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The Attachment System: Creating Secure Bonds

“Love makes us who we are, and who we can become.”

A General Theory of Love

Take a moment to reflect:

  1. How do you typically respond when feelings of insecurity or unfulfillment arise in your relationship? Do you withdraw, resort to criticism and control, or seek connection through gentleness and vulnerability?
  2. When your partner reaches out to offer comfort, do you find solace and relaxation, or does apprehension and discomfort cloud the moment?
  3. Consider your thoughts when your loved one draws near, both emotionally and physically. Do you find yourself fixating on their imperfections, pondering how they rarely act this way, or do you savor the closeness for what it is?

Essentially, your personal history of love and the coping mechanisms you’ve developed along the way have created a unique roadmap for navigating the complex terrain of intimate relationships.

Picture your journey through life as akin to the Google Maps Car – your brain and body have been the driver, continuously charting a course influenced by your past experiences and emotional responses.

Much like the Google Maps Car, your mind has captured snapshots of various streets and the landscape of your relational journey.

Just as Google Maps efficiently organizes routes to enhance your safety and avoid potential pitfalls, your brain shapes your behavior, offering potential paths in interpersonal relationships designed to bolster your chances of emotional survival and connection, much like avoiding driving off an incomplete bridge.

If you consider Google Maps as your reliable GPS, guiding your vehicle to a desired destination, then your attachment system acts as your compass in the world of human connection. It serves as your trusty guide, helping you navigate the intricate terrain of relationships, enabling you to make choices that prioritize security, comfort, and the support you seek.

Understanding The Attachment System

Attachment system, insecure attachment, secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment

For instance, consider the case of Secure Suzze, a 7-year-old with a secure attachment style. When a sudden, loud noise startles her, her body sends an urgent signal to her brain, signaling potential danger. Her brain, operating like Google Maps, instinctively charts a behavioral course to safety. In this scenario, her safest path leads her to seek out her mother. When her mother responds with soothing words, saying, “It’s just the dump truck, you’re safe,” Suzze finds comfort and swiftly resumes her play with G.I. Joes.

In its simplest terms, when distressing events occur, your brain’s attachment system, much like Google Maps, unconsciously directs you towards a behavioral route to safety. From an attachment perspective, our brains are inherently wired to gravitate toward the security of our caregivers and loved ones during times of distress, fear, and overwhelm.

It’s vital to grasp that while we may collectively agree on what constitutes safety and danger, the attachment system is triggered by environmental cues or even perceived threats to our well-being. For instance, encountering a bear during a forest hike may lead us to seek the safety of our car, but the first instinct in the car is often to contact our partner or closest friend, sharing the fear and seeking emotional relief.

Our attachment system can also be activated when the security of our cherished relationships is in jeopardy. This might occur when, for instance, we hear about a landslide affecting our partner’s route home, and they don’t answer our call. Attachment-related threats specifically refer to impending or actual threats of losing our connection to our attachment figures.

Fear is an intrinsic element of the attachment system, particularly in childhood. Children instinctively turn to their attachment figures for safety and reassurance when faced with threats or dangers. As a result, any real or perceived rejection or a lack of attention from these figures can be a significant source of fear. This phenomenon holds true in adulthood as well. The attachment system’s primary aim is to safeguard our biological survival, which often supersedes other behavioral systems, prioritizing our quest for support and comfort.

During times of perceived threat, our focus narrows to our own need for protection, leaving us with limited mental resources to empathetically and altruistically attend to the needs of others. Only once we regain a sense of attachment security can we redirect our attention and energy towards non-attachment activities, such as exploring new horizons, or engaging in intimate relationships and caregiving.

The Attachment System Operational Manual

Have you ever been behind the wheel, only to have Google Maps suggest an alternative route due to a traffic accident? If you’ve experienced this, you already have an inkling of how our attachment system operates.

Our attachment system functions with a goal-corrected approach, much like the way you adapt your route when using a GPS. Our attachment system assists us in gauging our progress toward achieving proximity and safety within our cherished relationships. When the longing for closeness and security arises, the attachment system comes into play, urging us to scrutinize our actions and make necessary adjustments. This involves processing information about our relationships and environment, monitoring how our attachment figures respond, and evaluating the effectiveness of our behaviors across different contexts.

On a side note, for a foundational understanding of attachment theory, you can refer to “Attachment Theory Explains Why Your Relationships Suck.”

Similar to Google Maps, your brain swiftly evaluates its history of attempts to secure emotional well-being, selecting the optimal route toward a “felt sense of security.” John Bowlby referred to these routes as “working models.”

