Earned Adult Attachment

Adults often ask if it’s possible to develop secure adult attachment, even though their childhood experiences were such that, in their early lives they had attachment issues and, as children, may have developed insecure attachment. The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

First, let’s look at the characteristics of insecure attachment in childhood and see how this plays out once we become adults.

Adults who, as children, had ambivalent insecure attachment with their own parents, are often anxious, preoccupied and uncertain in their current lives. They may have difficulty making decisions, have doubts about being able to depend on others and are often unable to see or understand their own children’s needs appropriately.

Adults who, as children, had avoidant insecure attachment, are often thought of as dismissive. They are usually very independent and have little sensitivity to the needs of others. They are often disconnected from intimacy, and place little value on relationships. With their children in particular, they often have very limited sensitivity to the child’s needs.

Adults who as children had disorganized insecure attachment, and still have unresolved trauma, often have very fast or abrupt shifts in their state of mind – becoming enraged over small things, or sometimes having no response at all (flat affect) when others are upset.

The key to developing earned adult attachment lies in coming to terms with childhood experiences and making sense of the impact the past has had on the present and future. It is important to develop a coherent narrative about what happened to us and the impact it has had on the decisions we may unconsciously have made about how to ‘be’ in the world.

Mary Main, one of the primary researchers with regards to attachment theory asked adults in a series of questions to tell her about their families of origin, and their childhood experiences. She found that, based on the way adults responded to the questions, she could predict with a high degree of accuracy whether the children of the parents she interviewed were going to develop secure attachment or one of the types of insecure attachment.

The determination was not due to the childhood experiences themselves, but was more about how the adults described their experiences. A ‘congruent’ life story involved the adults having reflected on childhood experiences and having developed an understanding of how those how the experiences impacted on their lives as they grew older.

These adults were able to tell the ‘story’ in a logical (who, what, when, how) way while also giving emotional content appropriate to the experiences, that showed they had made sense of their early lives.

Adults with this earned adult attachment are able to connect with their children in a caring and consistent manner, as they have ‘earned’ the ability to be more free and flexible in their responses, as a result of their reflection and understanding of heir own childhoods. The result is secure attachment for their children.