Do you feel safe when you are with your loved one(s)? Do you feel safe when you are apart from them? Do you feel safe to come back together with them after being apart? Do you feel safe to leave each other after being together? A yes or no to all of these questions relates to how easily a person is able to experience secure and trusting connection with others while also staying present and connected with themselves. All of it relates to the theme of attachment – one that has captivated researchers in the field of psychology for decades now.
Psychology is a big field. The domain of academic psychological research is massive, with new papers being generated by researches at all kinds of different research institutions constantly. Those papers focus on a great variety of topics, from psychological development to neuroscientific studies of language processing to cognitive behavioural therapeutic interventions to mindfulness and so many more. Often these papers will uncover findings that contradict the findings of other studies. Psychology is like that – lots of researchers saying different or more similar things about a vast array of topics. In the entire field there are probably only two or three areas where the research is so strong there is a solid consensus among the whole field that this is just the way it is. Possibility the foremost of these focuses on attachment, and its influence on how freely people can live happy lives with healthy relationships.
Human beings are social beings. We are wired for connection. As infants, our survival is totally dependent on our relationship with our caregivers and so in this most primal phase of our lives, connection equals life or death. Attachment psychology focuses on exploring how secure or insecure the attachment bond of a child with its caregiver(s) is, and the impact this has on the rest of their life. The reason why attachment research is one of the areas of psychology that has such broad consensus is that the research is so strong and has been borne out again and again.
What these studies show is that a child’s attachment (connection) with its caregiver(s) can be secure or insecure. If it is insecure, that will generally take one of three forms: avoidant, anxious or ambivalent. The research also shows that each of these four possible attachment styles results in a pretty predictable set of life patterns for that child’s life.
The hallmarks of secure attachment are pretty simple: a child feels safe with their caregiver(s), they feel safe to leave their caregiver(s) to explore their environment, and they feel safe to return, knowing that they will be lovingly received and their needs met. All of this is clearly demonstrated in their behaviour and emotional tone when in contact and not in contact with caregiver(s). Adults who had secure attachment as kids developed the instinctual capacity to trust those they are in relationship with, to feel safe when being with them, and safe when not with them too. Relationships are generally much easier and with more flow for such people, and they have a greater tendency to choose partners and friends who will support them to feel safe and secure in relationship.
Insecure attachment is all about not having felt safe as a child in connection with one’s caregiver(s), and the patterns that results in in our relationships later in life. Often insecurely attached people will enter relationships with others who also have an insecure attachment style. The tensions and suffering this generates between them, if not responded to consciously and with love, can be deeply damaging and painful.
The hallmarks of an avoidant attachment style are that the person doesn’t feel safe in connection with others (whether as a child or adult) and as a result distances themselves from the connection in order to protect themselves. They try to push others away or leave when they don’t feel safe.
The hallmarks of an anxious attachment style are that the person doesn’t feel safe in connection with others (whether as a child or adult) and so desperately seeks connection and the affirmation of security in connection with others so as to attempt to feel safe in relationship. They desperately try to pull others in when they don’t feel safe.
The hallmarks of an ambivalent attachment style are that the person doesn’t feel safe in connection with others (whether as a child or adult) and both fears connection and feel they deeply need it. These people feel the need to both push away from connection and to pull it in at the same time because of it not feeling safe, and are desperately torn between the two.
Of course there is much more that could be said about these different attachment styles and anyone who is interested can find a vast amount about them on the internet. My intention with this piece is just to highlight how powerfully early attachment influences our psychological well-being, potentially for the rest of our lives. As I said, we are built for connection, and when connection is consistently painful, then life is deeply painful.
And that’s the case for a really large number of people. Studies have found that the number of people in Western society that are insecurely attached is around 40% – nearly half! As adults, people develop all sorts of coping strategies to attempt to deal with the suffering that comes from an insecure attachment style. Some become addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, video games or other addictions attempting to fill the hole. Some retreat into their minds and intellectualise and objectify their despair in their emotional field. Some get into spirituality, seeking to reach that ‘state’ where they will finally feel safe, held, understood, received, and loved – all those things that they likely didn’t receive as kids.
In my view there are a lot of people who enter the field of spirituality for exactly these reasons. I don’t believe that this means their spirituality is necessarily inauthentic though. Sometimes souls will deliberately incarnate into what will be traumatic circumstances so as to set themselves up in that incarnation for deep transformation – the kind that is borne upon the wings of a desire for change that is so raw and sharp that they simply cannot stop until they find it. Interestingly, unless a soul who has had secure attachment is ripe for this kind of growth, often those with a secure attachment style might find it harder to ascend or descend in consciousness so quickly. Each life circumstance bears its gifts and its struggles that our souls use as springboards for our growth, incarnation by incarnation.
What is worth noting though is that when someone does have an insecure attachment style, there is no amount of higher states of consciousness, non-dual states of consciousness, intellectualisation, drugs, sex, alcohol or anything else that can solve it. If done healthily, spiritual practice can definitely provide great resources for such a person to draw upon as they seek to meet the challenges of an insecure attachment style, but in order for things to heal for them – and healing is possible – insecure attachment must be met on its own terms and what it is about. This is simply feeling safe in oneself, in one’s own body, and in connection with others; being able to trust, to love, to stay when it’s right, and to go when it’s right, and to be confident that the connection we have with ourselves and with those we love, will stay. You simply cannot bypass this stuff.
That healing the wounds of insecure attachment is possible – which it is – is wonderful news, both for those who have this attachment style and all they will be in relationship with. The transition from an insecure attachment style to a secure one is described by psychologists as “earned secure attachment”. Earned is right. The path of healing takes great heart and courage, and the willingness to expose one’s most vulnerable and tender spaces to life, those we are in relationship with, and to ourselves. Crucial in this is that such a person deliberately cultivates connections with people who can enact healthy secure attachment with them – a connection where they feel unconditionally respected, cared for, and safe to express themselves. This can be any type of relationship – platonic, professional or romantic.
In relationships where one or both people are working through attachment-related trauma towards earned secure attachment, it can be helpful to have the goal that eventually, both can be so grounded in their wholeness as beings that their relating is an overflowing of that wholeness rather than a seeking of it. This is the path relationship calls us to, and it is a path. None of us just start there, and so it’s important also that as we seek to grow ourselves and support our loved ones into a space of increasingly secure and safe connection, we honour that there will be times along the way when that is not what is felt. In those times, we can empathise and connect with the feelings of disconnection and fear around attachment that come up in ourselves or our loved ones. We can reorient the compass of our of their attention back to remembering that wholeness of our own being that doesn’t depend on outside factors. And then also communicate that our presence is here, that all who need to feel safe can feel safe, and that that safety can be an ever-developing foundation from which we can all learn to stand in a safety that is unconditional.
Relationship is a profound path – equally as profound as one of inner contemplation or outer engagement with the world. It brings us to the most vulnerable spaces of our being. When we can support ourselves and each other to feel truly connected and safe in relating – to self and other – the some of the deepest and most pervasive wounds that currently influence so much of human culture will begin to be healed. When that is the case, for individuals, couples, or human culture, an entirely new path of life opens up. That that be so, and may we care for each other on the way.