Love, attachment and intimacy. Part 4/4: secure and earned secure attachment

This is the final article of four about attachment, the way we form relationships based on formative experiences with carers, usually our biological parents. The previous three articles have described how the avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganised attachment styles are formed, how these attachment styles play out in adult romantic relationships, and the way psychotherapy may help resolve the issues inherent in each attachment style.

The insecure attachment styles – avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised – are characterised by compromises the child made due to unmet emotional needs. These compromises then form a blueprint for what is and isn’t possible in intimate relationships. The avoidant blueprint is the need not to give away emotions which feel dangerous to express; the ambivalent blueprint is the need to manage fear of abandonment; and the disorganised blueprint is an abiding hypervigilance as the world is not a safe place to be.

By contrast, secure attachment is characterised by the child getting enough of what s/he needs enough of the time, enabling the child to express emotional needs openly and appropriately with the expectation they will be accepted and met. This child, free from preoccupation with hiding emotions, free from fear of abandonment or the need to stay safe from danger, has an inner sense of security which enables a much greater degree of self-knowledge and therefore a better quality of relationship with others.

This article describes the parent/child relationship which develops secure attachment and how this plays out in adult romantic relationships. As with all four articles, the attachment style is illustrated by a song: secure attachment is characterised by To Do With You by Jake Thackray. The final section of the article explains that the ultimate goal of therapy is to provide the care and conditions to help the client move from an insecure to an earned secure attachment.

Secure and earned secure attachment

An attachment style is the nature of the relationship between a child and their carer and then, in adult life, the characteristics of their relationships with others, especially in love.

The research of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby from the 1950s on was foundational in describing attachment. The basis of the research was the strange situation procedure, in which children are observed in a room with their parent, usually the mother. The researchers were interested in the child’s behaviour when a stranger entered the room, the parent left the room, returned, left again, and returned again. Was the child distressed when the parent left? Was s/he comforted on the parent’s return? Did the child feel safe enough to explore the room? Did the infant prefer the parent or the stranger?

Three attachment styles were identified. In secure attachment, the parent provides a reliable source of security and comfort for the child to thrive. In the two insecure attachments, avoidant and ambivalent, the child has difficulty thriving since parents are emotionally closed or unreliable. In the 1970s, Mary Main identified a third type of insecure attachment, disorganised attachment, created when the child receives chronic negligence or hostility from carers.

The infant’s experience of receiving care forms what John Bowlby called an internal working model in the child, a relational blueprint of what to expect in the world. From this, the child makes a decision about who s/he needs to be to thrive or survive in the world. Each attachment style has a long-term impact on the growing child’s view of themselves and relationships, right into adulthood. When forming romantic relationships, it is the security or insecurity of that early bond that forms the basis of our impressions of others. If we were confident of parental care, we seek someone in whom we can have the same secure confidence; if we developed an avoidant attachment, we seek someone who won’t get too close, or will do all the emotions in the relationship so we don’t have to, or find ways to emotionally distance within the relationship; if we were ambivalent about our parents’ care, never sure whether they’d be available or not, we transfer that insecurity to our adult romantic relationship; and if our attachment was fearful and disorganised, anyone getting too close is a scary prospect.

For those with an insecure attachment, the good news is that an attachment style, though foundational to our perceptions and relationships, does not have to be forever. Perceptions and relationships can change. Someone with an insecure attachment in infancy can later develop what is called an earned secure attachment and that, as this article explains, is the ultimate aim of psychotherapy.

The use of the words ‘intimate’ and ‘intimacy’ in these articles should be explained. In everyday language, these words are often used as a euphemism for sex, but here it has a broader meaning: intimacy is any encounter between two people with openness and honesty, without the need for social role-playing or emotional barriers. The parent-child relationship is therefore a powerful developmental blueprint for intimacy: the measure of acceptance the child feels from the parent is the measure of how safe it feels for the growing person to be intimate, to express how they truly feel, and engage meaningfully in relationships with others.

Pattern of parent/child relationship in secure attachment

Parental availability: how emotionally available the parent is to the child

The parent shows consistent and appropriate care for the child. The parent is practically helpful, cognitively engaged and emotionally available for the child, implicitly teaching the child that emotional intimacy is safe, that the child can express emotional needs rather than hiding them.

Emotional acceptance: how accepted the child feels by the parent

Donald Winnicott, English paediatrician and psychotherapist, wrote that “The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face”. In other words, the child learns who s/he is from their relationship with their primary carer(s). The child can respond with secure attachment when the parent can enter the child’s world, engaging in play on their level, understanding their needs and responding to them in the moment. In secure attachment, there is a lot of loving eye contact and verbal exchange with the child from birth onwards.

