Secure attachment is foundational for strong marriages where both partners feel safe and secure. In the past three episodes, we’ve been looking at different styles of attachment that are born out of difficult childhood experiences. Today, we are considering the fourth style, secure attachment, which is really the goal that those of us with these other styles are striving for. Only about 46% of the population has secure attachment as their primary attachment style. We want to explore this one and really understand what it looks like so that we know what we’re aiming for if we are wanting to experience more of this style of attachment.
What Does Secure Attachment Look Like in Marriage?
One of the signs of secure attachment in a marriage is that both partners can take comfort in their spouse. Couples with a secure attachment can share feelings of both joy and discomfort. They are also able to ask for help when they need it without fearing a negative response from their spouse.
Secure in Conflict
One of the times when it is most evident whether or not a couple has a secure attachment style is when they experience conflict. During conflict, securely attached couples are more able to discuss difficulties in a calm way without raising their voices or getting exasperated. Furthermore, they do not let conflict formulate doubts about the future of their relationship. When they do get into conflict, they are more likely to see that as “just a phase” or as a passing, temporary experience rather than allowing it to escalate into a question about their future together.
Couples with a secure attachment to each other trust the security of the bond that they have with their spouse. They can trust the integrity of that bond even when they are not getting along well.
One researcher looking at secure attachment during conflict also noted that those who have the ability to formulate or initiate affection toward their spouse maintain problem-solving communication while in conflict. By communicating well with one another even in conflict, they are more likely to express their needs to one another and prevent misunderstanding.
Secure in Interdependence
People with a secure attachment generally feel secure and connected in a wider variety of areas. They allow themselves and their spouse to move more freely and have time alone without concern or questioning. It doesn’t mean they are together less, but the security allows a greater freedom to come and go without the security of their bond being questioned.
Generally, they are more in touch with their own feelings and so are able to be more empathic and understanding of their spouse’s emotions as well. They are very capable of offering support and comfort when their spouse is distressed. A healthy, interdependent relationship helps a couple when they are together and when they are apart.
Securely attached spouses also tend to be more honest, open and fair in their marriage. They feel comfortable sharing intimate thoughts (including regarding sexuality) and emotions. Their empathy tends to be more out front and leading in their interactions.
Another sign of secure attachment is that they enjoy doing activities with their spouse; they also enjoy their own space for doing some things separately. While those with anxious or avoidant attachment are less likely to view others as trustworthy, those with secure attachment feel that they can depend on others and they are more likely to perceive others as trustworthy.
Securely attached individuals also have better self-esteem and more positive thoughts of others. A lot of attachment is about how I view myself and how I view others. Avoidants tend to be high on self and low on others; Anxious tend to be low on self and high on others. Secure are more balanced: they are better able to trust others and sort things out when others let them down.
Secure as Parents
As parents, secure individuals are involved, attentive, sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs. They more naturally are able to do things like:
- Prepare for pregnancy, birth, and parenting
- Give their infants love and respect
- Respond with sensitivity (e.g., using empathy and being more curious and non-judgmental about their children’s outbursts)
- Use nurturing touch
- Ensure safe sleep, both physically and emotionally
- Provide consistent and loving care
- Practice positive discipline
- Balance their personal, work, and family life.
Another study observed that after toddlerhood and beyond, secure parents adopt an authoritative parenting style that provides the child age-appropriate limits and support. Because they are more trusting, secure individuals will allow and more easily adapt to their child’s growing skills and needs. They’ll allow the right amount of freedom by balancing that with the child’s need to be protected and kept safe.
In sum, securely attached people are very aware of what is happening with their children. They pay attention, they are more able to understand what their child is experiencing, and they are better equipped to provide a helpful response.