These models serve a dual purpose:

  1. They empower us to envision and anticipate the outcomes of our attachment behaviors, offering context-sensitive blueprints for navigating complex social situations.
  2. They remain adaptable, akin to “working” drafts or changeable plans, as they evolve with our growing understanding of ourselves and our behavioral capacities.

Working models encompass representations of both others and ourselves. They organize our recollections of how attachment figures respond to us and shape our perception of our own effectiveness and worth. These models assume a pivotal role when we seek solace during times of need, guiding our expectations and mapping out a course of action.

Much like Google Maps employing an algorithm to chart your journey, your brain follows suit. Its goal is to transport you from point A (felt insecurity) to point B (felt security and emotional relief).

Here’s the algorithm at play: 

  1. Something triggers feelings of insecurity (prompting the activation of your attachment system).
  2. Select your destination (the pursuit of security and emotional well-being).
  3. Your brain chooses the most suitable route to reach that destination (making informed behavioral choices).

When you successfully reach your destination of “felt security,” your brain takes note of that particular route, storing it as a reliable path “home.” It’s similar to Google Maps remembering your preferred routes for future journeys. In moments of true safety, it becomes advantageous not to persistently seek care but to redirect your time and energy toward exploration, play, or, in the context of adulthood, indulging in erotic adventures.

Understanding the dynamic interplay between the attachment system and other behavioral systems is crucial. When your attachment bonds are secure, you’re more inclined to engage in activities beyond attachment, promoting personal growth, skill acquisition, and self-actualization. This symbiotic relationship is key to your development, as the attachment system, aside from serving as a “prevention” motivational system that safeguards you from harm and danger, also operates as a “promotion” system, actively nurturing your progress towards personal growth and nurturing, fulfilling relationships.

The Primary Attachment Path: The Secure Way

Attachment system, insecure attachment, secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment

The primary strategy of the attachment system is to establish safety by seeking proximity to significant individuals who can offer protection and support.

This strategy encompasses a range of behaviors designed to foster and maintain closeness with a protective attachment figure, safeguarding us from potential dangers. Here are some illustrative examples:

  1. Bids for Proximity: These are signals we send to our relationship partners, indicating our desire to reestablish closeness.
  2. Expression of Negative Emotions: Demonstrating feelings like anger, anxiety, or sadness can serve as a means to elicit support and comfort from those we are attached to.
  3. Physical Contact: Engaging in behaviors that lead to physical contact, similar to Harlow’s concept of “contact comfort.”
  4. Requests for Emotional and Practical Support: Seeking both emotional reassurance and tangible assistance when needed.

These behaviors are not employed all at once or in every situation but rather form a toolkit of options that can be consciously or unconsciously chosen to achieve safety and connection.

In infants, these strategies are often instinctual due to their limited history of interpersonal interaction.

For instance, when our six-month-old was startled by the noise of our Ninja blender, her cries signaled our immediate response, and our comforting touch and reassuring words swiftly alleviated her distress. As a result, she felt secure and ready to continue her exploration, even if it meant making a mess with her food.

As we mature and engage in more complex social relationships, our attachment system evolves, becoming increasingly flexible, context-aware, and skillful. When we’ve been nurtured and cared for appropriately by our attachment figures in a secure environment during our formative years, we develop valuable skills such as expressing our emotions effectively, articulating our needs and feelings clearly, and aligning our expressions with the preferences and context of our attachment figures. These skills enhance our ability to successfully have our needs met.

In adulthood, our primary attachment strategy doesn’t always necessitate seeking physical proximity. In securely attached romantic relationships, our sense of comfort can stem from a mental representation of our partner’s care, comfort, and protection, founded on our past experiences with that partner. These mental representations create a sense of safety and security even in the absence of the partner, equipping us to effectively cope with threats.

Nevertheless, mental representations have their limitations, and there are occasions – during painful illnesses, injuries, or traumatic events – when self-soothing strategies alone prove insufficient. In such moments, even secure adults seek actual physical proximity to an attachment figure.

The significance of this system in our development lies in the numerous positive outcomes associated with feeling secure. A secure individual can direct their attention toward matters beyond self-protection. When we receive care and support, we are better able to recognize and embrace the feeling of being loved and valued, which, in turn, emboldens us to take risks in the world because we carry the confidence of our own worth.

Attachment system, insecure attachment, secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment

The Security Reinforcing Path

This path lays the foundation for healthy emotional regulation and the effective management of interpersonal closeness. When you have the confidence that you can navigate challenges and handle distress with the support, affection, or assistance of your attachment figures, you develop what we can term a “secure base script.” This script serves as a guide for regulating negative emotions, maintaining emotional balance, and nurturing meaningful relationships.

