Redeveloping Secure Adult Attachment

By Annette Kussin M.S.W., RSW

Director, Leaside Therapy Centr

When a child is born an important process begins that will influence the child for a lifetime. This process is called Attachment.  Attachment is the development of a deep and enduring connection between an infant and caregiver, usually a biological mother.  The infant communicates his or her needs, such as hunger, discomfort, tiredness or stress or pleasure to the mother through behaviors such as crying, cooing, smiling and movement of arms and legs.  If the mother or caregiver is sensitive to the needs of the infant and responds with consistency and caring, the infant will develop a healthy and secure attachment to the caregiver.  If the caregiver does not respond to the needs of the infant, responds in unpredictable ways or worse, neglects or hurts the infant, the infant will develop an insecure attachment or connection to the caregiver.

Infants who have responsive mothers or caregivers, come to believe that they are lovable, worthy of caring and that relationships are trustworthy and protective. Infants with insecure attachments come to believe they are unlovable and that close relationships are not where one receives caring, understanding and safety. Over time these beliefs about relationships become internalized in the brain of the child and influence the development of the child’s relationships with the caregiver and others for a lifetime.  

In later childhood and adolescence insecure children continue to repeat problematic patterns in relationships.  They often engage teachers, peers, foster or adoptive parents and others with their difficult behavior and are then treated similarly to the poor care of their early caregivers. For instance, children who were neglected or abused by their biological parents will be so mistrustful, aggressive and rejecting of their foster parents that foster parents may become angry and rejecting in return. This response confirms for these children that all adults are hurtful and abandoning and cannot be trusted.  The repetition of these difficult relationships also confirms for insecurely attached children the belief that they will not find comfort, consistent caring and security in intimate relationships. By adolescence and adulthood these attachment patterns are firmly established.

Similar to childhood, adults want to be understood, find support and feel nurtured in their close relationships. However whether an adult will be able to achieve this in a healthy manner will depend on the combination of early attachment experiences plus the failures or successes in relationships in childhood and adolescence.  Adults who had caring parents or caregivers and continued to seek and find positive relationships in adolescence will have secure relationships as an adult. Those adults who had poor early caregiving experiences and continued to develop impoverished relationships in childhood will have deprived adult relationships.

Similar to child attachment there are 4 categories of adult attachment: Secure and 3 types of insecure attachments. [1]

  • Secure or Autonomous Attachment: Adults with Autonomous or Secure attachments usually had positive childhood experiences, are secure within themselves and value relationships. They are able to reflect on their early childhood experiences with openness, acknowledging both positive and negative aspects.  They are aware of their feelings and are able to establish mutually satisfying adult relationships.
  • Preoccupied Attachments: Adults with this insecure attachment had caregivers who were inconsistently available.  Adults with Preoccupied Attachments remain highly sensitive to others not being available, are emotionally demanding and become preoccupied and suspicious about their partner’s availability and trustworthiness
  • Dissmissive Attachments: Adults with Dismissive attachments had caregivers who were unavailable and or rejecting. Such adults have learned to avoid intimate relationships believing that no one would be available to meet their needs. They rely mostly on themselves and focus more on activities and work rather than close relationships.  They are not in touch with their emotions and not able to establish emotional intimacy.
  • Unresolved Attachments: Adults with Unresolved Attachments have a history of neglect and physical or sexual abuse and continue to perceive relationships as dangerous. They may be avoidant of relationships, victims in relationships, aggressive and abusive in relationships or more have dissociative symptoms.

An example of how individuals with Insecure Attachments develop unhealthy relationships comes from my therapy practice. A woman, whom we will call Mary, had a mother who was very inconsistently available. Mary had a Preoccupied Attachment. She was emotionally dependent, demanding in relationships and desperately seeking a partner who would take care of her. She married a man, Bill, whom she believed was strong, reliable and hard-working and who loved her. She married this man only to discover that he was a workaholic, spent more time with his sports activities than with her and resented her spending any money on material goods. When they had children he became active in their hockey games, neglecting her even more. When she became upset by his unavailability he expressed his confusion and anger. He believed he was a good husband by being a good provider and involved parent. He truly could not understand her needs for more emotional involvement.

