We talked a lot about the 4 predominant styles of attachment in episodes 251 to 254. Attachment is basically the science of love, and in the marriage counseling world, it’s one of the core issues that we’re interested in working on when we are looking at how spouses are relating to one another. As we discussed in previous episodes, there are four styles of attachment, and the best style is called secure attachment. In this episode, we’re going to talk about the five pillars of secure attachment that make up that style of relating to others.
Review of Attachment
For a quick review, attachment is the science of love, or more specifically, the secure emotional bond established between two people (either in a parent to child relationship or in marriage). With a secure attachment style, you can create robust, healthy relationships, and the people in those relationships, your spouse and children, will be best positioned to thrive and grow. A default attachment style is formed within us as a result of the bond during infancy with our primary caregiver (often our mother). Generally, that attachment style becomes the default for how we bond with our spouse through courtship and into marriage.
It is possible to change one’s attachment style, but for 68-75% of the population, the childhood attachment style persists into adulthood and only about 40% of people are securely attached (which is the best style to have). Most people don’t realize that it’s possible to change styles, or that they need to, which is why we want to tackle some of these conceptual topics in today’s episode.
5 Pillars of Attachment
The five pillars of attachment are:
- A sense of felt safety
- A sense of being seen and known (attunement)
- The experience of felt comfort (soothing)
- A sense of being valued (expressed delight)
- A sense of support for being and becoming one’s unique best self.
We’re going to start each one with how a parent does it for a child and by extension how when a child becomes an adult, they extend that for their spouse, and how they can extend that to their spouse today.
1. A Sense of Felt Safety
Parent to Child
Safety comes from consistency, reliability, and protection. Consistency and reliability are about predictability. Are you present and available in a dependable way, when your spouse needs you (or was your parent)? If a parent was unpredictably available, you probably felt you could never be sure so you needed to check in regularly to see. This leads to an anxious attachment style.
If a parent is able to consistently respond to their child’s emotions, needs, and wants, the child will experience a sense of felt safety. On the other hand, if a child grows up in a home where their parent flies off the handle unpredictably, this can lead to an attachment injury even if the parent is always there because the parent is not consistently available. It’s important to note that just because you are unavailable at one particular time does not mean the child will not have a secure attachment style. No parent is perfect, and as long as a parent’s response to their child is understandable and predictable most of the time, then the child will have a sense of felt safety.
Protection is also not helicopter parenting. All children have small injuries such as cuts and bruises; providing a sense of safety does not mean parents need to prevent their children from experiencing any level of pain. Protection does mean taking care of adult concerns without exposing the child to them. Children should not feel responsible for other adult concerns (e.g. financial instability). And of course, parents need to pay attention to adult-level threats such as serious physical hurt, inappropriate sexuality, etc.
A child should always be protected from serious threats such as physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Failed protection means the child develops memories and feelings relative to their primary attachment figure that are organized around the reality of the failure of that figure to provide protection. I.e., significant others are not safe — I am alone in this world and must protect myself. A child who is exposed to adult threats because their parents don’t protect them will learn that a significant person in their life is not safe, and that they have to protect themselves because they will not be taken care of.
If a child did not experience a felt sense of safety as a child, they will likely also have difficulty feeling safe in their marriage. You still have a responsibility to provide this sense of safety for your spouse as an adult.
In marriage, a felt sense of safety is when you make it possible for your spouse to open up to you in a context where it feels ok to share deeper emotions, concerns, thoughts, struggles, and your spouse validates them when you share them. You let them have their feelings and tell them that they make sense. You also listen even if those feelings involve you and something you need to change, and do your best to listen non-defensively.
It doesn’t matter what your spouse’s attachment style is. If you do not have a secure attachment style, that can be corrected and you can provide a felt safety in marriage, but it can be corrected if it is not a secure style.