Secure Attachment in Marriage
Once again, we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. This one is for securely attached spouses who want to help their anxiously or avoidantly attached spouse to develop greater self compassion. It’s a beautiful way to connect in the midst of uncertainty or difficulties. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Secure Attachment in Childhood
When your primary caregiver is responsive, warm, loving and emotionally available to you as a baby or toddler, you’re likely to develop secure attachment. This helps the baby grow to be confident in its mother’s ability to handle their positive and negative feelings. For that reason, the child feels freer to express both positive and negative emotions, and does not need to learn to develop defenses against their own unpleasant emotions.
One of the grandmothers of attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, suggested that when a mother is a secure attachment figure, she became a safe haven for the child to explore from. The child would feel safe and confident to explore the world or their environment knowing that he or she could always return to the mother for safety. Babies who are securely attached tend to cry less, cooperate more, and enjoy their mother’s company more. They also grow up to be happier and healthier as adults.
How Securely Attached Partners Can Support Their Anxious or Avoidant Spouses
If you are secure in your attachment style, it is still possible that your spouse is not. What do you do if you find yourself in this position?
One thing that can be helpful for your spouse is partner buffering. This means that as a securely attached spouse you can, with effort and insight, help your anxious or avoidant spouse become more emotionally regulated in order to more manage their anxiety, whether it is about themselves or about you.
If your spouse has an anxious attachment style, you will need to give far more reassurance than you feel is necessary. This means that you are providing more reassurance than you know you would need. For example, if your anxiously attached spouse wants you to call if you’re going to be late: be diligent about making that call every time. The more you are able to provide that consistent reassurance, the more you extend a safe haven to your spouse, and the more likely their attachment system is going to be able to feel secure.
If your spouse has an avoidant attachment style, it’s important to provide security for them even when they have retreated. You can learn not to encroach when they need time and space to themselves but also extend security to them by connecting or doing acts that demonstrate caring when they are with you. Think of it as a shift from pursuing towards nurturing. So instead of provoking the avoidance you are providing connection even when they are defaulting to avoiding. This will help them to learn that they can be connected, that receiving nurturing when they feel like isolating is a more attractive option, and will help them to open up more when feeling overwhelmed.
This is partner buffering: it is learning to respond to your spouse in a way that fits their attachment style. Partner buffering lowers their sense of distress around the connection between you, and offers them a positive experience when they may be expecting a negative one, such as rejection. In other words, it’s helping them unlearn that it is unsafe to be in a close, trusting relationship with another person and to learn that they can feel safe and connected to someone else in the context of a secure attachment.
Of course, it’s not on you to fix your spouse but partner buffering can help your secure attachment to provide a safe haven for your spouse to heal from their attachment injuries. You can learn more about this in the bonus content.
R. Rogers Kobak and Cindy Hazan, “Attachment in Marriage: Effects of Security and Accuracy of Working Models.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60, no. 6 (1991): 861–69, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.521.
Ronit Baras, “Attachment Styles in Relationships and Marriages,” 2019, https://www.ronitbaras.com/emotional-intelligence/personal-development/attachment-styles-in-relationships-and-marriages/.
Judith A. Feeney, “Attachment Style, Communication Patterns, and Satisfaction across the Life Cycle of Marriage,” Personal Relationships 1, no. 4 (December 1994): 333–48, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1994.tb00069.x.
Barbara Nicholson and Lysa A. Parker, Attached at the Heart: Eight Proven Parenting Principles for Raising Connected and Compassionate Children: (From Preconception to Age Five), Revised and updated (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc, 2013).
Divecha, “What Is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t ‘Attachment Parenting’ Get You There? — Developmental Science,” 2017, https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there.
M. Lynne Cooper, Phillip R. Shaver, and Nancy L. Collins, “Attachment Styles, Emotion Regulation, and Adjustment in Adolescence.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 5 (1998): 1380–97, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060.
Divecha, “What Is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t ‘Attachment Parenting’ Get You There? — Developmental Science.”
Ludden, “Responding to Your Partner’s Attachment Style,” UPLIFT, May 4, 2017, https://upliftconnect.com/responding-to-attachment-style/.