Understanding attachment - the key to successful relationships
Who we are attracted to and how we interact in adult romantic relationships can be largely explained by our early attachments to our primary caregivers.
Attachment theory developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1940s shows that the bonds a child forms with their main caregivers - usually their parents - in their early years can have a lifelong impact. In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s work and, through her own research, was able to demonstrate just how early childhood attachment impacts on behaviour.
The work of Bowlby, Ainsworth and other attachment theorists can tell us a lot about romantic relationships. The landscape of relationships is likely to be safe and relatively comfortable for those who received consistent, caring, and attuned parenting. Their attachment type is secure. Trusting people comes more easily for securely attached types who do not struggle to make themselves vulnerable and ask for their needs to be met. Someone with a secure attachment is likely to seek a partner who is emotionally available and wants to be in a relationship. They will still encounter problems in relationships but tend to be more resilient in the face of romantic discord.
However, what if you don’t have a secure attachment? After all, research shows that approximately 40% of us are likely to have an insecure attachment type. To complicate matters, there are three different types of insecure attachment resulting from different parenting styles: anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganised attachment.
Those with an anxious attachment - referred to as anxious ambivalent in children - received inconsistent parenting from people who were not always emotionally attuned to how they felt. Their parents/caregivers may have veered from being overprotective to indifferent and may even, at times, have made their children feel responsible for how they the parents felt. This can lead to much anxiety in romantic relationships and even a need to take care of others.
For adults with an anxious attachment style, relationships can be challenging as they often have difficulty trusting others, jealous tendencies, and a heightened fear of abandonment. As we are likely to be attracted to people who trigger our early attachment feelings, someone with an anxious attachment may well find themselves drawn to someone who blows hot and cold and generally messes them around. The butterflies you feel on first getting to know someone, so often labelled ‘chemistry’, may in fact be an insecure attachment being activated.
Those with an avoidant attachment style - also known as dismissive - were expected as children to be independent and fend for themselves. Their basic emotional needs may not have been met by their parents who for much of the time were either emotionally remote, disinterested, or preoccupied with other things. People with an avoidant attachment style typically struggle with intimacy and tend to keep romantic partners at arm’s length. They also have a hard time trusting others and may secretly believe they are better off on their own: a lone wolf mentality.
When things go wrong in a relationship, someone with an avoidant attachment style may appear to walk away with ease. Indeed, they may avoid endings altogether by just cutting off without explanation. The fact is, they may never have fully opened up to the other person in the first place, making it easier to walk away.
So, what happens when an anxiously attached person dates an avoidant individual? They are likely to find themselves excited by the latter’s hot and cold behaviour as it is familiar to the inconsistent care they received as a child. However, being held at arm’s length will provoke anguish coupled with longing, also evoking feelings related to their early attachments.
Those with a disorganised attachment style will have suffered trauma and neglect in early childhood. They are likely to have been afraid of their parents, who they did not experience as safe. Adults with a disorganised attachment will have difficulty regulating their emotions and may even develop personality disorders. Their behaviour in adult romantic relationships will be confusing and unpredictable. They will struggle with trusting their partners while being desperate to get close to them. People with a disorganised attachment style will benefit from long-term therapeutic support.
In all cases, it is important to note that parenting styles are strongly influenced by an individual's own childhood experiences and to recognise that there is an intergenerational aspect to attachment. Life experiences post-infancy will also contribute to adult attachment styles.
So, if you do have an insecure attachment type or aspects of an insecure attachment, what can you do about it? Through reparative work with a therapist who understands attachment theory, you can make sense of the issues and experiences from childhood that prevent you from forming healthy, intimate romantic relationships. Increased awareness of how your current behaviours may be linked to your attachment style can lead to self-compassion and, in turn, a desire for change.
If you have been unhappy with your own behaviours in relationships, developing insight into them can be very healing. For instance, someone prone to unprovoked jealousy in relationships may be historically defensive about such feelings, but once they learn that they are linked to an anxious attachment, they can develop empathy for themselves and begin to identify when these self-destructive feelings take hold, enabling them to do something about them.
An individual with an avoidant attachment facing a relationship breakup because they hold their partner at arm’s length and won’t let them in can learn through therapy how to trust their partner and open up in a relationship - to make themselves vulnerable to another human being.
Through a consistent therapeutic relationship where the full range of feelings can be expressed, someone who wants to be in a relationship but struggles to get close to a partner can learn how to become intimate. The outcomes are hopeful because, through therapeutic work and reflection, it is possible for people to make sense of their attachment history and develop secure patterns of relating. What is known as an ‘earned secure attachment’ will develop when an adult has done such work, demonstrating that the past does not need to define the present.