Published on December 8, 2022 Updated on April 6, 2023
Our attachment styles develop early in life based on how our needs were met in our primary caregiver relationships.
Often, these early attachment patterns stay relatively stable throughout life. But is this always the case? If your early experiences were rejecting, inconsistent, or traumatic – are you destined to have an insecure attachment style forever?
The good news is that our brains are incredibly resilient structures that are capable of rewiring themselves after repeated positive experiences. So, healthy relationships can rework our early insecure bonds. In essence, we can transform an insecure attachment style into what experts refer to as “earned-secure.”
To help answer any questions you may have on earned secure attachment, this article will cover:
The secure attachment style is usually referred to as the “healthiest” attachment style.
Securely attached children feel a sense of protection from their caregiver. Therefore, these children can use their caregivers as a “secure base” from which they can explore the world before returning to seek reassurance and support.
Parents who foster secure attachment typically offer two key things:
This form of parenting shows the child that they can depend on others, that the world is trustworthy, and that they are competent. As a result, securely-attached people are generally:
We store our early attachment bonds in our minds as “mental representations” of what we believe a loving relationship looks like. These representations then become the template for our future relationships.
In this article, we refer to secure attachment as “continuous secure” to avoid confusing it with “earned secure.”
Insecure attachment manifests when a child perceives that their needs are not met. As a result, the child may struggle to form a stable, secure emotional bond with their caregivers.
Like with secure attachment, children with an insecure attachment style store their experiences in their minds as templates, which they use to understand later relationships. An insecurely attached child may see others as untrustworthy, the world as dangerous, and themselves as “not good enough.”
There are three forms of insecure attachment in childhood:
For more information on the forms of insecure attachment, check out our article on Attachment Styles.
Earned secure attachment is when a person experiences early insecure attachment that eventually becomes secure through healthy later relationships.
In simple terms, this means someone with earned security has the early experiences of an insecure attacher but many of the later outcomes of a secure attacher.
Earned secure attachment typically looks very similar to secure attachment. A person with earned security may:
However, the key distinction between the two attachment styles is that people with earned secure attachments typically had difficult early attachment experiences.
Attachment experts suggest that you can distinguish between continuous secure, earned secure, and insecure attachers by how they talk about their past experiences.
Continuous secure attachers typically speak about their early experiences in a coherent, clear way. This is because they don’t have the interference of insecure early experiences and therefore are more easily able to recall their childhood with clarity and balance.
However, someone with an insecure attachment may describe their adverse childhood experiences incoherently, meaning they might provide unclear accounts of their early experiences. This incoherence is only natural, as the emotional distress caused by an insecure attacher’s painful early experiences is often still raw. Thus, making it difficult to remember the positives of their childhood (if any). Moreover, as attachment styles typically develop during a non-verbal period of infancy, it can be tough to put words to these experiences as an adult.
In contrast, after continuous secure experiences, someone with an earned secure attachment style can develop a more rational outlook on their negative childhood experiences. After achieving understanding and perspective, they can remember both their negative and positive experiences with more balance.
For example, when recalling their childhood, someone with an insecure attachment style might say, “I often felt lonely as a child.” However, with their newfound, balanced perspective on their experiences, an earned secure attacher may say, “I often felt lonely as a child because my mom had to take care of all of us on her own. She tried her best.”
People with an early secure attachment may find it easier to:
Attitudes and actions such as these make it more likely that children of a secure attacher will also develop a secure attachment style.
In opposition, insecure attachers may be less likely to be responsive, sensitive, and supportive to their child, as they might be reenacting the conditions of their own childhood. In this way, insecure attachment can become intergenerational. If you would like to learn more about how attachment styles can be passed down through generations, check out our article on the cycles of insecure attachment.
Fortunately, people with earned secure attachment show similar parenting attitudes and behaviors to those of continuous secure parents.
