The Secure Attachment Style

Izzy entered my consulting room, settled into a chair and burst into tears.

I’m so hurt and confused.  After 3 years’ marriage my husband, Luke, wants a divorce.  When we married he said I was the most precious thing in his life and he wanted us to be together forever.  He moved out last week and I’ve just found out that he wants half of everything I have.  What’s happened?  I just don’t understand.

It was our first meeting and as Izzy became calmer she was able to tell me more.  At 47 she is the mother of two children, Ruby, 16 and Max, 14 and works as a full-time teacher.  She lost her first husband, Paul, nine years ago in a car accident.  Initially devastated by her bereavement, with the support of family and friends, she began to come to terms with her loss.  Four years later she began to look forward again – she describes herself as “a natural optimist”.  Her marriage to Paul had been happy and she wanted to form a new relationship.  Encouraged by friends, she joined an on-line dating agency and met Luke.

I was immediately attracted.  He was so charming – so interested in everything about me but not pushy.  We dated for two years.  I introduced him gradually to the kids and they approved.  The four of us spent weekends together in our cottage in Cornwall and all got on really well.  Luke began to spend more and more time with us at home.  So, when he proposed I accepted straight away.

Could Izzy use therapy to discover why her second marriage was ending this way?  I was hopeful.  She impressed me with her openness and honesty.  Her happy first marriage and the warm supportive friendships she described suggested she might have a secure attachment style.  Her resilience in the face of losing her husband pointed to the same conclusion.

Psychologists, Cindy Hazan and Phil Shaver started helping people to discover their attachment style – secure, avoidant or anxious – using a simple questionnaire they designed during the 1980’s, based on a “Love Quiz” published in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News.  The quiz asked readers direct questions about their attachment style, their relationship history and beliefs about relationships.  They speculated that adults would display the same patterns of attachment as Mary Ainsworth had identified (see my earlier articles here, Parts 1 and 2) in children in her laboratory experiment.  Their hypothesis was confirmed when they compared readers’ answers to the attachment style questions with the way they described their relationship history and their beliefs about relationships.  As a result of their inquiry into readers’ beliefs and experiences, Hazan and Shaver produced a questionnaire, (see below).  They asked individuals to read 3 statements about how they relate and asked which closely reflected their own attitudes.

Like other people with a secure attachment style, Izzy finds it easy to depend on others and let them depend on her.  She doesn’t worry about them leaving or getting too close.  There don’t seem to be any clues to the failure of her marriage in her attachment style.

The pioneer of attachment, John Bowlby, discovered that we tend to repeat patterns of behaviour developed in childhood when we’re under stress.  Like other secure individuals, Izzy reacted to her bereavement by reaching out to others for help and support.  This enabled her to recover her hopes for the future and a new relationship.

The secure children in Mary Ainsworth’s experiment reacted to separation from their mother by becoming upset and protesting.  After a while, though, they settled and became interested in their surroundings and the toys provided for them to play with.  They reacted positively to her on return unlike the anxious children who resisted contact or the avoidant ones who ignored her.  The American Psychologist, Mary Main, tells us that children develop a secure attachment style  when their parents respond positively to their attempts to get close when they are ill, upset, hurt or in need of protection.

Izzy’s account of a childhood experience of chronic illness matches Main’s observations.  She suffered with fairly severe asthma until she was 20.  But she still had happy memories of playing board games with her mother and father or just watching her favourite tv programmes with them when she wasn’t well enough to attend school.  She also recalled running around outdoors with her friends all day during the summer holidays in the countryside near the village where she grew up.  She was not a child wrapped in cotton wool.

Izzy’s attachment history suggests the potential for relationship success.  So what went wrong with Luke?

It’s worth repeating at this point that the individual’s attachment style is neither a positive or negative predictor of relationship success.  The strengths and weaknesses of each style emerge under the force of individual circumstances.

What happened between Izzy and Luke?