You also create safety when your spouse sees you acting to protect the bond between the two of you. For example, you might speak well of him or her to others and affirm their worth to your children or when you speak about marriage at church, etc. You can also take cautionary steps to preserve the fidelity of your bond. For example, you may proactively disclose and address real or perceived threats such as a flirtatious message, and honour and respect cautionary requests about certain people that your spouse may perceive as threats. Creating a sense of safety means having rigorous honesty and accountability in daily functioning.
Safety also comes from reliability. This includes little things like making sure you’re home when you said you would be home, or communicating openly if and when that changes. Reliability also includes being someone your spouse can depend upon to share in things such as household labor, or pursuing work that provides adequately for your family’s financial needs (depending on who is responsible for these tasks in your marriage).
Another element of safety in marriage is safety in conflict. This means refraining from gaslighting behaviors that distort reality for the purpose of manipulation or power and control. It also means not using intimidation to gain the upper hand, or belittling your spouse through name-calling or character assassination. Furthermore, it means staying away from bad habits like globalizing (constantly saying “you always,” or “you never”) or dismissing your spouses concerns by saying that they are not such a big deal. Although conflict is not pleasant, it is possible to be safe in conflict by avoiding bad behaviors.
2. A Sense of Being Seen and Known
Parent to Child
Some attachment researchers call this attunement. Secure parents are likely to be carefully attuned to their children. There are three aspects of the child that an attuned parent will actively attend to and generally recognize accurately.
- The child’s immediate behavior.
- The child’s inner state of mind.
- The child’s developmental range at any particular time.
The parent will demonstrate their attunement to the child by being immediately responsive, by contingently matching the behavior, and/or by changing in response to the behavior. The attuned parent will also give voice to his/her best estimate of the child’s emotions, needs, motivations, and ideas.
An attuned parent will follow the child when they experience emotions by paying attention when they experience intense emotions, and letting the child relax and play when they are feeling relaxed. It is possible to be negatively attuned by fussing over a child that doesn’t need fussing over, but it is also important not to neglect a child by not paying attention to their needs when they are distressed and need something that only a parent can help with. It should be noted that paying attention to your child does not mean that you are agitated if they are agitated, it just means being attentive to their needs.
Part of attunement is training your child to pay attention to what’s happening for them. One way to do this is by voicing what your best guess is as to what is happening to them concerning their emotions, needs, motivations, and ideas. For example, if your child is crying, try to figure out what is going on-identify the cause or what thoughts they’re having and acknowledge that they are upset so that you give voice to their inner state. (Lots of parents do these things intuitively).
A lack of attunement to the child’s developmental stage, for example not being aware of what they’re capable of at a certain age and expecting a three-year-old to do something that he/she is not yet capable of, makes a parent more likely to engage in a power struggle with the child. It also makes them more likely to experience it as a personal failure (it’s my fault you can’t do this), or humiliate the child when the child is unable to achieve their desired goal.
Parent-child bonding will look different depending on what developmental stage your child is in. Some of this information is most relevant for children in the first five years of life. Interacting with older children, such as teenagers, is a whole new topic that we won’t get into in this article, but you will probably have a sense that being seen and known will look quite different for a teenager than a much younger child.
Attunement is really about being understood. In marriage, attunement is me paying close attention to your state and being willing to take interest in what is happening for you when you need me. It’s not hypervigilance or watching in a creepy way, but just that willingness to romantically take an interest in you, be curious about you, nurture curiosity towards you, and to inquire about your inner experience as we do life together. (Again, this does not mean that you will do so perfectly all the time, but just that you regularly make the effort to be attuned to your spouse).
5 Pillars of Secure Attachment in Marriage
This bonus exercise is an assessment to helps you review the attachment experiences you had in your family of origin. It’s a useful discussion point for your marriage and even more useful if you complete it and bring it to counseling with you.
3. The Experience of Felt Comfort
Parent to Child
Consistent parental soothing/reassurance contributes to the emergence of internal affect regulation. According to Marian Tolpin (1971) as cited in Levine and Heller (2010) “the child’s developing internal structures for affect regulation result from the cumulative internalization of repeated soothing and comforting behavior by the parent.” In other words, as parents respond appropriately and consistently to a child’s distress, that child learns to soothe itself as well. The child thinks, I’ve done this before, I can figure it out again.
