A secure attachment style occurs when a person is able to form a positive, emotionally stable relationship with others.
When someone has a secure attachment style, they will feel confident expressing their feelings with significant others and can develop a long-lasting and meaningful connection.
This is a core attachment style from Bowlby’s attachment theory.
Attachment Styles Explained
The concept of secure attachment style comes mainly from the research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.
Both of these scholars conducted extensive research on how babies and mothers form emotional bonds with each other.
Over the years, they identified a total of four distinct attachment styles:
- anxious-avoidant, and
Their research has been extended to include adult attachment styles that include relations with coworkers and romantic partners. As Diehl et al. (1998) stated,
“…findings support the proposition that attachment styles are not only important for social and personality development during the early life span, but that they are in a systematic fashion related to individual differences in adulthood and later life” (p. 1665).
Secure Attachment Style Examples
When mother and baby are in an unfamiliar environment, a baby with a secure attachment style will explore the area using a method called ‘base touching’.
Base-touching is when the toddler (usually at the third and fourth stages of attachment) will wander away from the mother to explore the environment for a short period of time, and then return.
As they venture out, they begin to experience some distress and then return “home” to the mother to feel safe again.
The mother is a source of comfort and stability. Many toddlers will literally return to the mother and touch her, hence the term “base-touching.”
2. Greeting a Caregiver Warmly on Return
A child greeting a caregiver with warmth and affection upon return is believed to be a sign of secure attachment.
Ainsworth discovered that some babies displayed a unique pattern of behavior when their primary caregiver left the room.
These babies showed signs of distress and were noticeably upset when their mother left the room. They would actively search the room and were focused on finding her.
But when the caregiver returned, they greeted the mother warmly, with affection, and were happy to see her again.
Ainsworth attributes this to the baby feeling a sense of security from the caregiver.
This sense is the result of the caregiver’s history of being responsive to the baby’s needs in a consistent and reliable manner. This creates a stable emotional bond that is trusting and warm.
Therefore, when the baby sees that the mother has returned, they feel relieved and happy to see them again.
3. The Child Feels Valued
Children need to feel that they are valued and respected in order to develop secure attachment. This means that when they have an opinion, it is considered important.
When we are referring to infants and toddlers of course, the concept of “opinion” takes on a slightly different meaning.
For example, a baby’s “opinion” is manifested in the form of crying when it needs something. For a toddler, an opinion is often expressed in the form of wanting to be independent.
When the caregiver responds to the baby’s cry for food or attention in a timely manner, the baby begins to form a positive internal concept “self.”
When the caregiver allows their toddler to express their need to be independent and do what they want, this tells the child that their needs and wants are important. Therefore, they begin to form an internal concept of self that includes being respected by others.
4. The Child Feels Supported
When children encounter challenges, it is important for the child to feel that they have the support of their caregivers. This can lead to a secure attachment between child and parent.
The significant others in that child’s life need to let them know that even if they fail, they will still be valued, respected, and loved.
Even in those instances in which the child is clearly wrong, and they have made some mistake, parents should let the child understand that it is not the end of the world; that they still have the support of their loved ones and that they will try to help during those difficult times.
These are the characteristics of a secure attachment style.
5. Respecting Boundaries
When we have a secure attachment with others, we learn to respect and value their boundaries.
We do not see those boundaries as a threat to ourselves or our relationship with that person. That is a lot easier said than done.
For example, sometimes the boundaries of our significant partner may mean that we are left out.
Perhaps our partner is someone that needs time alone; perhaps they are someone that needs to have a lot of close friends; or it may mean that they are sometimes not as emotionally open and sharing as we would like.
However, if an adult has a secure attachment style with another human being, then they can accept that sometimes that person will not always give us what we want.
To respect their boundaries and understand their needs, fully, is a true sign of feeling secure.
One trait that people with an adult secure attachment style possess is high self-esteem.
They have a positive view of themselves and believe that they are a person of worth and value. They do not need to be in a relationship to feel validated because their sense of worth comes from their inner self.
When a person’s sense of self-worth comes from within, it translates into specific actions when in an adult romantic relationship.
Because validation comes internally, a person is less likely to tolerate mistreatment and emotional abuse from others. They do not depend on another person’s opinion to feel good about themselves.
7. Emotional Honesty
The adult secure attachment style is characterized by emotional honesty.
A person is willing and capable of expressing their true feelings regarding a situation or a romantic partner. Emotions are not feared.
Being emotionally honest has many benefits. Not being afraid of expressing one’s inner most thoughts and emotions allows for honest and direct communication to occur between two people.
When communication is honest it allows for both parties to gain a deeper understanding of their partner. This means the relationship has an opportunity to grow.
On the other hand, sometimes relationships are not meant to be, for various reasons. Being emotionally honest with one’s romantic partner is healthy for both, even though it may mean that the two realize that the relationship will not be successful in the long-run.
8. Long-term Friendships
Long-term friends generally have a secure attachment to one another. They can remain friends despite distance and time because they feel secure in their friendships.
Maintaining a long-lasting and healthy friendship with another human being is not always easy. It requires patience, tolerance, and understanding.
Through the course of any relationship, there will always be ups and downs. There will be times when one person does something wrong or even harmful to the other. This is inevitable.
Although it might seem much easier to terminate that relationship, especially in the heat of the moment when emotions are raw, a person with a secure attachment style may be more patient.
They may see the longer-term value of having that friendship and take a more mature attitude.
Instead of calling it quits, they might see the moment as an opportunity to build greater trust and understanding.
9. Trust between Partners
Trust just might be the most important element of a long-lasting, healthy relationship that is characterized by secure attachment.
Whether it be between two married people or two friends, feeling that the other person is someone that you can trust is essential.
This means that when an error occurs and the other person has hurt our feelings when can understand that it was probably unintentional. That they did not actually set out to do something that was damaging to our feelings.
In terms of romantic relationships in particular, trust means being confident in the other person’s expressions of love.
Even though they may form deep personal connections with other human beings, a person with a secure attachment style will understand that it does not mean there is an absence of love for them.
It is possible for a person to have meaningful relationships with others that don’t necessarily jeopardize their bond.
10. Unconditional Love
Parents who want to promote secure attachment with their child need to express unconditional positive regard toward their child (The same goes with adult relationships!).
As we all discover at some point in life, no one is perfect. Although most of us strive to be as good as we can, everyone makes mistakes.
Sometimes those mistakes hurt other people; sometimes they hurt ourselves; and sometimes they hurt the ones we love the most.
What happens in our darkest moments is more consequential than when everything is going smoothly. If the people that are important to us show us that they still love us, even when we are wrong, it is incredibly meaningful.
It is easy to love someone when they are good, but to love someone’s faults as well is a true sign of commitment to another human being.
Research on attachment styles has a long history. It started with careful observations of interactions between infants and their primary caregivers. Several different patterns of behavior were observed. These observations led to a classification scheme that identified four distinct attachment styles.
The secure attachment style is primarily characterized by the infant seeing the mother as a source of comfort and stability. In times of distress or need, the infant understands that they can depend on their mother.
Interestingly, attachment styles also have very real implications for our adult friendships and romantic relations. Adults with a secure attachment style are more trusting and forgiving of significant others in their lives. They are more open to sharing their emotions and being open and honest about those feelings.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
Diehl, M., Elnick, A., Bourbeau, L., Labouvie-Vief, G. (1998). Adult attachment styles: Their relations to family context and personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1656-69. doi: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1246.
van Ijzendoorn MH, Sagi-Schwartz A. Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: Universal and contextual dimensions. In: Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. The Guilford Press; 2008:880–905.