Although it seems a universal truth that need not be said aloud, relationships are tricky. They are especially so when either partner (or both) are busy trying to correct harmful relational patterns established in childhood. For those looking to improve their relationships, often the best place to start is with knowledge, learning about attachment styles, and how to use that insight to move closer together.
How does what happens in our early life affect us?
Undoubtedly, our early experiences shape us into the individuals we become. Our attachment to our caregivers is of utmost importance, and our reactions to their responses to us define how we eventually learn to code and organize the world around us. Our learned attachment style can be thought of as the operating system from which we view the world, interpret all other data, and run all of our programs.
When we are children, we are dependent upon others wholly to meet our needs. We thrive when our caregivers are accurately and empathically scanning the environment for us, on the lookout for when we fall or require comfort, and when they remain tuned in to our needs. When there is no such person available, or even only inconsistently available, as a means of survival, we learn to adapt to meet our needs in alternative ways, or through convincing ourselves that we don’t have needs at all. Caregivers who aren’t there for us are not inherently bad people, but for whatever reason, they routinely miss what’s going on with us. This is often due to playing out their own attachment narrative passed down to them from their parents, or because they are facing trials of their own that keeps them otherwise occupied.
There are different types of attachment styles that develop, whether secure, the “organized” types of either dismissive or preoccupied, or the final alternative, disorganized. New research suggests these identifiable responses exist on a continuum of varied degrees of emotional shut-down, rather than the old ways of thinking banishing them to separate, distinct quadrants.
Developing a secure attachment indicates no small success on the part of the caregiver to consistently and routinely attend to the needs of their child. Growing up with such a luxury allows an individual to feel understood in the world. As a child, they explored the world with their secure home base to return to, and as an adult they continue to do the same. The 50% of the population who was raised this way feels secure, and are likely successful in friendship making and proving themselves in the world of academics. When bad things happen, they bounce back, they are resilient and recover very fast.
Secure relationships are the gold standard of what we are shooting for, within ourselves and with close others. Take comfort in the fact that the capacity for security is within all of us, no matter our histories. Even if we did not find security with our caregivers as a child, we can develop into it as an adult.
Problematic Attachment Styles
The goal of learning about attachment is not simply to categorize or diagnose anyone in particular but to use the concepts outlined to improve our relationships.
There are two types of organized responses to the inconsistencies these individuals coped with as children, the first of which is the dismissive type. Essentially, these kids have learned that their caregivers cannot be trusted, and in turn, their strategy for coping is to disconnect from any expression of need. As a by-product, they also learn to disconnect from their own feeling or awareness of need. For them, it became adaptive to “shut down” that part of themselves, life-saving to not have needs, and to not rely on others.
While the internal narrative may once have been that it’s painful to hope and be disappointed, as time ages us, we often lose touch with or have difficulty expressing the need or desire for others. We fear vulnerability, and instead withdraw, becoming an island unto ourselves.
As adults this looks like a desire for connection, but not entirely sure how to go about it. Once in relationships, they may end up feeling intruded on by others. Health for these individuals looks like learning to become reconnected to their need.
The second of the organized types is an anxious or preoccupied style of relating with others. Relying on an inconsistent caregiver in childhood, and repeated cycles of hope and disappointment leads way to angry-resistant adults. No matter the age however, these individuals have a generally higher expression of affect, where they have difficulty calming down after reaching distress. One thing may happen that is blown out of proportion, and once they get stirred up, they become much more difficult to soothe.
In relationships, they may earn the title of ‘needy’, or ‘clingy’, and it is deeply related to their ingrained fear of loss or abandonment. They may also be more likely to blame others, with difficulty taking responsibility for their own emotional states. Health looks like seeking responsibility for themselves, learning to ask for what they need, and embracing realistic expectations of themselves and others.
The final type of insecurity has more to do with loss and trauma, and often our lack ability to process these experiences, without the nurturance of an attuned caregiver. It may be the loss of a sibling or parent, sexual or physical abuse, or another traumatic life situation that triggers a sort of collapse into the realm of these difficult feelings.
Working through this requires constructing a coherent narrative about what happened, creating an understanding about one’s own role in the situation. Oftentimes, this sort of trauma that results in a disorganized worldview may require processing through with a skilled trauma therapist.
Remember, we heal in relationships with attuned others, and the support offered by a therapist can allow you to tune into greater understanding of what happened, so that you may deepen and grow into becoming the best possible version of yourself. Those who may find themselves among the ranks of any of the problematic attachment styles may benefit from a check-in with a therapist, with or without your partner, in order that you can learn to see the root of your behavior, and work to overcome it.