Knowing how people with different attachment styles process emotions, think, and behave will help you understand them and control your own emotions and behaviors in close relationships—and even in relationships at work. What used to make us crazy now makes sense and we can learn to behave in ways that work better for us and the people around us. But relationships do far more than shape us emotionally. They have a huge impact on our willingness to explore our environment, try new things, and develop hope for the future.
The ideas I am presenting here are part of a recent chapter I wrote for the upcoming second edition of the Handbook of Hope. This material integrates my work on attachment and hope theories in what I think is a straightforward and intuitive way.
But first I need to be clear on the meaning of hope. The way I am using it, the word “hope” is not a fuzzy feeling or vague wish about the future.
Hope, as defined by my late mentor C. “Rick” Snyder, is a way of thinking in which you expect positive outcomes in life because of your ability to:
- Develop clear, challenging, and achievable goals
- Identify the strategies or pathways to those goals
- Muster the motivation needed to use those pathways and actively pursue the goals
Research shows that people who score higher in hope have better mental health (lower depression, anxiety, and greater happiness and psychological well-being) and physical-health outcomes. They also achieve at higher levels in school, sports, and work. It only makes sense, then, that we should all be in the business of instilling hope in ourselves and in each other.
Even though the process of developing hope starts in early childhood, it continues into adulthood and works in the same way even into old age.
Developing hope starts with a “secure base”
The secure base isn’t a physical object. It is composed of those people in our lives who are consistently available and responsive to us during times of need and who support us in pursuing our personally meaningful goals.
According to John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, the secure-base role is:
“…one of being available, ready to respond when called upon to encourage and perhaps assist, but to intervene actively only when clearly necessary. In these respects, it is a role similar to that of the officer commanding a military base from which an expeditionary force sets out and to which it can retreat, should it meet with a setback. Much of the time the role of the base is a waiting one, but it is nonetheless vital for that. For it is only when the officer commanding the expeditionary force is confident his base is secure that he dare press forward and take risks” (Bowlby, 1988, p. 11).
The secure base is that from which people venture out. It is necessary because, according to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester, children are active beings who are automatically drawn to explore and master their internal and external worlds. Children strive to develop competence through acquiring new skills, developing pathways to goals, and seeking novel experiences. In other words, the natural state of the healthy child is to explore and be hopeful.
According to Ann Wilcock of the University of Canberra in Australia, the goals of exploration are to:
- Satisfy basic needs for food and shelter
- Develop skills, relationships, and strategies needed to guarantee safety
- Develop the capacity for continued growth and development
In contrast to the secure base, the safe haven is that to which people retreat when they become overly anxious or distressed. The most important thing for the person providing the safe haven to have is sensitivity. Having sensitivity, in this sense, means being empathic, sympathetic, and showing that you really care.
In order to have emotional sensitivity, you also have to be sensitive to the external environment and social cues. In other words, before you can be sensitive to someone else’s emotional experience, you first need to accurately perceive and “read” their emotions and be tuned in to their worldview. Attachment theorists usually refer to this ability as “empathic attunement.”
Empathically attuned parents have a clear knowledge of their children’s abilities, how well they tolerate frustration, and how they react to feedback. This empathic attunement, in turn, helps the parent in providing a secure base.
In providing a secure base, the parent usually acts as an encouraging coach. In this coaching role, the parent is primarily invested in providing support for the child’s autonomy and exploration.
Autonomy support is not controlling. On the contrary, controlling behaviors on the part of the parent/coach should be expected to thwart autonomy and detract from the development of hope.
Research with school-aged children demonstrates that parents must demonstrate:
- Sensitivity: the ability to accurately read, understand and support the child emotionally
- Autonomy support: the ability to coach and guide the child in a way that matches the child’s developmental level
- Low levels of control
According to Natasha Whipple and her colleagues at the University of Montreal, autonomy support is based on how much the parent:
- Gets involved according to the child’s needs
- Adapts goals so that they are optimally challenging yet achievable
- Encourages the child in going after the goal, gives useful hints and suggestions, and uses a tone of voice that tells the child that she is there to help
- Sees her child’s point of view and shows flexibility in her attempts to keep her child on track
- Goes at the child’s pace, provides the child with the opportunity to make choices, and ensures that the child plays an active role in achieving the goal
Whipple’s findings demonstrated that both sensitivity and autonomy support are needed to maximize secure attachment and hope.
