Attachment and relationships

Relationships are arguably the most fundamental part of our lives. Whether we have them or have lost them, or find ourselves aching to leave or improve them, the topic of relationships is the single most emotive subject in therapy sessions. Becoming emotionally close to another person can be a journey in itself; trying to stay close over the passage of time can be even harder. Finally, sometimes, through no fault of our own, we have to find a way to say goodbye to people. Perhaps they leave, perhaps they pass away, perhaps we find out that our time will be cut too short. Perhaps we make a mistake; perhaps they do. I wonder if you have ever unconsciously sabotaged something good?


The rocky road of attachment and relationships

There is nothing in life as amazing as the feeling of being truly connected to another, the feeling of being seen, understood and appreciated. We can get this from a variety of relationships and, when we do, it can produce a depth of gratitude that is beyond expression. When this ends, or when there is relational difficulty, it can be exceptionally tricky to manage. At this point, it is easy to be overwhelmed with feelings that we can’t always make sense out of.

So, what do I mean when I say relationships? It is such a broad term; for the purpose of our time together whilst you are reading this, let's think about the interaction we have with another both in our minds and in person. This could include when we are with friends, peers, parents, siblings, children, colleagues, lovers, partners, husbands and wives, or even when we are with just ourselves. In those solitary moments, the relationship we have with ourselves is influenced dramatically by the relationships that we have had with others - we have a mental representation of these earlier experiences that we carry with us.

Relationships play such an important part in who we think we are and how we present ourselves to the world that it is easy to see how our experiences of relationships have come to shape our identity and personalities in the unique and wonderful way that they have. Before we can think about relationships as an adult, we need to take a whistle-stop tour of how we start to learn about relationships in the first place.

Our first relationships

For most, this will be when we were babies and we were looked after by an adult, typically a parent. This would have been our first opportunity to be loved and cared for - the very first time that someone was able to get to know us and how we operate. What is crucial to hold onto is that we come to know who we are through the process of being known by another person’s mind. This is how we learn about emotions, attachments, and how to relate to other people. It really is a crucial time in the development of any baby. The impact of what we learn at this time can be seen (and more importantly felt) decades later when we are adults ourselves in relationships. I want to try and show you how this process works in a way that I hope makes sense (and you can hopefully suspend judgement over my obvious lack of artistic talent!).

Meet my caregiver and baby - this is a mother and baby, Vanessa and Sophie.

Vanessa is a first-time mother; she has just arrived home with her new baby Sophie and they are now starting the process of getting to know each other. Vanessa has no idea at this point who her baby is, in terms of her own wants, needs, and tolerances, and neither does Sophie.

In order for Vanessa and Sophie to develop a strong bond and subsequent healthy attachment, many small interactions will need to occur so that Sophie can start to develop a sense that her mother Vanessa is thinking about her and is able to hold her in her mind. When this is achieved, Sophie will have developed a mental representation of how she has been loved and cared for by Vanessa. This will be held onto when Vanessa is not physically present and creates a blueprint, a primary pattern that is imprinted and forms a template for all future relationships and interaction. Whilst this sounds unfairly deterministic, it is of course not written in stone, however, there is something familiar in how we were related to and the way in which we, in turn, relate to the world.

So what are these many small interactions that help create this? Let me give an example that may or may not help me illustrate the point. Let's say that Sophie is hungry. She will not know at this age why there is a pain in her tummy and that she needs food. Sophie will probably just cry. At this point, Vanessa’s job is to work out what cries are for what need. Vanessa can hopefully be in tune with Sophie enough (and this only needs to be just over half the time) to recognise that she is hungry, pick Sophie up, and feed her.

At this point, Vanessa will probably have her own way of saying to Sophie “It's OK, you are just hungry and mummy is going to feed you now and make it all better”. Sophie is fed and satisfied; the hunger pains have gone and Sophie and Vanessa move on happily together.

It is repeated experiences of Sophie being distressed, Vanessa answering Sophie's emotional calls with understanding, and making sense out of the trouble and resolving it in some way, that allows Sophie to be understood, loved, and cared for. Sophie will hopefully be able to learn that her mother Vanessa can be with her when things are going well, and when things are difficult, and can understand her even when Sophie herself does not understand what she is feeling. In this sense, Sophie can develop a healthy secure attachment to Vanessa and is then more likely in later life to develop trusting, safe, and emotionally connected relationships herself as an adult.

When all is not how it could be

Let’s say, for argument's sake, that Vanessa is struggling with being a mother; this could be with post-natal depression, or being a single parent, or perhaps having to work or live in an abusive relationship. Maybe Vanessa has her own mental health issues, or uses alcohol or drugs to cope. Perhaps Vanessa is grieving, or has other children and doesn’t have the mental capacity to manage as well as she could with her other children. For whatever reason, let's assume that Vanessa is overwhelmed and cannot work out why Sophie is crying or what she needs.