When a child feels soothed and experiences felt comfort repeatedly over time, they develop the capacity for representational thinking. This means that they develop an internal representation of the soothing/comfort response, and they carry a representation of that experience inside themselves. This is how they develop the internal structures of mind to affect regulation. As this representation becomes stable, the child needs less soothing from the parent because they can evoke the internal representation of soothing within themselves.
A child who has experienced calming from their parents may get very upset by something and bring themselves back to a sense of calm by thinking through it. They have learned that they can provide comfort for themselves and that they do not need to get it from the outside. A child who doesn’t experience this calming from their parents may find it hard to calm themselves back down because they don’t have an internal model of what that process of calming looks like.
Some parents feel that the best way to handle their child’s distress is by distancing the child so that they will toughen up (many of these parents experienced this from their own parents), but the best way to help a child develop learn to manage their own emotions when they are upset really is to comfort the child when it is distressed.
The process of calming from the parent should be an appropriate parental response to the child’s distress, and should not be dismissive of the child’s experience. This means bringing the child close and attuned to so that they feel seen, heard, known, and understood. The parent can also offer some reflection of the child’s experience. As the child experiences acceptance during their distress, their nervous system will begin to calm down, their upset will go, and they will realize that things will be ok even if the cause of the upset hasn’t gone away (e.g. they got a scrape and it still stings).
When a child who has consistently experienced felt comfort from a caregiver becomes an adult and is married, they are able to more reasonably work through moments of marital distress and conflict because they can regulate their emotions and more effectively process what has happened and what is needed in order to restore harmony in the relationship.
A child without this experience of comfort who becomes a married adult is likely either to shut down and withdraw because they cannot handle the emotion or else to frantically pursue a sense of equilibrium in a way that could be overwhelming for their spouse. They may keep coming at their spouse until they can have some sense of being calmed down, but this can cause problems because their spouse will run likely from that. They see their spouse moving away and think somethings wrong and panic, which causes an intense cycle that makes it hard to restore calm.
The best thing to do as a spouse when your spouse expresses distress is to respond appropriately to your spouse’s emotion. If they come to you expressing fear, say over a cancer diagnosis, or come to you with worry about a kid, saying “don’t be worried,” or to minimize the risks and try to dismiss that fear, that really translates as “put your emotion away it’s too intense for me.” It’s not calming, and doesn’t give your spouse a sense of felt comfort. If you push away that fear or distress to make yourself feel better, you minimize it and your spouse still fears the reality of that threat or concern.
To validate your spouse’s concern, say something like “yes, that is quite concerning and whatever happens I’m going to be right here with you through it all” or “it’s scary, but you won’t be alone.” By doing this, you can effectively validate your spouse’s feelings and offer reassurance of your consistent, reliable presence.
4. A Sense of Being Valued
Parent to Child
A sense of being valued is often called “expressed delight.” This is not necessarily a significant display every time, but it is important to consistently express delight about your child. Expressed delight promotes secure attachment, and is a foundation for healthy self-esteem.
When a child can count on their parents to show delight in who they are, they feel valued and the experience of feeling valuable emerges. Self esteem emerges when a parent expresses delight not just in what a child does, but who they are. For example, a parent may say “that was really thoughtful of you when you wrote that card for your friend.” When the most important people in your life, such as parents, see you as having worth, there’s a lot of purpose that comes from that sense of being valued.
If you grew up in a family where you always felt you couldn’t do anything right, that you were a pain, or that they never really wanted you anyways, that will affect your self-concept in childhood and into adulthood. In a marriage, you will likely not feel confidence that you belong to the person you’re with. This can result in either feeling hopeless, or endlessly fussing over your spouse (which may validate the idea that you don’t have worth because you are annoying).