Historically, Bowlby referred to the secure base in terms of children’s relationships with their parents. However, across the last decade, scholars have increasingly viewed attachment processes and the secure-base function as operating through adulthood in interpersonal relationships and even in relationships with bosses at work.
Brooke Feeney’s research on the secure-base function in adulthood looked at how people provide responsive or unresponsive support for a relationship partner’s goal pursuits, personal growth, and exploration. Couples were initially observed (a) discussing their personal future-oriented goals and (b) engaging in an experimentally manipulated goal activity.
Results demonstrated that nonintrusive/responsive support of the relationship partner’s goal pursuit and exploration had a strong impact on that person’s happiness, self-esteem, and the self-perceived likelihood of achieving specific goals in the future.
In 2010, Dr. Feeney and Dr. Roxanne Thrush similarly investigated secure-base behaviors among married couples engaged in a novel problem-solving task. Findings indicated that when the exploring partner perceived that the partner providing the secure base was sensitive and responsive to his/her needs, that person experienced greater independence and confidence, engaged more in independent exploration, and was more successful in achieving goals. In the context of discussing goals for the future, one partner’s acceptance (expressing future availability, sensitivity/responsiveness, and willingness to provide support) of the other partner’s dependence corresponded with the latter partner functioning more autonomously in terms of confidently exploring independent goals.
Healthy dependency and learning to rely on others in adulthood
Dr. Feeney described this relationship between healthy dependency and autonomy as a “dependency paradox,” which stipulates that a responsive attachment figure remains the source of security across the lifespan and that only when a person experiences this security will he or she be able to explore confidently and autonomously.
While acceptance of an exploring person’s dependency needs may promote independence and hope, Dr. Feeney contests that controlling and interfering behaviors on the part of the person occupying the “base” position are likely to have the effect of undermining one’s confidence, concentration, and abilities to achieve goals. In other words, controlling or offering support that is not needed or desired will have the effect of diminishing hope and impeding goal pursuits among adults as well as among children.
Other researchers (Grolnick, Frodi, and Bridges, 1984) examined how mothers’ autonomy-supportive vs. controlling behaviors affected the child’s motivation to explore. They found that mothers who engaged in more autonomy-supportive behaviors had children who were more persistent during play activities.
In contrast, another team of researchers (Deci, Driver, Hotchkiss, Robbins, and McDougal-Wilson, 1993) found that when mothers were more controlling, their children reported liking play activities less and persisting in the activity for shorter durations of time relative to children whose mothers were less controlling. These findings suggest that controlling parents inhibit the development of hope and autonomy in their children.
These and other findings all support Bowlby’s contention that interfering and intrusive behaviors are diametrically opposed to providing sensitive and responsive support and are a prime inhibitor of exploratory behaviors.
So, it is up to all of us—as parents, as romantic partners, as good bosses and leaders at work—to learn to provide others with a secure base and to choose people who can provide a secure base to us. In order to do this, we must risk being vulnerable and avoid the fear and competitive (win/lose) drive that has come to dominate so many areas of functioning in modern society.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge.
Deci, E. L., Driver, R. E., Hotchkiss, L., Robbins, J., & McDougal Wilson, I. (1993). The relation of mothers’ controlling vocalizations to children’s intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 55,151–162.
Feeney, B. C. (2004). A secure base: Responsive support of goal strivings and exploration in adult intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 631–648.
Feeney, B. C. (2007). The dependency paradox in close relationships: Accepting dependence promotes independence. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 92(2), 268-285. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2068
Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: The characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 98(1), 57-76. doi:10.1037/a0016961
Grolnick,W., Frodi, A., & Bridges, L. (1984). Maternal control style and the mastery motivation of one-year-olds. Infant Mental Health Journal, 5, 72–82.
Whipple, N., Bernier, A., & Mageau, G. A. (2009). Attending to the exploration side of infant attachment: Contributions from self-determination theory. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 50(4), 219-229. doi:10.1037/a001632