• We all have a desire for closeness and connectedness - it's part of what makes us human

  • It's important for us to have a secure base from which to nurture love says author Philippa Perry 

  • We have therapists who work specifically with attachment disorders, you can find one here

Ongoing contact with significant others is an innate need we all have throughout our lives. We humans are pack animals, and close relationships are part of what we need to thrive. But in recent years people have wondered whether too great a reliance on this desire for love shows our immaturity.

Where the misunderstanding about love may have arisen is that when you feel secure in your relationships you tend to make and maintain healthy contact with others, which gives you a sense of autonomy. This is because you are good at dependence, rather than being good at independence. Being securely attached means that you rarely have to think about it.

Finding 'A Secure Base' for love

The presence of a significant other, be it a parent, child, partner, a lover or a friend provides a feeling of security and comfort, but if none are available for a significant period of time, this creates distress. Significant others or 'attachment figures' also offer a secure base from which to explore the world. When we are able to be this secure base for the other and they are able to be ours, this is the glue for a successful relationship. You become each others' attachment figure. This, I believe is the basis for love. 

But what happens if you have had no experience of such a 'secure base'? Depending on our childhood experience of significant relationships, we each have different attachment styles. There are two basic defences to having had a prolonged experience of no secure base. These are either clinginess or detached avoidance. A third defence is a mixture of the two - a seeking of closeness followed by a fearful or angry withdrawal.

On-going mindfulness and reflecting rather than reacting will help you develop a secure base of attachment.

Until we become aware and mindful about our attachment style we have no control over our attachment behaviour; in which case, whatever pattern we are in we are doomed to repeat. However, if we observe our feelings and notice our triggers, we can begin to recognise behaviours that - although maybe were a successful survival mechanism when we were younger - do not work as well for us today. 

Clingy people tend to attach indiscriminately and are vulnerable to being taken for granted or bullied, or falling for an avoidant type. Avoidant types tell themselves they don't need closeness but they are prone to depression or addictions. Those who display both defences tend to have tempestuous, passionate relationships that never last. On-going mindfulness and reflecting rather than reacting will help you develop a secure base of attachment. Instead of being motivated by your instinct, you will be motivated by your commitment to change. 

These two stories I've adapted from my book How To Stay Sane are examples of people who began to make the changes they needed before they could find their own secure bases. 

Zara was chaotic in her relationships. She was unable to feel secure with a partner and habitually sabotaged her romantic relationships at an early stage, by acting out on her feelings of clinginess. She was 28 and wanted to find someone to spend the rest of her life with. She made a decision and set out a couple of guidelines for herself. When the next man came along, she would: a) not go to bed with him before they had established a relationship; and b) she would not act in a 'needy' way, even when she felt needy.

After a while Zara met a man at evening classes who seemed interested in becoming her friend. She resisted her usual urge to flirt and worked at not assuming they would become romantic. They liked spending time together and met up for a drink once or twice a week. This went on for six months. Then they went on holiday together as friends, but came back as lovers.

Using self-observation you may discover patterns in your relationships.

After that, Zara felt the neediness rise up in her. She wanted to know what he was doing and where he was every second of the day: was he thinking about her? But instead of acting on this urge, she wrote it all down in a diary. This resolve not to 'smother' the man concerned appears to have been a good guideline, because their relationship continued to deepen, they married and now, decades later, they are still happily together. 

Using self-observation you may discover patterns in your relationships and decide to implement a rule like Zara did, using it as a temporary splint until a more permanent middle way is developed. 

Sam had experienced a difficult upbringing. His mother was always depressed and unavailable even when she was physically present and his father, who split from his mother when he was three, was inflexible. Sam inherited many of his father's dictums such as never to talk about the weather, or to even ask the generic question 'How are you?' His rules made him difficult to get on with but he thought of himself as independent. Sam lived a solitary existence with little contact with the outside world, and he became depressed. 

When the depression became unbearable he went to see his doctor, who referred him to a counsellor, Simon. After he had learnt to trust Simon, which took a year of weekly sessions, Sam was able to become aware of how many of his rules were out of date. Supported by Simon, Sam allowed himself more contact with other people. He has not embarked upon a romantic relationship, nor become a party animal, but he is no longer depressed. He has let a few other people into his life and sees them regularly, and is also exploring his sexuality. 

Both of these people had to work hard to change their attachment style but by so doing they gave themselves a chance to form the secure base that will sustain them. 

Philippa Perry is the author How to Stay Sane

Further reading

The importance of secure attachment

What is healthy love?

The awakening of love: a beautiful experience

Why good relationships don't just happen