If you’re not familiar with attachment theory it could be helpful for you to read my last article “Attachment theory for Non-monogamy & Beyond: Getting Outside the Bubble” before diving into this one. In that article I explain what attachment styles are and that they’ve been found to be malleable over time. That’s right - modern neuroscience findings now prove that we humans are indeed capable of shifting from insecure to secure attachment in adulthood. Now, in this article I’ll be addressing the popular burning question - How can we work towards actualizing that shift?
If you look to popular literature on the topic you’ll find assertions that we must experience secure pair bonded relationships in order to reprogram our brains in this way. But what about those of us who aren’t partnered or who choose to have multiple partners? Is there hope for us as well? My answer to that is - Yes, absolutely! We must recognize that attachment theory originated within the context of Western culture. Thus it’s most widely accepted findings to date are surely skewed towards Western values (including monogamy, individualism, and nuclear family structures).
Cross cultural research has found that while insecure and secure attachment styles do appear to exist universally across cultures the presumed causes, rates, and presentations of them vary culturally. For instance, in many collectivist cultures it’s been found that aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents can serve as secure bases for children in addition to parental figures. It’s also been found that therapists can serve as attachment figures for their clients. With the knowledge that we’re capable of forming attachment bonds in various types of relationships it seems clearly short-sighted to continue asserting that monogamous dyads are crucial for healing attachment wounds.
Whether someone is monogamously partnered, single, solo, open, or poly I feel strongly that uplifting qualities of security in our relationships more broadly than coupledom has the power to expand our capacities for secure living and loving. Amir Levine, MD (author of “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it can Help You Find & Keep Love”) identified 5 key elements of security: Consistency, Availability, Reliability, Responsiveness, and Predictability. Mainstream suggestions for fostering secure attachment focus on uplifting these qualities in our romantic relationships. It’s suggested that we form “couple bubbles” with our partners and make them our “go to person”. Suggestions of that nature are clearly biased towards monogamy with a proposition of an us against the world mentality. What I propose is a shift towards an us with the world mindset.
If strongly upholding the security building values of consistency, availability, reliability, responsiveness, and predictability in just one relationship in our lives has such healing power, imagine the power we can harness if we uphold those values in even more relationships! Below are 10 suggestions for ways we can do just that. I’ll also be writing follow up articles backing each suggestion up with clinical findings and research in the neuroscience of human relationships. Stay tuned if you find yourself curious for more details.
1) Create Rituals to Honor Friendships & Community
In Western culture it’s common for us to honor our romantic relationships and nuclear family connections through celebrating anniversaries, holidays, and other rituals. Why not create security building traditions of that nature in our friendships and communities as well? The above photo is of a 10 year anniversary party two of my friends had, in which they read vows of commitment to one another. Honoring our friendships so sincerely is a great way to increase security in our non-sexual relationships and create secure bases within our communities that can help us feel more steady through this wild ride of life.
2) Consistency of time
In mainstream romantic partnerships people tend to organically develop some consistency of time in their relationships, especially if they live with their partners. Couples may eat meals together at certain times, engage in shared hobbies that meet with regularity, habitually watch certain shows together., or have shared patterns around sleeping/waking times. Based on research in attachment promoting consistency in our relationships is important for creating feelings of security. With intention we can infuse similar aspects of consistency into our relationships more broadly through men’s groups, standing date nights with non-nesting partners, or certain activities we share with others in regularity like trivia nights.
3) Utilize & Encourage Self Soothing Coping Skills
Research shows that insecure attachment reactions are strongly linked to fear responses in our brains. There are many self soothing coping skills that have been proven to de-activate the stress and fear systems of our brains, on a neurobiological level. In addition to fostering security in our relationships we can also increase control over insecure attachment reactions through learning self soothing strategies that are evidence-based for counteracting our fear responses, such as mindfulness, vagus nerve stimulation, exercise, and promotion of oxytocin release. We can also support friends in strengthening these skills too by practicing them together, modeling them, and reminding friends to use them during stressful times if they forget.
4) Learn your friend’s love languages
Gary Chapman developed the concept of “Love languages”, which has helped countless people in romantic relationships learn how to best give and receive love to their partners. If we prioritize learning the love languages of our friends as well we can show up for them even more fully and help them feel even more loved. We can also teach them our love languages to create bonds that help us feel even more loved too! Learn your love language here:
5) Create a System of Support
It’s understandable that within the context of our busy lives we can’t be there for our friends every time they need us. None-the-less, if we create an intentional system of support we can settle into feelings of security that we’ll likely have someone who can show up for us in times of need. If we create a rotation of support with friends we can ask others if they have the bandwidth to help at the moment. If not, we can call on another friend with an understanding that if nobody else can help we’ll likely be going back around our list to ask friends if they can help us find someone who is available. As part of a team effort we can work towards ensuring that everyone in the system can take care of themselves while also taking care of each other.
6) Stimulate oxytocin release in your brain through non-sexual touch
Touch is one of the best ways to stimulate the release of oxytocin. Hugging friends, exchanging massages with friends, cuddling with animals, and getting professional spa treatments involving touch are all great non-sexual ways to stimulate oxytocin release. We can also release oxytocin by sharing touch with ourselves through masturbation or self massage. Research shows that oxytocin has a multitude of positive health benefits for us, including lowering cortisol levels, lowering heart rates, decreasing blood pressure, and increasing feelings of calm. That means that it is a great way to counteract the biological fear responses of insecure attachment.
7) Include your friends in conversations about big life decisions
It’s culturally normative for people to consider their romantic partners in making big decisions like moving across the country. Often times, however, we fail to include our friends in those conversations or consider how those shifts could affect those relationships. The rate at which people relocate these days can lead to friendships feeling tenuous and unreliable. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Instead we can make agreements with certain friends to engage in conversations about major life decisions before making them, which could help us feel more comfortable leaning into those relationships as bases of security in our lives.
8) Connect with a Therapist or Support Group
It’s well-accepted that the relationships between therapists and clients are a core healing agent of therapy. In consideration of the security building qualities Amir Levine identified: consistency, availability, reliability, responsiveness, and predictability that makes perfect sense. Typically when we connect with therapists or support groups we know that support is likely to be available to us at scheduled times in a consistent and predictable format. The steadiness of those connections may be even more healing than the content of our communications in regards to shifting of attachment styles.
9) Foster multiple “go to” relationships
Instead of seeking feelings of dependability through making one romantic partner your “go to person” I recommend that you nurture multiple “go to relationships”. That means both diversifying the people you reach out to when you need support and showing up for others when they reach out to you. Different people have different skill sets so diversifying in this way increases the chances that you’ll have someone to reach out to who’s an ideal fit for what you need at any given time.
10) Join a team or get into a hobby that fosters regular connection with others
Teams, clubs, hobbies, and participation in religious communities can create especially strong bonds because they inherently offer consistency, availability, and predictability. You can know what to expect in regards to frequency of connections with those people and can have an idea of what the interactions are likely to entail when you do see them. The nature of team oriented activities also often creates ritual and feelings of group cohesion that can inspire feelings of a chosen family.
Now I Challenge You…
Email ideas to: Anna@vast.love
Now I challenge you to get creative in thinking of other ways we can infuse qualities of security into our friendships, communities, and relationships with ourselves to foster secure attachment beyond coupledom. I’ll be reaching out in multiple forums and asking my therapy clients for any ideas they may have. Please email any ideas to email@example.com. I’m excited to see what you guys come up with and will share additional ideas in a follow up newsletter. :)