As psychology as a field has shifted from Freudian methods and theories, attachment theory has become a foundational theory for much of contemporary psychology, taught almost universally in Psych 101 courses (the experts interviewed for this piece all reported first encountering attachment theory in undergrad classes). It has become a useful system for thinking about myriad relationship dynamics, for reexamining early childhood traumas, for improving communication between family members and couples, and for helping individuals choose the right romantic partners.
So, what exactly is secure attachment?
Ainsworth posited that 70 percent of people have secure attachment styles, and 15 percent of people have each anxious and avoidant styles. A study by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver at the University of Denver found that just over half (56 percent) of participants had a secure attachment style, while the other two attachment styles were split fairly evenly (25 percent avoidant and 19 percent anxious/ambivalent). The book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller simplifies things a bit, and states that roughly 50 percent of people are secure, and the rest of the population is split evenly between avoidant and anxious styles. Regardless of which statistic is most accurate, the point is, it’s likely that the majority of the population is able to securely attach to others. Furthermore, those with secure attachments may positively influence those with whom they’re in relationships.
Young explains that “while primary attachment styles are formed in the first 12 months of a child’s life, childhood is full of literally millions of cycles of rupture/distress and repair/soothing between parents and children. Attachment is formed in the repair, too.” (She attributes this idea to Edward Tronick, who writes about the rupture/repair dynamic in his book The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Children, and an experiment he did called “the Still Face.”) A secure attachment style, therefore, isn’t so much about absence of trauma, but about having needs met and emotions validated by the child’s primary caregiver. In adulthood, a secure attachment style in a partner relationship means someone is “attuned to their partner’s emotional and physical cues and know[s] how to respond to them,” as Levine and Heller write in Attached. Noncrisis levels of tension in a relationship don’t make the securely attached person totally shut down or react with an activated or outsized fight or flight response.