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is their hope for the insecurely attached?

I can recall the specific day that sparked my endless pursuit to understand attachment and relationships. I was sitting in an undergraduate class lecture when my professor introduced the concept of attachment styles (read more about attachment styles here). I was so intrigued. The professor explained that roughly 50-60% of the population is securely attached. I began to do the math. If roughly 50-60% of the population is deemed secure, where does that leave the other 40–50%?

Does that mean that nearly half of the population is doomed to a lifetime of insecure relationships?

Feeling curious, I asked the question that so many people continue to ask me today, “Can insecurely attached people work toward security and change their attachment style?” The answer I received at the time left me so perplexed that it became my mission to understand and educate others on attachment.

At that time, I was taught that attachment styles are consistent over time. Much like our personality, our attachment to others was presumed to be a constant part of us that doesn’t change. In all fairness, this was over a decade ago, when attachment research was just starting to explode. Nevertheless, it created a major conflict for me, as I hoped to graduate and help people find and build better relationships. How could I help people improve their relationship if the odds were working against me and the traits of insecure attachment were consistent over the lifespan? How could I make a difference or help others if their relationship patterns were entrenched?

These questions caused me to investigate further, and I found that the stability of attachment styles is a bit more nuanced than my professor implied. Research has uncovered two categories of secure attachment: Continuous-secures and earned-secures.1 My professor at the time was describing continuously secure (and/or insecure) individuals who develop an attachment in their childhood and carry that same attachment style into their adult romantic relationships. For example, when a caregiver is inconsistent in meeting a child’s physical and emotional needs it may affect the child’s ability to securely attach in relationships later in life. This is accurate of most attachment styles; however, the research is starting to reveal that attachment can change over time (and across relationships). More specifically, attachment styles can transform from insecure to secure — a pattern called “earned security.”

Earned-secures are described as having an insecure attachment style in infancy that develops into a secure attachment pattern later. This transformation has a positive effect on individuals’ romantic relationships and their own parenting strategies. In fact, earned secures rate their relationship satisfaction just as high as those in the continuously secure category. This phenomenon has also been referred to as the “secure buffering effect,” which suggests that insecure individuals who are in a relationship with a secure partner begin to exhibit more secure attachment behaviours.2

Essentially what this tells us is that there is hope. If you are dissatisfied with your current relationship or want to gain control over your actions/reactions, research has shown that you can earn security in these areas. We can learn from our past experiences and grow into more secure and wholehearted human beings.

Research is working hard to uncover how and/or why security can be earned. In the meantime, there are some simple ways that you can begin a conscious journey to change your attachment behaviour. This first step is to identify and learn about your attachment style. While these are not rigid classifications, they are helpful guidelines that give you insight into your attachment behaviour. Second, seek to understand your attachment needs. For example, if you tend to be anxious about your relationships then intimacy and closeness are likely very important to you. On the other hand, if you are more avoidant in relationships you need and value independence. Understanding your needs is essential when building a secure relationship. Lastly, Levine and Heller (2010) explain that security is more easily earned when you are paired with a partner who can understand and compliment your needs. Therefore, seek to also identify and understand your partner’s attachment style. This will give you insight into whether you have similar or juxtaposing needs.

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1Roisman, G., Padron, E., Sroufe, A., & Egeland, B. (2002). Earned-secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect. Child Development, 73(4), 1204-1219.

2Levine, A. & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find—and keep—love. Penguin Group, NY: New York.