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  • Writer's pictureAmy Bishop, MS, MFT

What it means to be a in a secure-functioning relationship, and why you should know about it

Updated: Aug 15, 2018

couple holding a baby, one parent is kissing the infant's forehead.
Relationship security is used to describe both parent-child relationships and romantic relationships.

Secure relationships may be a familiar term if you’ve ever taken an Intro to Psych course. The classic Strange Situation Experiment by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby demonstrated that infants develop different types of relationship patterns, or attachments, to their caregiver—simplified here into Secure and Insecure. I’m going to discuss this experiment briefly, as it is important to understand your adult relationship. However, you can also jump to secure functioning in adult couples.

To study attachment, Ainsworth and Bowlby’s experiment is divided into a few stages, each lasting about 3 minutes:

  1. A mother and baby enter a new room, where there are novel toys for the infant to play with if he or she chooses

  2. The mother leaves the room, and the baby is left alone, causing a distressing situation

  3. The mother reenters the room

The entire time, the focus is on the child’s behavior. Researchers could then categorize the child's relationship security based upon its behavior, described in general terms in the lists below.

Difference between secure and insecure babies in Strange Situation Experiment; adult secure functioning relationships

To fully understand the experiments, it is important to consider the childhood environments that would create these reactions in the infants. Loving, emotionally-responsive, playful, soothing, protective parents are likely to create securely attached babies—babies who feel safe to explore, babies who expect their parent to soothe them effectively and in a timely manner.

On the other side, overwhelmed, stern, inconsistent, highly emotional or emotionally absent parents are more likely to create insecurely attached babies-- That is, babies who may not trust their parents to attend to them appropriately, or don’t trust their parent to soothe them effectively and in a timely manner.

{interesting side-note} In addition to immediate responses in strange situations, childhood attachment is linked to a number of outcomes including later emotional regulation strategies, adult relationship outcomes, psychopathology, substance abuse, political ideology, sleep patterns, religious change, and partner preferences.

how do secure attachments relate to adult romantic relationships?

These experiments demonstrate that by the time we are toddlers, we are learning whether we can trust loved ones. This information is embedded into our brains and nervous systems and maintained into adulthood.

If you are preemptively applying these findings to romantic relationships, you may already see the benefit of having a secure relationship. Adult partners who have developed such relationships will feel safer exploring their own goals and hobbies, knowing that their loved one supports them.

Separations for secure individuals may feel a little sad, but they fully trust their partner to make good decisions, and to come back to them. They trust that if they really need their partner, he or she will make themselves available and come to their assistance.

In addition, when secure partners see each other after an absence, they naturally gravitate toward each other—finding and offering comfort with a hug or kiss.

Beyond the direct applications of the study, secure individuals experience many other relational benefits. They feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable with their partners and have open communication about tough topics, knowing that their partner won’t become overwhelmed with tension and leave.

Secure partners anticipate what will make their partner happy, sad, relieved, comforted, or stressed, as well as know how to soothe each other. They protect each other from distress as much as is appropriate, which sometimes means protecting their partner from themselves.

Secure partners operate as a team, understanding that one’s actions impact the other, so they take the necessary precautions and communicate thoroughly to ensure they are operating in the best interest of the relationship.

What is meant by a secure-functioning relationship?

Secure-functioning is a PACT term that directly implies you do not have to be wired with secure attachment to be able to have a secure adult romantic relationship. It is possible to learn the behaviors and adopt the mindsets that foster security in a romantic relationship no matter your childhood experiences.

To put it frankly, if you are one of the babies who had an insecure attachment to your parents, you are not doomed to a life void of fulfilling, trusting, and emotionally-safe relationships. You can have a secure-functioning relationship without a secure attachment from your parents.

Will it be more difficult to experience this type of secure and safe relationship if I didn’t have it as a child?

Probably. Insecure individuals may need to slow their gut reactions and may need to learn more skills and regulation strategies to be able to appropriately rely on and show true care to their partner.

For parents: Are secure/insecure relationships passed between generations?

In short: yes. There is empirical research that indicates secure parents have secure children, and insecure parents have insecure children. The good news: with self-reflection, parents can begin practices that help build attachment security in their children.

Is there a list of skills to help me learn how to be secure?

You betcha! Keep an eye out for a new blog post in the coming weeks, with this information. In the meantime, check out Stan Tatkin’s principles of secure functioning relationships.


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Concerned that your childhood may be impacting your current relationship's functioning? Contact me to set up an appointment.

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