“The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s [and father’s] face” ~ Donald Winnicott

In infancy, a child’s emotions are huge and often uncontained, sometimes apparently threatening to overwhelm. This is not an easy situation for the parent. As Donald Winnicott put it, a child, “if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate … At the start he absolutely needs to live in a circle of love and strength (with consequent tolerance) if he is not to be too fearful of his own thoughts and of his imaginings to make progress in his emotional development.”

This needs a little unpacking. There are three factors behind a developing child’s behaviour here described by Donald Winnicott.

Firstly, an infant is aware of the power differential, that adults are in charge and make all the important decisions. The child needs to exert power and know that s/he can make a difference in the world, that what s/he does matters. The parent’s role is to help the child feel recognised and noticed, while keeping the child safe and limiting his/her power within age-appropriate boundaries.

Secondly, a young child has no sense of time, and so lives in the eternal present tense, with no knowledge that s/he may feel differently in one or two minutes, and therefore a child’s uncontained emotions can take on an existential magnitude. A child therefore learns to feel secure when s/he experiences the adults’ power as caring and containing those emotions, even when the parent’s love limits the child in ways they don’t like, such as telling them they’ve had enough sweets now, or that mommy won’t buy this toy, or that they need to go to bed and sleep.

Thirdly, those huge emotions of the child are experienced initially without either understanding or the language to convey them. Therefore, a child feels secure when the parent helps the child to understand their own emotions by accepting them, naming them, and calmly absorbing them on the child’s behalf. The child in turn then learns to accept, name and process their own emotions, gaining emotional security through self-understanding and self-acceptance absorbed from the parent.

Parent/child relationship: the nature of early interactions between parent and child   

In the beginning, a child is completely helpless, so the child’s dependence is total. In secure attachment, the parent encourages a relationship of developmentally-appropriate dependence, giving the child what s/he cannot provide for her/himself. However, even in this state of complete dependence, the child makes choices which can be respected or over-ridden by the parent. For example, Donald Winnicott used to tell a beautiful story of observing a mother breastfeeding her child, noticing the mother’s patience, waiting for the child to take the milk at the child’s own pace, neither hurrying nor forcing. This respect for the child’s pace leads to a relationship of security and mutuality between parent and child, making parental tasks such as feeding and changing co-operative and harmonious.

A co-operative and harmonious relationship is promoted in a really significant way through play. Through play, the child learns that the parent is not only a source of authority but a source of mutual fun; that the parent can enter and share the child’s imaginary world; and that the child gets to have their say and make the rules – “Daddy! Be a growly monster!” – and thus that their desires and happiness matters.

Play between parent and child is a fundamental part of the child’s feeling of acceptance and love, critical to healthy development and secure attachment.

Secure base: a measure of the child’s sense of security, whether or not s/he can use the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world, knowing the parent will be welcoming on their return

This enables the child to use the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world and return to the parent. When the parent is absent, securely attached children become upset. When the parent returns, the child is happy, and is able to ask for and receive comfort. When the child is frightened or unsure, s/he feels secure in the knowledge that comfort can be sought and received. Advances for contact by the parent are welcomed by the child, and advances for contact by the child are welcomed by the parent.

Developmental steps: how supported the child is by the parent in their emotional and relational development  

The secure child prefers parents to strangers. Having received empathy from parents, the child learns to show empathy for others and, feeling supported, is able to develop cognitive and emotional maturity, marked by the child’s growing self-understanding and self-support. When the child makes incremental steps towards maturity and autonomy — walking, talking, dressing, developing interests that are not the carer’s interests — the parent encourages and celebrates with the child.

In this way, the securely attached child absorbs parental care, is comfortable with who s/he is, and is thus able to develop an inner awareness, able to get to know him/herself and express that self to others.

Openly expressed love, comfort and fun: the signs of secure attachment.

Pattern in adult relationships

Sense of self: the person’s view of themself and relationship with their own emotions

As an adult, the secure person has an abiding sense of him or her self, is in touch with emotions, and is able to express needs and have close and reciprocal relationships with true intimacy. It is therefore most likely that the securely attached person will seek someone with a secure or earned secure attachment as a romantic partner, mutually reinforcing their positive expectations and experiences.

Personal communication: how well the person can communicate on a personal, intimate level 

Since communication was free-flowing and intimate between parent and child, the secure person is comfortable with sharing both positive and difficult feelings with partners and friends, and seeks emotional support when needed. This means that love and affection can be openly and safely expressed, and when disagreements or conflicts arise, they can be resolved with compromise and understanding.

