Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke Ph.D.

Everybody Marries the Wrong Person

Feeling Secure in Relationships

Adults seek holding environments

Posted Jul 15, 2012

The safe space created for children by responsive and nurturing mothers (caregivers) was called the "holding environment" by British pediatrician, Dr. Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). Positive feelings associated with being lovingly held, handled, and presented objects provide temporary relief from fears and discomforts. So, distressed children quickly learn to cry out and, later, to call for "Mommy!" Gradually, we learn that clinging to a blanket or soft toy and being attended to by loving others generate similar positive feelings.


Child development experts believe that caretakers who provide an adequate holding environment facilitate secure attachment. Although the term "attachment" has recently become a hot-button issue, professionals who originally researched and wrote about the concept agreed on a couple of points: 1) patterns of attachment to mother can profoundly influence future attachment to others and 2) a desired outcome of secure attachment is confident emancipation. Images of children guided by loving parents to float in a pool or to ride a bike illustrate the expectation of liberation inherent in healthy/secure attachment.     

Adults seek holding environments

Eventually, we learn the hard truth that safety and security are illusions—that multiple factors can instantly turn bike-riding lessons into disasters. This truth doesn't alter, however, our keen desire to be comforted by positive feelings associated with the holding environment. Whether literally or figuratively "held," we feel good. So, naturally, we want more.  

We expect family members, friends, and romantic partners to provide emotionally comfortable and secure environments. For example, most every adult has experienced feeling calmer after reading an email from a trusted friend or comforted after getting a hug from a loved one. Problems arise, though, when our expectations that others provide the holding environment are not met.  

In romantic relationships, infatuation typically creates positive feelings associated with the holding environment along with sexual attraction. Once infatuation fades and disenchantment sets in, we blame our partners, essentially citing their failure to maintain the holding environment. We want our partners to resume meeting our emotional needs and try various strategies to get them to do so. Or we look for someone new, around whom we experience familiar positive feelings.  

Of course, the joy of being "held" by loving others cannot be overstated. Ultimately, though, we must move beyond viewing others as our primary source of emotional comfort and security. For more about developing emotional independence, see previous posts: Go Ahead. Demand Uber-Compatibility and The One and Only Marital Obligation. Emotionally healthy adults adopt realistic expectations of loved ones and accept responsibility for generating our own emotional comfort and security.

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