Why Saying "Secure Attachment" is a Myth Is Wrong
(a more heady post)
There is a lot of wrong information about attachment strategies (the first being they aren’t “styles” but survival strategies).
But the idea that there is no such thing as a secure attachment is nonsense.
The reason why gets into the history of why attachment theory broke away from the reigning psychoanalytic streams back in the 1950s.
So I’m going to walk through it step by step.
The basic summary:
Attachment theory works from models of health (secure attachment strategies) to unhealthy (insecure attachment strategies).
Psychoanalysis (and much of the history of psychiatry and psychology) works from models of unhealth (madness, depression, anxiety) toward models of health.
This difference is THE DIFFERENCE (either from positive to negative or negative to positive) between these two schools of those, and why, as a theologian and pastor, I seek to learn more from attachment theory as seeking the reality of how we are made rather than how sin distorts us.
But first here is what Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman said about the impossibility of secure attachment (and then I respond to point #1 below).
I see a lot written about "attachment styles" but so much of it is wrong! Some recent findings in the psychological literature that may surprise you:
1. There is no such thing as a secure attachment style! When we study adults we find it much more informative to talk about continuums we are all on, not "types" or "styles". Researchers have found that we all exist somewhere on either the avoidance dimension (not type) or the anxious dimension (not type). Our level of secure attachment is simply our placement on these two dimensions. MAJOR IMPLICATION: There is no such thing as a perfectly securely attached person! I mean, have you ever met one?! A person has a higher "level" of secure attachment if they score lower on both the anxious and avoidant dimensions of attachment. Also, any individual can score high on both avoidance and anxious, low on both, mid on both, high on one, low on the other, etc. They are correlated but separate dimensions!
2. Childhood attachment patterns are overrated and we make too much of it! The actual correlation between early childhood attachment patterns and our adult attachment placement on the avoidance and anxious continuums is SURPRISINGLY LOW!! Much more predictive of our adulthood attachment patterns is *our entire history of adult relationships*, NOT our childhood relationships!! Highly sensitive and caring partners in adulthood ABSOLUTELY CAN OVERRIDE our childhood patterns (within the normal range of most humans; extreme abuse in childhood makes things far more complex in adulthood).
I see a lot of other misinformation about attachment theory but I think that's enough for now! Hope you found this informative! I can add links to papers and references if you want but didn't want to overwhelm everyone with stats and graphs.
Developmental Attachment vs. Social Psychology Attachment?
Dr. Kaufman is primarily drawing from the social psychology side of attachment research (which introduced the “anxious” vs “avoidant” dimensions) rather than the original stream that came out of developmental psychology.
Why is this important?
The development tradition of attachment research used home and clinical observation to gather data from which the theory of secure attachment was built, along with the patterns of insecure attachment (anxious-distracted and avoidant-dismissive).
This developmental tradition didn’t think in terms of personality style, but if developmental pathways that led to either well-adapted or maladapted relational strategies (the former leading to prosocial and positive mental health and the latter not so much).
The social psychology tradition of attachment research came 20 years after that work. It adopted the basic framework and findings of the original attachment theory but wanted to apply it to adult romantic relations.
And it shifted from observational data to self-report surveys.
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A Deficiency-Based View of Attachment
It is this social psychology tradition of attachment that introduced the “anxious” and “avoidant” dimensions, with different researchers meaning different things by those words.
Which is problematic.
Because these are both negative words—anxious and avoidant. And in according to this view, secure attachment just means low levels of relationship anxiety and avoidance.
This choice of negative words betrays John Bowlby’s original reason for choosing the positive word “attachment” to distinguish it from the more negative word of “dependency”.
Part of Bowlby’s breakthrough, which cause him to split with the psychoanalytic-psychology tradition, was to view attachment as a positively functioning force that persisted throughout life, rather than a negative and immature situation (of dependency) that one grew out of when transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
So the data that Dr. Kaufman is criticizing—coming from the social psychology tradition of attachment theory that understands secure attachment merely as the lowering of the negative states of anxiety and avoidance—already represents a history of attachment theory by the social psychology tradition.
So, it is very much a lopsided view to say there is no such thing as secure attachment, and that we are just managing negative dimensions (even if this is the popularized view of attachment theory).
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What Secure Attachment Is
What, then, is “secure attachment” if it is something more than minimizing patterns of anxious or avoidant relationship behavior?
There are certain identifiable traits (a “style” of living) of those who are securely attached.
Basically, there are three traits, capacities, or aptitudes of secure attachment:
The belief that others are available to help when one is in distress.
The hope that this distress will be alleviated (a sense that the future will get better).
A sense that one has agency to initiate change in the world (either to solve my own problems when I can, or to seek help when I am overwhelmed).
Insecure attachment strategies initiate behavior around the
beliefs that others are unreliably available for help or will reject us if we seek help;
that this distress will probably not be alleviated;
and that my agency
must be focused on seeking help from others because I can’t solve my own problem (the anxious strategy),
or must be focused on solving my own problems because others can’t or won’t help (the avoidant strategy).
So, all that to say, there is a such thing as secure attachment, and it is more than minimizing relationship anxiety and avoidance.
Secure Attachment = Faith, Hope, and Love
I will just end by saying that God created us…
to rely on others (requiring FAITH, principally in God);
to believe that things are getting better (fostering HOPE);
and to use our agency to connect and flourish others (the expression of LOVE)
It seems that Paul was thinking of something like secure attachment when he said,
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:12-13)
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Also see this article for how the research has not backed up early theorizing by the social psychology tradition regarding Internal Working Models (IWM): “The Internal Working Models Concept: What Do We Really Know About the Self in Relation to Others?” (PDF)
And for an initial statement on the different traditions of attachment research, see “Developmental vs. social personality models of adult attachment mental ill health.” (PDF)