Relationships: the nature of the person’s emotional engagement with others

Relationships are trusting and lasting, since the secure person can openly express feelings to others and reciprocate by accepting the feelings of others. They enjoy sharing, and are able to learn and grow as a result of resolving relational difficulties.

Someone with an insecure attachment will often think in terms of a binary choice between being independent of others or dependent on others. Someone with a secure attachment understands this to be a false choice, since we all live in an interdependent web of relationships. The real choice, for the securely attached, is between autonomy, having our decisions respected and respecting others, or lack of autonomy, wanting to control or be controlled. The secure person chooses autonomy, and can therefore make free personal judgements about when they are best acting on their own and when they need others’ help, without feeling that either choice diminishes them.

As in the parent/child relationship, so in adult romantic relationships, open mutual affection and playfulness are aspects of secure attachment.

A song of secure attachment: To do with you by Jake Thackray

There are very few songs about secure attachment. Most popular songs about relationships are full of the ambivalently attached’s fantasies of love, that ‘I will be forever blissfully happy if only you will love me’, or the ambivalently attached’s existential drama of ‘I can’t live without you’.

By contrast, the securely attached person understands that relationships are not fairy tales with one-dimensional happy endings, but they are real, complex and rewarded by communication. The securely attached has not had perfect parents (since there are no perfect parents), but what Donald Winnicott called “the good-enough mother” or father, parents who got it right enough of the time for the child to experience ongoing care and love, with the occasional hiccups, everyday mistakes and exceptions we would reasonably expect. This means the securely attached person can speak realistically of their parents’ positive attributes as well as their shortcomings, and can relate both with good humour and love. Similarly, they can speak of their romantic partner and of themself in just the same loving, honest, measured and supportive way.

The only song I am aware of that neither puts a lover on a pedestal nor damns them as a failure, that gives a loving and accepting appraisal of their partner and themself, is To Do With You, written and performed by Jake Thackray.

Jake acknowledges the unrealistic fantasy of mythical romance – “A marriage is supposed to go like happy ever after clockwork” – and explains that the reality is more mixed – “But there are days enough when the love is racked and pinioned … But there are days enough when the love keeps coming and coming”. He acknowledges both the imperfections of his wife – “There may be better cooking, better looking women, better slung and better at buns than you” – and his own, with good humour – “they’ve all got, as like as not, a lot better taste in men than you’ve got”. This imperfect man, with his imperfect wife, accepts and celebrates their bond without unrealistic expectations, delighting in the life and love they share: “No such tender godsend friend as you … My dearest, I want everything to do with you.”

Click the picture to hear the song, which opens in YouTube.

There may be better cooking, better looking women,
Better slung and better at buns than you.
If I were a man for simple things,
Like flawless skin and bigger dinners,
My dearest, I might have no more to do with you.

But you know well enough that I am much more choosy:
I want day to day to find myself with you.
With the cheek to cheek, the tooth and claw,
The milk and honey and the bread and water,
Dearest, I want everything to do with you.

A marriage is supposed to go like happy ever after clockwork,
Marking time with a regular chime of ‘I love you’;
But there are days enough when the love is racked and pinioned,
Which nobody else knows better than we two do.

There may be better read and better bedtime women,
Eruditer wives at night than you.
If I were the simple sort of bloke
For Kierkegaarde and Kant and cocoa,
Dearest, I would have no more to do with you.

But there’s no such dependably stupendous woman,
Up to the scratch, no match, not a patch on you;
And eye to eye, or toe to toe,
Kiss for kiss and blow for blow,
My dearest, I want every thing to do with you.

A marriage is supposed to go like happy ever after clockwork,
Marking time with a regular chime of ‘I love you, too’;
But there are days enough when the love keeps coming and coming,
Which nobody else knows better than we two do.

There may be smoother moving, tongue and grooving women,
Better spoken, shorter strokers than you.
But they’ve all got, as like as not,
A lot better taste in men than you’ve got.
Dearest, I shall have to just make do with you.

There’s no such one caress and leave me breathless woman,
No such tender godsend friend as you.
And not now and then, nor if and whether,
But time and again forever and ever.
My dearest, I want everything to do with you.

The role of counselling and psychotherapy: earned secure attachment

Clients who are already securely attached are a rarity in the therapy room. It is easy to see why. Since infancy, their parents equipped them with sufficient self-awareness, self-knowledge and an underlying sense of security, such that most of what life throws at them can be cognitively and emotionally processed, or they are able to ask for the help they need from loving partners or friends, some of whom are also likely to be within the securely attached range. If they’re still stuck, they may then seek the help of a psychotherapist.