One common concern is the fear that depending on others might lead to codependency. However, research in attachment theory unveils a fascinating concept known as the “dependency paradox.” In this perspective, the secure script emphasizes that both interpersonal closeness and support for independence are mutually sustainable. When one is facing suffering or anxiety, seeking comfort and support from others is not only beneficial but also essential. Once that suffering is alleviated, you can readily shift your focus to other activities and priorities.

It is during moments of insecurity or when that sense of safety is compromised that we may witness the emergence of codependency or its counterpart, counter-dependency. These are protective secondary strategies that people adopt in their quest to regain a sense of security.

Adaptation to Impoverish Attachment Environments

Attachment system, insecure attachment, secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment

When our efforts to attain security from our attachment figures prove repeatedly unsuccessful, our attachment system intervenes by employing alternative strategies rooted in insecure working models.

  • Anxious Attachment: Hyperactivation strategies entail persistent, energetic proximity-seeking behaviors in response to attachment figures who are perceived as unreliable or only partially responsive. The goal here is to demand more attention and support, often intensifying the intensity of these demands. However, this approach can lead to relational conflicts and heightened distress.
  • Avoidant Attachment: Deactivation strategies, on the contrary, involve suppressing signs of need and vulnerability, weakening or outright blocking attempts to seek proximity, and facing threats and challenges independently. The aim is to sidestep the frustration and distress stemming from attachment figure unavailability.

The absence of security from prior interactions often results in a blend of accurate representations of past relationships and subjective biases shaped by defensive attachment strategies. Defensive mechanisms, like the selective exclusion of painful information, serve to shield individuals from psychological distress but can, in turn, compromise the accuracy of their working models.

These secondary working models guide our selection of more protective strategies when striving to maintain a connection with an attachment figure, such as a romantic partner. So, when we find ourselves in need of reassurance or comfort, instead of reaching out directly through our primary strategy, such as a straightforward “I need a hug,” our attachment history might inform us that this direct approach hasn’t been effective in the past. Consequently, we opt for what seems like a safer route, perhaps venting frustration over dishes or numbing our need for reassurance by immersing ourselves in television, all the while failing to convey our specific distress to our partner.

“I guard myself by not exposing my vulnerabilities, but I also prevent you from being able to really see me and respond to me.” –

Veronica Kallos-Lilly & Jennifer Fitzgerald: An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples

The impact of these secondary working models extends beyond past relationships and significantly influences our current interactions. When a relationship grapples with disconnection and insecurity, it can perpetuate these secondary strategies and reignite past attachment injuries. This dynamic can lead to a cycle of missed connections and unmet emotional needs.

Instead of fostering open and honest communication, partners may reactively fall back on their protective mechanisms, repeating patterns of emotional avoidance or anxious demanding. This perpetual loop can impede the growth and healing of the relationship, making it essential for couples to recognize these patterns and actively work together, to break free from the grip of past attachment injuries and build a more secure and fulfilling bond. You can learn more about this here.

The Secure Attachment Path

If any of the secondary strategies resonate with you, you’re not alone, nor are you broken. Your attachment system did the best it could to protect you and I am grateful for that. 

If you are currently in a relationship or context that offers a safe and supportive attachment environment and are seeking to heal attachment insecurities, there are concrete steps you can take to foster a more secure attachment style in adulthood. If you are in a insecure dynamic, I would recommend reviewing this article and implanting the steps below.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of these steps:

1. Own Your Attachment Moves Under Distress:

  • Begin by recognizing and acknowledging your attachment behaviors and reactions when you feel distressed or vulnerable. This self-awareness is the first step towards change.
  • Pay attention to the signs and patterns of your attachment style. Do you tend to withdraw, become controlling, or adopt defensive strategies when facing emotional challenges in your relationship?
  • Remember that your attachment moves are not a sign of weakness but a response to your past experiences and emotional needs. By owning them, you gain the power to transform them.

2. Explore What They Are Protecting:

  • Delve deeper into the emotions and vulnerabilities that underlie your attachment moves. These may include fears of rejection, abandonment, or feelings of unworthiness.
  • Consider seeking the support of a therapist or counselor at Healing Moments Counseling to help you navigate these deep-seated emotions and the past experiences that may have shaped them. You can also take my course The Secure Attachment Path: How Attachment Styles Impact Your Relationship(s)
  • Understand that your attachment strategies have served as protective mechanisms, shielding you from emotional pain. By exploring their roots, you can gradually release the need for these defenses.

