulated state, which allows them to engage their prefrontal cortex to effectively problem-solve and find solutions.”
2. Being comfortable getting vulnerable with a partner
People with a secure attachment style maintain a good balance between depending on a partner and being independent, which puts them at ease with intimacy, says Dr. Lev. “They can empathize with a partner’s difficult emotions and thoughts without feeling the urge to flee or distance themselves,” she says. (And they can also share their own innermost feelings without the constant concern that their partner will use this intel against them or turn around and betray them.)
3. Forming and communicating clear boundaries
“One of the key signs that someone has a secure attachment style is when they have very clear, defined boundaries that they are able to express to others in a respectful, calm manner,” says psychologist and therapist Patrice Le Goy, PhD, LMFT.
This is because they can trust that whoever is on the other end—a partner, a friend, a co-worker—will not abandon or disregard them for having such boundaries and upholding them. “For example, this is someone who can say to their partner, ‘I didn’t like the way that conversation went, and I would like us to work on the way we talk to each other,’” says Dr. Le Goy. Whereas, someone with one of the insecure attachment styles may be more likely to blame the other person, lose their temper, or speak in absolutes (using words like “always” or “never”), she says.
4. Handling critique and criticism well
People who form secure attachments are able to listen to and integrate feedback from others without concluding that the person offering the feedback views them as a failure or terrible person, says Dr. Le Goy.
“[People with secure attachments] will not assume that someone expressing disappointment or displeasure with them means that they are severing the relationship and don’t want anything to do with them,” she says. They know that no matter the current circumstance, they’re a valuable, important person within the relationship at stake and beyond, she says.
How can you develop a secure attachment style as an adult?
If you think you could benefit from better dynamics in your relationships—and the above signs of secure attachment don’t quite sound like you—know that you can move toward a more secure attachment style as an adult.
Even better news: You’ve already taken the first step. Research suggests “that just knowing about the different attachment styles and understanding secure attachment helps people become more secure,” says Dr. Levine. “…If you don’t know about this framework, then you don’t really have a blueprint.”
Another step in the secure direction is to make the securely attached folks in your life a part of your inner circle, says Dr. Levine. “We tend to gravitate to where there’s drama and people don’t call us back or people are not being secure with us,” he says. “So, people who have insecure [attachment styles] can gravitate toward more insecure interactions.”
But this just reinforces an insecure cycle, as we tend to mirror the behaviors of those around us back to them. Instead, Dr. Levine suggests consciously “giving primacy to people who are secure in your life, so you create for yourself a more secure base.”
A mental health professional can provide you with additional tools and strategies along the way. “It is possible to change your attachment style and move toward secure attachment, but it requires a commitment to exploring your childhood experiences, acknowledging how they have shaped you, and then creating very clear boundaries and focusing on developing safe and supportive relationships,” says Dr. Le Goy. “Most people can benefit from doing this work with a mental health professional who can help them through this process.” You may have less drama to recount over brunch, but the benefits are worth it.
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