Longitudinal studies on attachment style have shown that it is possible for significant life events to change someone’s attachment pattern. A securely attached person may be derailed and become insecurely attached through a life-changing event which would be a challenge for anyone, such as the death of a child, serious illness or financial ruin. On the other hand, some children, aware of their insecurity, see the opportunity to form a special bond with a grandparent, a neighbour, or a friend’s parent, with whom they form a surrogate secure attachment. Likewise, some insecure adults are able to form bonds with a special friend or partner who offers them the security they always craved.

This malleability in attachment style is the fact that makes fundamental changes in personality possible in psychotherapy. The key factor in change is self-awareness, the person’s recognition of their deep, habitual emotional and cognitive processes. It is this self-awareness that a child gains from their secure attachment, but which the insecurely attached child and adult misses; so this awareness is not usually there at the beginning of therapy sessions, and is the reason for a person feeling stuck.

This is where a skilled therapist can be invaluable. I often find it helpful to think of the way forward in terms of blocks and deficits.

Blocks are usually negative beliefs about oneself and others, learned in childhood, which we perpetuate without knowing, often in very subtle ways. Our insecure processes can be so automatic that they sweep us along. Being automatic and out of awareness, we have no choice about addressing them, so we repeat and reinforce the insecurity. Those unaware negative reinforcements come in a variety of forms, such as starting projects and never finishing them, proving the parental message ‘right’ that ‘you’ll never amount to anything’; or regular self-criticism learned from parents, so normal that the person doesn’t hear themself saying “You’ll think I’m an idiot but …”, “I know this makes me weird but …”, “I’m not worth bothering with”; or habitual negative assumptions about others’ ulterior motives, based on their perception of their family growing up. The therapist’s role is to offer a safe and non-judgemental space in which those automatic insecure processes are brought into awareness. Once someone becomes aware of and attentive to their repeated patterns, then we can work on understanding and no longer repeating habits which reinforce insecurity, and build a more open and healthy relationship with oneself and others.

Deficits are the things we lack, the experiences we missed out on developmentally that we need in order to grow. Sometimes they are experiences that have long been available to us, but which we have failed to recognise due to our filter, those negative beliefs about self and others. Sometimes they are experiences that will never be available to us as long as we continue to have the type of relationships that strengthen, reinforce and perpetuate our negative filters. This means changing those relationships by changing the way we behave in them (or, in some cases, by walking away).

Since the therapist’s role is to offer the type of relationship that promotes secure attachment, some of those experiencial deficits are possible to fill in therapy sessions. In this way, the therapist’s role can have a parental quality. We have seen that a child feels secure when s/he experiences the adults’ power as caring, and when the parent helps the child to understand their own emotions by accepting them, naming them, and calmly absorbing them on the child’s behalf. In the same way, a therapy client is offered emotional security within the therapeutic relationship when s/he experiences the therapist as caring, and when the therapist helps the client to understand their own emotions by accepting them, naming them, and calmly absorbing them. This means entering the client’s world, engaging on their level, understanding their needs and responding appropriately, as a parent would promoting a child’s secure attachment. It means showing consistent and appropriate care, cognitively engaged and emotionally available, implicitly showing the client that emotional intimacy is safe, that emotional needs can be expressed rather than hidden. We work at the client’s own pace, neither hurrying nor forcing. It means enabling the client to express emotional needs openly with the expectation that they will be heard. If there is a preoccupation with hiding emotions, with fear of abandonment or the need to stay safe from danger due to primal experiences, this can be explored openly to enable a much greater degree of self-knowledge and therefore, ultimately, a better quality of relationship with self and others.

Through this process, the client can use the therapist as a secure base from which to explore the world and return to the next session. We celebrate incremental steps towards healing. We build up a sense of self, in touch with emotions, able to appropriately express needs and have close and reciprocal relationships with true intimacy. It is an implicit reworking of the internal working model, the relational blueprint of what to expect in the world, a remaking of early decisions about who we need to be to thrive in the world.

The ultimate goal of therapy is to move with the client as far as possible towards an earned secure attachment, a state in which enough care has been experienced that the person is more connected with their own needs and emotions, thus able to self-express and self-regulate, and able to have a more accepting and loving relationship with themself and with others. It is always a privilege to be part of this process.


About Ian Pittaway

Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, attachment research and person centred therapy. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.

To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.


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