Mary married a man who had a Dismissive or Avoidant Attachment. Such people can be strong, stable, reliable and hardworking and such qualities may be mistaken for emotional availability, as well. Yet adults with Avoidant Attachment are not aware of their needs and feelings, have difficulty expressing them and do not understand a partner’s needs for emotional connections. The more demanding the partner is for emotional closeness, the more frightened and distance the avoidant person becomes. The more distant the Avoidant partner is the more insecure and emotionally demanding the preoccupied partner is. Each confirms for the other that adult relationships are not safe and nurturing.  In this case example Bill described being genuinely perplexed when I asked him how he felt about his wife and her demands. He had learned that if he was a good boy who was responsible and hardworking he would be loved and appreciated.  He had no other means to demonstrate his love and caring for another.

Can adults with insecure attachments develop a more positive view of themselves and change the long-term interactive patterns they demonstrate in relationships?  Since these patterns have existed since childhood and are deeply embedded in their unconscious beliefs and neurological pathways change is not easy, but certainly possible.  Change can come about in a number of ways.

Some adults, despite their insecure attachments, may engage with a partner who is able to accept and understand their insecurities, not respond in negative ways and over time repair the damage from the early childhood relationships. In time the positive experience in the adult relationship overrides the early belief that intimate relationships are not trustworthy and safe.

Although such a positive experience can occur, most adults with insecure attachments will need to enter therapy to change their beliefs about and patterns in relationships.  They will need to develop a relationship with a therapist who has knowledge about Attachment Theory, who will understand their attachment patterns in relationships and allow this pattern to develop in the therapeutic relationship. Over time the therapist will need to help the adult client/patient to develop insight into himself/herself, work through his or her losses and hurts from childhood and risk change in both the therapeutic relationship and natural intimate relationships.

The insecure person may have to mourn for what they did not receive from their parents as a young child. Longing for the early nurturing and closeness is a normal feeling but must be understood and resolved in order to develop a secure and realistic adult relationship. This can be a painful stage in the therapy and it is important that the therapist allow for the sadness to be supported until the mourning process is complete.  Without the resolution of this longing, individual adults will seek what they missed as a child in an adult relationship, when this is no longer appropriate. [2]

Adult relationships differ from infant/child relationships in that they are mutually interactive. In parent/infant relationships the parent is the giver, not expecting the child to meet their adult needs.  Each individual in an adult relationship must be both a giver and receiver. At times in an adult relationship one partner may be more stressed and in greater need of support, requiring the other partner to be more nurturing and giving. At other times of stress, the other partner may be more the recipient of the support and nurturing. It is this mutual give and take with understanding and the capacity to receive less for a period of time, which characterizes healthy adult attachment relationships.

Redeveloping a secure adult attachment is possible and essential if one is going to be a healthy parent, develop satisfying intimate relationships and have self-awareness and a feeling of self-worth . There is good evidence that if a mother has an insecure adult attachment she will have an insecurely attached child. [3] Individuals who have mutually satisfying marriages and partnerships have secure attachments, whether from good childhood experiences or resolving poor early childhood experiences.  Individuals with secure attachments have self-awareness, are able to accept differences in others and have a positive view of themselves and of relationships. Redeveloping a secure adult attachment is possible through Attachment Focused Therapy and worth the effort and pain required to achieve this.

[1] Cassidy, Jude;  Shaver, Phillip,  Handbook of Adult Attachment, Guilford Press,  New York, 1999

[2] Sable, Pat, Attachment and Adult Psychotherapy, Jason Aronson Inc., Northdale, New Jersey, 2000

[3] Main, M, Hesse, E., Predictability of Attachment Behavior and Representational Processes at 1,6,8 years of age, The Berkely Longitutdinal Study, in Krossman, KE, Grossman, K, Waters, E. Attachment from Infancy to Adulthood, Guildford Press, New York, 2005