According to attachment theory, the relationship a child has with their caregivers can shape the way they relate to others as they grow older and can set expectations in close relationships. Those who enjoyed loving, consistent, and responsive care may develop a secure attachment style. In contrast, individuals whose caregivers were misattuned, unresponsive, and inconsistent may develop insecure attachment, and, generally speaking, may become avoidant or anxious in their relationships with others.
But can an insecurely attached person become securely attached—or, in technical terms, earned secure?
This was the central question of a study led by Dr. Rachael Olufowote. She and her collaborators conducted semistructured interviews with 20 participants who reported a history of insecure attachment—but also exhibited earned security. Participants were asked about their experience in shifting from an insecure to secure attachment style, and their responses were analyzed for themes.
The data produced three interrelated categories: meta-conditions of positive attachment change, making intrapsychic changes, and making interpersonal changes. Dr. Olufowote and her team’s findings are outlined below.
Category 1: Meta-Conditions of Positive Attachment Style Change
To shift from insecure to earned secure attachment, seven conditions—or “meta-conditions”—were identified:
- Being intentional about attachment-focused change. The investigators found that the realization that earned security requires intentional effort—and would not change on its own—was key. Of particular importance was the shift from “stubbornness to resolve.” While stubbornness kept participants stuck in insecure attachment orientations, resolving to make changes helped them break free of it. Both stances involve persistence, but the latter led to desired changes.
- Overcoming setbacks and barriers to growth. Change is not a linear process, and participants reported that they encountered setbacks in their earned secure journey. Participants noted that their resolve helped them stay the course.
- Having surrogate attachment figures. Participants learned new ways of relating to others via surrogate attachment figures who essentially served as parental figures. They included college mentors, friends, church communities, spouses, and therapists.
- Early “parent” figures. Some participants began working toward earned security as youngsters, looking to safe adults—often, extended family members—who looked out for them.
- God and faith communities. For some participants, God and people in their faith communities were models of secure attachment.
- Spouses, mentors, and friends. Participants found that their relationships with various others helped them increase security. These surrogate attachment figures essentially served as models of what attachment security looks and feels like. One participant remarked, “I knew I wanted to do it differently. So, I sought out people that looked like they were doing well.”
- Using therapy, education, and self-help. Almost all participants engaged in therapy, ranging from trauma healing, to attachment-focused therapy, to relationship education. One participant: “I think the more education I get, the more I’m able to apply it to my own life.”
Category 2: Making “Intrapsychic” Changes
This category involved making internal (or intrapsychic) cognitive, emotional, and spiritual changes, which were essential in making meaningful and long-lasting changes in attachment security. This category broke down into two sub-categories:
- Redefining identity and realizing one’s own worth. Redefining identity was paramount in earning attachment security and overall transformation. Participants described consciously reframing negative self-views into strengths. They also learned to embrace their own value, which led to treating others better—and, in turn, improving their relationships overall.
- Relinquishing the victim mentality. Many participants experienced trauma, abuse, and parental illness in childhood and saw themselves as victims. Learning to take accountability was an important step in doing away with this mindset. As one person recounted: “For me it was about being receptive to [feedback]to get myself to a place where I could hear it.”
Category 3: Making Interpersonal Changes
This category referred to changes in relationships, specifically family of origin, and reaching out to others. Four subcategories were revealed:
- Making peace with the past. To come to terms with their past, participants had to change their views, expectations, and feelings toward their parents and early caregivers. Of note, they stopped seeking their parents’ approval and revised their understanding of their family. One participant shared: “Once I [realized] my mother couldn’t trust others but even more so couldn’t trust her own opinion, I told myself I didn’t want that. So that awareness helped change it for me.”
- Revisiting caregivers with a new lens. Participants reframed their own caregivers’ attachment insecurities. One woman noted, “[My therapist] gave me some insight in sharing someone else’s story of pain. So, I was able to revisit my mom with a new lens. That was growth also. That was a huge step forward.” Gaining a new perspective allowed participants to break away from the past and redefine their identities as they forged ahead into the future.
- Taking small risks with trust. As they earned attachment security, participants began to approach relationships with those outside their families from a secure orientation. These steps represented an openness to making new connections and learning to trust. Participants felt that belonging to a community with like-minded people made a big difference. Participants leaned on extended family members, therapists, and romantic partners to support them while they made intentional steps to experience the world from a more secure stance.
- Advanced steps to earning security. As participants felt more positively about themselves, they functioned in relationships differently. Instead of constantly needing something from others, they gave more and strove to be a good friend. Moreover, they were now able to actively make connections with people who shared their interests and values. And, poignantly, they were now poised to be surrogate attachment figures for others on their own earned secure attachment journey. As one participant shared, “As I started to heal myself, I started to realize I was a part of something bigger than myself, and I needed to give back.”