In marriage, expressing delight often looks like celebrating little things a lot, and big things rarely. In terms of small things, it means getting excited about when your spouse returns home from a business trip, or even just being happy to see one another at the end of the day, and making that known or obvious to one another. Gottman talks about rituals of connection, which can be as simple as saying hello in the morning and goodbye at the end of the day. In terms of bigger things, it means that when your spouse accomplishes something, or gets a promotion that you applaud and acknowledge that.
When you acknowledge your spouse, the acknowledgement should reflect who they are on some level, because you don’t want to make them feel like they are only valued for what they do, but should also celebrate the accomplishment (people put a lot of work into things, and it’s important to acknowledge that).
5. Fostering Self Development
Parent to Child
Fostering self development is about providing a sense of support for being and becoming one’s unique best self. This is promoted by a parent’s consistent, reliable, unconditional support and encouragement for exploration/creativity.
Children who feel their parents’ support feel free to explore, discover, succeed and fail, and through this exploration develop the best, strongest, and most unique sense of self. They figure out what they’re good at and what they can do in this world, and they are allowed/encouraged to try things and don’t have to succeed at all of those things as they explore, learn, and develop.
Parents who provide a sense of support are not threatened by their child’s developing strength, or the fact that they might be better, but encourage it, even if that means that conflict may ensue. For example, a parent is a farmer and they have a son or daughter who has a newer way of doing things. If you are struggling with your own sense of being valued or didn’t experience it from your parents, it may be difficult for you to accept your child’s way of doing things. You may experience it as a threat and keep reinforcing the idea that your ways are better than their ways, or that “you need to listen to dad here.” But from an attachment perspective, it’s better to let your child try things, or even perhaps to be better than you at something. You want to provide encouragement at each stage of your child or adolescent’s development without feeling threatened by the prospect of them doing something better than you so that your child can develop the best sense of self possible. This helps nurture them into the person that they are. This is also helping your child become all that God has made them to be.
In marriage, fostering self development means offering your spouse the opportunity to grow and develop as an individual. You want to recognize that you are both people who have gifts/talents/abilities, and some of these are probably not developed to their full potential. This can take many forms: hobbies, shared projects, travel, church or community service, further education, or balanced career development (not to be confused with pursuit of career at the cost of family and marriage).
Fostering self development offers the possibility of taking risks and accepting failure as part of growth, etc. It is sometimes helpful if you imagine what it’s like if you take that freedom away. If your spouse feels stifled, like no I can’t do that, then that will have a negative impact on the attachment bond you have with your spouse. Often spouses limit this out of fear, thinking “if you become everything that you could be, you’ll leave me behind.” That is a fear that relates to attachment as well, which you can work on as a couple, or possibly with a therapist.
Attachment Healing is Possible
Thankfully, it is possible to heal from a poor or disruptive attachment bond during childhood. And even if your marriage is severely distressed, it is still possible to shift your attachment style toward your spouse. Sometimes, there are other factors such as trauma that impact attachment, which you can work through and find healing from with the help of a therapist who specializes in trauma.
So, while this is a relatively simple outline of these five pillars of attachment, the process of healing can involve some work. This is definitely something that you would want to work with a counsellor on: preferably one who is trauma informed and understands attachment. It is also a core part of what we do in our online counseling agency at OnlyYouForever, so if we can help you either individually or as a couple, we’d love for you to set up a consultation with us through our website at only you forever dot com.
 Peter Fonagy et al., Development, Attachment and Childhood Experiences (Washington, DC, US: The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Personality Disorders, 2014), http://resolver.ebscohost.com/openurl?sid=EBSCO%3apsyh&genre=book&issn=&ISBN=9781585624560&volume=
 Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find–and Keep– Love (Penguin, 2010), https://books.google.ca/books?id=vCh9fXUiUjwC&dq=Attached:+The+New+Science+of+Adult+Attachment+and+How+It+Can+Help+You+Find+and+Keep+Love&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
 Levine and Heller.
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