Impressively, this effect doesn’t even seem to waver in high-stress situations – people with earned secure attachments continue to exhibit secure parental behaviors when under duress. These findings suggest that establishing secure attachment with our children is possible, regardless of our early attachment experiences.
Insecure early attachment often manifests as insecure romantic relationships in adulthood. This is largely due to insecure attachers’ lack of self-confidence or trust in romantic partnerships. Furthermore, some insecure attachers – such as avoidant and disorganized – may find emotional vulnerability challenging.
The good news is that earned security appears to curb this pattern of insecurity.
Research shows that insecure attachers as young as twenty can benefit from healthy romantic relationships. So, as a result of this newfound security, earned secure attachers can lead healthier, more fulfilling relationships – similar in nature to those of continuous secure attachers.
As an adult, earned security seems to offer some protection against insecure parenting techniques and behaviors within romantic relationships. However, it may not totally eliminate the negative impact of early insecure attachment on mental health.
Evidence shows that people with earned secure attachment may still show more symptoms of depression than those with continuous-secure attachment. This suggests that some insecure attachers’ emotional difficulties may linger, even if their romantic relationships and parenting habits change.
However, the positives are still evident. People with earned security are likely less prone to mood disorders than if they didn’t improve upon their insecure attitudes and actions. This is even the case for people with personality disorders, as studies have shown that people with such issues can still transform an insecure attachment style into an earned secure one through techniques such as psychotherapy.
While an early insecure attachment style can make relationships challenging throughout life, evidence suggests that we can overcome these struggles and foster an earned secure attachment style. Therefore, improving quality of life and stopping intergenerational insecurity in its tracks.
Research indicates that earned security typically cannot be achieved without:
Alongside the changes listed above, taking small risks with trust may also be important. Examples of this include being open to connection, sharing experiences with others, and potentially even joining a community of like-minded others.
Moreover, researchers suggest that the following pathways could potentially help people overcome negative early experiences and reach earned security:
Alternative support figures – someone other than your primary caregivers, such as a grandparent, close friend, or romantic partner – may offer the emotional support insecure attachers need to earn security. Evidence in the area suggests that these support figures do so by listening to their loved ones when they are upset and helping them in times of distress.
Encounters such as this can alter the mental impressions of relationships that someone with an insecure attachment typically harbors, as they learn they can finally rely on others to care for them if needed.
However, age may play a role here. Our templates for relationships are more flexible in our early years than in adulthood. Therefore, having an alternative support figure as a child may increase the likelihood of achieving earned security.
Nevertheless, we can still earn security through healthy relationships as adults. One example of this is in therapeutic relationships.
Another route to earned security is through therapy. Long-term therapy in particular is helpful for transforming an insecure attachment style into earned security, as it takes time to establish a trusting relationship.
As we discussed, a key element of forming a secure attachment is the idea of the primary caregiver acting as a secure base. Therapists can act as an excellent makeshift secure base for people with insecure attachment styles.
Similar to alternative support figures, therapists listen to you when you’re upset and provide empathy and care when necessary – essential conditions for achieving earned security.
In studies, people reported that a safe, secure relationship with their therapist helped to rework their mental representations of relationships. In some cases, people described their therapist as a “surrogate attachment figure.” This sense of security allowed these individuals to make sense of their past experiences, process related emotions, and develop a more balanced perspective.
Earned security is when someone initially develops an insecure attachment with their primary caregiver but subsequently forms a secure attachment style.
People with an earned secure attachment style show many similar characteristics to those with continuous secure attachment, including in parenting and romantic relationships. However, an early insecure attachment may still have a long-lasting effect on certain people’s mental health – making seeking the necessary help still important.
You can achieve earned security in several ways. However, the most fundamental is through an emotionally supportive relationship with an alternative support figure or therapist.
As was once said by the Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus: “Nothing endures but change.” Which, when applied to insecure attachment, seems particularly true. With enough understanding and work, an insecure attachment style is transient.
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