For 2 years everything was fine.  Luke was brilliant with Ruby and Max.  Sometimes he seemed closer to them in age than me.  We had so much fun together, especially in Cornwall.  I carried on working full-time – by now I was Head of Department.  Luke was setting up a new business and working from home.  He was always busy and made regular trips abroad meeting new clients.  Then, early last year he asked if I could lend him some money, £80,000 to be exact.  He said he was having some temporary cash flow problems and the loan would give him a breathing space until things picked up.  I was really surprised.  I’d no ideas things weren’t going well.  When we talked more it came out that the business had never really got going and was, in fact losing money.  It’s true that I’d been paying most of the bills, but I was happy to support Luke until the business got off the ground.  I still wanted to help but I could only afford a fraction the money he asked for.  I tried explaining.  Paul had left us reasonably well cared for but I still needed to work so that we could keep up a nice way of life.  Most of our money was tied up to provide for the children’s future and I would not touch it.  Nothing could have prepared me for his reaction.  He called me a greedy, selfish bitch who’d never really loved him.  He said I’d shattered his confidence by showing that I didn’t trust him with money.  I was numb with shock.  Luke stormed off and I didn’t hear from him for 3 days.  When he turned up again he apologized for what he’d said but things between us had changed.  He was cold and distant while I was still in shock about what he’d revealed about himself.  He left again after 3 weeks and then the next I heard was a letter asking for a divorce and a half share of everything on the grounds of the contribution he’d made as a house husband during our time together.

Like other secure individuals Izzy is on safe ground when she encounters people who are open, honest and secure in themselves, as Paul her husband had been.  Her vulnerability was exposed when she met someone with something to hide.  Before Luke she’d been lucky to form relationships with people who deserved her trust.  She didn’t look far beyond Luke’s charming facade at any point in their time together.  She asked few questions about his financial position or work history.  When they married she expected him to get on with life in the same way as she did, by doing his best for the new family they had formed.  She assumed the support she was offering would be reciprocated as soon as Luke was able to do so.  An individual with an anxious attachment style might have adopted a more questioning attitude to her partner spurred on by a wish for greater involvement in his activities.  An avoidant individual might have expected to see some kind of outward signs of success in return for her input.

As our sessions progressed Izzy worked through some of her hurt and disappointment.  Some good legal advice reassured her that Luke was unlikely to succeed in his claim on her assets.  As she settled we started to review her beliefs about and expectations of relationships.  Initially she was reluctant to take a less romantic view of potential partners, believing this would make her a cold, calculating person.  But in time she came to understand the value of questioning others in order to protect herself and her children.  Therapy also helped her to acknowledge her strengths such as a gift for making friends and her ability to depend on them during hard times.  She is now seeing an old friend from university and thinks he could become an important part of her life.  Her friends tell her that Luke has been seen in the neighbourhood lately with a woman who has recently lost her husband.

By now you might have formed some idea of your own attachment style and wonder how this awareness could help you on to relationship success.  Unlike some writers in this field, I don’t suggest searching for the perfect matching attachment style in your partner.  After all, you could already be with someone whose style hasn’t been prescribed.  My belief is that knowing your attachment style can help you to make the most of your relationships whether you’re a singleton in search of love, setting out on a new relationship or are part of a long-established couple.  The table has some tips to help you to exploit strengths and manage vulnerabilities associated with each attachment style.

I hope these articles have helped you gain some insight into the significance of attachment styles for yourself and your partners past, present and future.  You might be happy with your partner or content with single life.  If you are less satisfied, you might want to reflect on the influence of your attachment style on your current relationships.  Or you might decide, like Marcia, Fletcher and Izzy to enter the therapist’s consulting room in the quest for relationship success.

Jane McChrystal, March 2012

Jane McChrystal is a London-based Psychotherapeutic-Counsellor


Part 1 – Relationship success and your attachment style

Part 2 – The Avoidant Attachment Style