What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment Theory is super near and dear to my heart.
It is a theory of development that helps us understand how to relate and interact with each other better than any other theory or tool that I am aware of.
Why is it Important?
There are things that are unique about an attachment relationship that make it hugely important because there are emotional needs that we all have that can only be met– or, at least, most effectively be met –by the primary attachment relationship.
A primary attachment relationship (also known as a secure base relationship) is your source for mattering and safety— which are the two fundamental and continuous emotional needs that all human beings have:
- Self-worth—Do I matter to those to whom I should matter?
- Love and Belonging—Am I safe with those with whom I should be safe?
These needs are directly tied into and related to the attachment relationship because in order to provide, establish, and maintain a secure base, there needs to be a high level of availability and sensitivity in that relationship:
- Availability: “When I need you, I have access to you.” Availability communicates a sense of Mattering in a relationship.
- Sensitivity: “Not only do I have access to you, but also, when I need you, you are sensitive to my needs.” Sensitivity communicates a sense of Love & Belonging in a relationship.
Part of what makes me feel like I matter to the people to whom I should matter is that they are available to me and part of what helps me feel safe with them is the responsiveness to me when I am in need.
What makes a Relationship a Primary Attachment Relationship or a Secure Base?
There are only three relationships that can adequately serve as a secure base:
- spouse or significant partner
Why would those be the only three relationships that can function as a secure base in our lives? Why couldn’t it be just anybody?
The answer to those questions lies in the levels of access and sensitivity that it requires to provide a secure base. My brother lives here in town. Even though we have a good relationship and spend quite a bit of time doing a lot of fun things together, neither one of us can be a secure base for the other. Why? Because we both have wives and children. If I’m in need and I go to my brother, and his son needs him or his wife needs him, I lose, and appropriately so. I shouldn’t have primacy over his son. So that leaves me in a situation where I’m trying to get my needs met from a relationship that can’t always be there for me. However, if I go to my wife with my needs, who should win? I should win, right? Because she is my secure base.
The primary attachment relationship is the only relationship in which I get to claim primacy—I get to come before everybody else in my primary attachment figure’s life. AND the people for whom I am a secure base–my wife and kids–get to come before everybody else in my life. Having primacy in my most important relationships becomes really important in helping me feel like I matter and helping me feel safe.
If I am not getting that primacy from my primary relationship, there is no other relationship that can effectively meet that need. If I’m trying to get a friend or a brother or a work colleague or a child, I don’t have the right to expect the levels of sensitivity and availability that are necessary from those other relationships. So if I am trying to use my brother as a secure base, and I’m trying to get my needs met from that relationship, I am setting myself up to feel like I am not that important and I’m not worth it. In times that I am struggling emotionally, I won’t feel the safety I need in that relationship because there will be many times when I need someone to be sensitive and available to me when he’s not going to be available to me. He has other people that come before me in his life, and appropriately so. So, as I go to him and try to get my needs met and they’re not met, that will reinforce any feelings and beliefs I might have that I’m really not worth it. Again, that primary attachment relationship is the only relationship where I am entitled to high levels of sensitivity and availability.
I am also equally obligated to give those high levels and sensitivity and availability to that relationship. Being a secure base for my wife and children is at the top of my priority list. I make every effort to let them know how important they are to me and to be sensitive to their needs. I’m not perfect at it, but I try really hard to schedule my life so that I can be available for them, and I do my best to pay attention and be sensitive to what is going on inside of them.