In different relationships in our lives, we frequently send messages both verbally and nonverbally. The behaviors we exhibit in learning to communicate include patterns that have a lot to do with our upbringing and, yes (cue the suspense music), our parents. John Bowlby spent several years studying these relationships, bonds, and attachments and developed what we now know as Attachment theory.
Bowlby believed there are four significant characteristics influencing attachment as a child:
- Proximity maintenance: the desire to be near people we feel attached to
- Safety: ability to find our caregiver in times of fear or threat
- Security base: the knowledge that we can go and explore our surroundings and still can come back to our caregiver
- Separation distress: The level of anxiousness when this person is absent.
The theory suggests that a parent’s ability to meet these needs significantly impacts how the child understands attachment and applies it later on in life. Studies have shown that failure to establish secure attachment can have negative impacts on behavior later on. (Young ES, Simpson JA, Griskevicius V, Huelsnitz CO, Fleck C., 2019) Diagnoses of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, PTSD, or conduct disorder are often associated with attachment issues. Securely attached individuals tend to have higher self-esteem, positive romantic relationships, are more independent and are more willing to self-disclose in relationships.
Before you conclude that your parents have successfully ruined your love and social life forever with no hope for recovery, keep in mind that experiences throughout our lifetime also influence attachment significantly. When we experience something different from our upbringing, both negative and positive, this also adds to our learning experience and can change how we feel in relationships. To understand this further, let’s take a look at the different attachment styles and how they appear in childhood and adulthood:
Secure attachment in childhood indicates the ability to separate from the parent easily, explore their surroundings, and display excitement when a parent returns. A secure child will seek out their caregiver when frightened and prefer their caregiver to strangers.
In adulthood, secure attachment is associated with trusting lasting relationships and friendships, good self-esteem and includes the ability to share feelings and seek out support when necessary.
A child with an ambivalent attachment may have trouble trusting strangers. The characteristics of this attachment in childhood include distress when separated from the caregiver, not accepting reassurance once the caregiver returns, and rejection of being comforted.
In adulthood, those with ambivalent attachment struggle to become close with others or feel insecure about their partner is reciprocating feelings. They may appear cold and distant. Frequent breakups are typical, and the person with this attachment style is typically troubled by the ending of the relationship and has trouble coping.
Avoidant attachment in children presents as avoiding their caregiver, especially after periods of absence. They will not reject attention but do not seek their caregiver for support and show no preference to their caregiver or a stranger.
Adults displaying avoidant attachment have difficulty with intimacy; They will often use excuses including “work” to explain why they cannot be more invested. They will show little support to a partner in stressful times, and they may have trouble sharing feelings and feel little to no discomfort when it ends.
Suppose in reading this, you felt you resonated with ambivalent or avoidant attachment (or perhaps it changed depending on what relationships you thought of). In that case, you might be wondering what it is you can do about it. Remember that it is normal for attachment styles to fluctuate depending on personality changes, partners, and self-regulation abilities in different relationships.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- How we behave in a relationship may be widely influenced by where we are in our life. If we are dealing with low self-esteem or are feeling stunted in our career, we might experience anxious attachment spurts more quickly than if we were feeling confident.
- Your partner’s actions can also impact whether or not you feel bonded with them. If they push you away or minimize your feelings when you express a concern, this might cause you to feel anxious. Conversely, if they can display active listening and understanding, security in the relationship might be strengthened.
- Emotions can sometimes get the better of us in vulnerable situations where we feel we could get hurt. Take time to note what emotions come up when feelings of insecure attachment come up.
Analyzing emotions and understanding how your attachment is affecting your relationship can be difficult on your own. Our team here at Gateway to Solutions can help you using practices such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness, among many other techniques, to help you communicate your wants and needs appropriately, and gain a deeper understanding of your feelings.