In these interactions, Sophie is giving Vanessa her distress (hunger) that she doesn’t understand, and Vanessa, for whatever reason, is unable to make sense out of it and give Sophie a feeling of resolution. Instead, she panics, or is angry and shouts or cries herself. Perhaps she just doubts her ability to be the best mother that she can be. In this situation, the distress is thrown back at Sophie unprocessed and intensified.

There may be times when all parents and caregivers do this. Remember, we only need to get it right just over half the time. I like those odds! If, however, Vanessa continues to struggle, does not have the support of a partner or perhaps other reliable and containing people around her, this may be the predominant way that emotion is communicated, and therefore not processed in this family unit. Perhaps, in this situation, Sophie begins to find that actually Vanessa does not have her in mind, and therefore these experiences are the ones that get internalised and held onto for Sophie. Maybe, instead of anger, Vanessa is emotionally unavailable, and perhaps there is a sense of neglect or abandonment.

In this example, over time, with repeated negative experiences of Vanessa not being able to respond to Sophie in the way that she may need, Sophie may be left with unmanageable feelings, a constant sense of not understanding herself or the reactions of others around her. Sophie must find a way to manage the world around her in the best way that she can. Children are exceptionally resilient and Sophie, like us all, will find ways of coping with difficulty. This may be where Sophie begins to form insecure attachments to Vanessa and those around her.

To try and keep things simple, I want to just highlight three main styles of insecure attachment. For academics and research in psychology, terms and definitions of attachment have moved on slightly, but I think for our purposes the four main styles of attachment (one secure attachment and three types of insecure attachment) are enough for us to be getting on with.

Anxious ambivalent: This could be when Sophie perceives Vanessa’s attention as unpredictable. Perhaps Sophie will need to escalate her emotional state or behaviour to get Vanessa’s attention - when she does, Sophie may act ambivalent (have mixed feelings that may be both good and bad) and is not able to show her feelings to Vanessa. Perhaps, as an adult, Sophie can be described as moody and unpredictable.

Anxious avoidant: If Sophie is too loud, or shows too many emotions that Vanessa struggles to deal with, perhaps Vanessa gets angry quite a lot of the time, and maybe Sophie learns quickly to avoid feeling scared and avoids showing her feelings, at home and in other situations. Perhaps, as an adult, Sophie struggles to show and communicate her feelings in relationships.

Anxious disorganised: In the tragic event that Sophie encounters abusive situations, maybe from Vanessa or others around her, Sophie is likely to become anxious of the very people she wants to feel secure with. This confusion totally disorganises her concept of love and safety. Sophie may encounter more fear without any resolution or processing. As an adult, she may have deep feelings that she does not deserve love from others.

To summarise, our first relationships are like blueprints - a primary pattern is imprinted and forms a template for all future relationships and interaction. Individuals with an insecure attachment style are varied and many lead full and successful lives as adults. It is also important to point out the mediating influence of those around the primary caregiver (typically a mother). This could be supportive grandparents, or a partner, or a series of close friendships. Attachment does not begin and end with the mother, however, I would do you a disservice if I did not use that as our example. I am a firm believer that every mother, every parent, is doing their very best. They may need support and possibly a therapeutic intervention from time to time, but there is a strong respect for the day to day coping of all parents in all family units.

Adult relationships

As we grow up, these blueprints may be confirmed by others similar actions; maybe we unconsciously create repeated situations where the same patterns play out, or maybe we try to replicate something familiar or something totally different. Either way, it would be highly irresponsible if we spoke about relationships and did not acknowledge the way that we experienced our first one. As adults, we would have a style of interacting with others; this will include how affectionate we are, how open we can be, and how easy it is to trust people. This will also include how we talk to someone else, how we talk about our feelings, and how we communicate during conflict or after it. All of these ways of being will have some roots in our earlier relationship. This is what we call in therapy 'transference', the process of transferring onto a person experiences that happened when we were smaller.

So, if it is a natural process to transfer unconscious emotional experiences and perhaps subtle (and often not so subtle) expectations onto others when we are adults in relationships, and everyone is doing it, it is very clear to see how easily things can escalate in difficult interactions. There are so many ways in which this can manifest in us, and the person that we are with, that it would be a disservice to you to try and list the ways in which our past influences our present. It is, at this point, that therapy can provide a space and a helpful safe and containing relationship so that our current patterns of relating have the best chances of changing so that our future can be everything we need it to be.

If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulty in their relationships, it is very likely that this will have some connection to their attachment pattern, their learned communication style and, of course, their unconscious template of earlier relationships. This can be addressed in therapy, and in time these patterns can be changed. A relational approach to therapeutic work can help for almost all mental health-related issues, so do get in touch with a qualified counsellor to discuss this further.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Rayleigh, Essex, SS6
Written by Dr Chancy Marsh, Chartered Clinical Psychologist - HCPC & BPS Registered
Rayleigh, Essex, SS6

Dr Chancy Marsh, Chartered Clinical Psychologist

Trained in psychodynamic psychotherapy at the Tavistock and Portman Clinic before undertaking her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Hertfordshire University. Chancy specialises in a relational approach and uses her dual training to address all mental health difficulties.

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