Are friendships attachment bonds?


Can friends be family?  Or at least, can friends serve as attachment bonds?  I have pondered this question over the years.  

John Bowlby (1973), the founder of attachment theory, defined an attachment bond as a relationship that provides a safe haven in times of distress and a ‘secure base’ (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) from which to explore the environment when feeling safe.  In other words, a secure attachment bond is a relationship with a person who gives us a sense of safety, lessens our stress levels, and helps us to not feel afraid.  It is also a relationship with a person who provides a springboard for us to go out in the world and explore.  We derive confidence from this relationship and know that should we need someone to fall back on, we have that person.  In Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey says “This is life.  Bad things happen.  It’s hard.  You find your people, you find your person, and you lean on them.”  Our attachment bonds are “our people”.

Traditionally, attachment theorists have viewed friendships as separate from attachment bonds, and in the past, I ascribed to this position.  However, recently, my views changed.  While teaching a course on attachment theory, I asked the participants to fill out a WHOTO scale.  Usually, I spend the time organizing notes and doing last minute lesson planning.  But that day, I spontaneously decided to complete the survey myself.  I came to several realizations along the way.

The WHOTO scale is an attachment measure designed to examine who we choose to turn to in various scenarios.  The following is an adapted version of the scale.

Adapted WHOTO (R. Chris Fraley & Keith E. Davis, 1997)

Please think about your current important relationships, and write the initials of the person in your life who fulfills each of these functions. You can indicate as many different people as you like, as one person may fulfill several of these functions; but please only enter one set of initials per question. Next to the initials, please indicate this person’s relationship to you (for example, a friend, sibling, parent, romantic partner, or other family member).


                                                                                            Initials                                   Relation to you

     Who is the person you most like to spend time with?   _____                                  _____________

     Who is the person you don’t like to be away from?      _____                                  _____________


     Who is the person you want to be with when

     you are feeling upset or down?                                      ____                                    _____________

     Who is the person you would count on for advice?      ____                                     ________             


     Who is the person you miss the                                     ____                                    _____________

      most during separations?

    Who is the person you hate to be away from?               ____                                     _____________


     Who is the person you would want to tell

     first if you achieved something good?                          ____                                    _____________

     Who is the person you can always count on?                ____                                    ____________


In filling it out, I noticed that friends came to mind in many instances.  While when I was younger, I turned to my parents and as an adult, my spouse mostly serves that need, it came as a surprise that friends also serve a critical role in my life.  In fact, surprisingly, in some cases, friends trumped family members.

Increasingly, in this disparate society, friends are assuming an essential role in our lives.  With family members spread out over the country and living life being challenging, to say the least, we need a “village” to survive.  We need those we can go to when we’re stressed or worried.  We need those who help us when we’re down or upset, those who listen and say just the right thing that somehow makes us feel better.  We also need people who will be happy for us when something good happens, who we can tell when we’ve accomplished or achieved something and know that they will be happy for us.  And while as a child, often, an attachment figure is just one person, as an adult, it needn’t be just one.  It can be a few. 

I have since realized that friends can be family.  They, as the saying goes, are the family we choose.  In today’s frenetic, pandemic society, friendships are critical to our well-being.  We must value them, invest in them, and pay them heed.  Our people are what make our worlds go round.