3. Take Risks Directly Sharing Vulnerability:

  • Start by sharing your emotional vulnerabilities with your partner or a trusted friend in a safe and supportive environment. Open, honest communication is key.
  • Take calculated risks by expressing your feelings and needs, even if they make you feel exposed or uncertain. Trust that vulnerability can lead to deeper emotional intimacy.
  • Remember that sharing your vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength and courage.

4. If The Experience Is Positive, Make Space Internally For New Experience:

  • When you experience positive responses and support from your partner or others, allow yourself to internalize these new experiences. Recognize that you are capable of forming secure attachments and receiving love and care.
  • Challenge any lingering doubts or negative beliefs about yourself and your worthiness. Replace them with affirming beliefs that align with your newfound experiences.
  • Consider keeping a journal to document these positive encounters and your evolving self-perception.

5. Continue Reaching From a Vulnerable Place – The Heart of Secure Attachment:

  • Secure attachment is a continuous journey. Keep reaching out from a vulnerable and authentic place in your relationships.
  • Cultivate trust in your ability to connect with others and experience emotional security. Understand that it’s normal to encounter setbacks along the way.
  • Seek support from a therapist or support group to help you navigate the challenges and celebrate your successes as you work toward a more secure attachment style.

Remember that change takes time and effort, but with commitment and a supportive secure environment, you can move from insecure attachment to a more secure and fulfilling way of connecting with others. The heart of secure attachment lies in your ability to embrace vulnerability and establish healthy, loving connections with those around you.

You are worthy of safety, security, support, and connection.

Here are some additional resources to understand and change attachment strategies.

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Articles on this site: 

Frequently Asked Questions About Attachment Theory:

What is an attachment system?

  • An attachment system is a complex and innate emotional mechanism in our brain that drives our need for connection and emotional safety in close relationships. It guides how we respond to and seek proximity to our caregivers, loved ones, and romantic partners.

What are the 4 types of attachment styles?

  • The four primary attachment styles are:
    • Secure Attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment style are comfortable with intimacy and autonomy, able to express their needs, and have confidence in their worthiness of love and care.
    • Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: Those with this style often seek excessive reassurance, fear abandonment, and can be overly dependent on their partner’s presence and validation.
    • Avoidant Attachment: Individuals with avoidant attachment tend to downplay their emotional needs, prioritize independence, and may struggle with intimacy and vulnerability.
    • Disorganized Attachment: This style combines elements of anxiety and avoidance, often stemming from inconsistent caregiving and can lead to complex and sometimes challenging relationship dynamics.

What activates the attachment system?

  • The attachment system is primarily activated by perceived threats, distress, or vulnerability, whether emotional, physical, or psychological. It prompts individuals to seek proximity and support from attachment figures during times of need or danger.

What is the attachment system in childhood?

  • In childhood, the attachment system is a vital mechanism that motivates infants to seek proximity and care from their caregivers, usually parents. It ensures their safety, emotional well-being, and survival by promoting a secure and loving bond with their primary caregivers.

What triggers attachment issues?

  • Attachment issues can be triggered by various factors, including inconsistent caregiving during childhood, traumatic experiences, abandonment, neglect, or unresolved past emotional wounds. These issues may manifest in adulthood and impact romantic relationships.

What are the attachment strategies for adult relationships?

  • Attachment strategies in adult relationships include seeking comfort and reassurance from partners during times of distress, as well as navigating closeness, emotional expression, and vulnerability in ways shaped by one’s attachment style.

What are the 4 primary types of attachment relationships?

  • The four primary attachment relationships include:
    • Romantic Relationships: Where individuals exhibit their attachment styles and needs within the context of an intimate partnership.
    • Parent-Child Relationships: These early bonds often form the foundation of one’s attachment style in adult relationships.
    • Friendships: Attachment dynamics can influence friendships, particularly in how individuals provide and seek emotional support.
    • Therapeutic Relationships: Attachment theory is also applied in therapy, where the therapeutic alliance resembles an attachment relationship and can foster healing and personal growth.

What is an example of attachment theory in adults?

  • An example of attachment theory in adults is the way one’s attachment style influences their romantic relationships. For instance, individuals with a secure attachment style tend to form healthier and more fulfilling partnerships, while those with anxious or avoidant attachment styles may face challenges related to emotional intimacy and communication.

What is adult attachment style?

  • An adult attachment style is a pattern of emotional and behavioral responses that individuals exhibit in close relationships. It is often shaped by early experiences and influences how they seek closeness, express emotions, and handle vulnerability within their adult relationships.


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