The Answer Lies in Our Attachment Styles.
As I observe my single friends and family members navigating the dating world and looking for love, I keep hearing the same question: Why do I always end up in the same kind of relationship? “I started out feeling optimistic about this relationship, but then things fell apart like they always do, and the relationship didn’t go anywhere.” “I thought this time was different, but in the end, she was critical and rejecting just like my ex.”
So, is there a reason for this mysterious phenomenon? (Yes, there is.) Or are we simply programmed to make the relationship choices we make? (In a sense, yes, we are.) Our choices aren’t so mysterious and beyond our control once we have an understanding of the theory of attachment and the impact attachment has on us as children and adults. There are two areas of attachment research. One studies the attachment patterns between infant and caregiver; the other studies the attachment style of partners in romantic relationships. They help us understand the attachment pattern we developed in childhood and the attachment style that operates in our romantic relationships today.
Researchers who study childhood attachment have observed the different ways in which children go about establishing both emotional and physical attachments to their principal caregivers. The pattern of attachment that a child leans toward is primarily dependent on the qualities of the caregiving adult. There are four main types of childhood attachment: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. All, but the secure attachment style, foster different coping mechanisms. As you read the following section, think about your childhood and the attachment patterns you may have developed.
A child develops secure attachment patternswhen he has a parent or other significant adult who is, for the most part, sensitive and responsive during interactions with the child. This parent or other adult is attuned and available to the child in ways that make the child feel seen and safe. When the child is hurting, this adult treats him with compassion and offers comfort. Such an adult is a strong and consistent presence in the child’s life, supporting the child’s independence with a caring interest that is fortifying as the child goes forth into the world. The child with secure attachment patterns is well adjusted and develops fewer psychological defenses. He is comfortable within himself and at ease in relating to others.
A child develops avoidant attachment patternswhen she has a parent or other significant adult who is primarily unavailable and emotionally distant. This type of caregiving adult is preoccupied with their own life, largely unaware of the child, and often oblivious to or insensitive to her needs. When the child is hurting or distressed, this adult has little or no response to her. They often discourage the child from crying. The child becomes seemingly independent at a very young age, a “little adult” who doesn’t need anything from anyone else, especially this adult. The child with avoidant attachment patterns develops the defense of being self-sufficient and wanting very little from others. She is self-contained, keeps to herself, and has minimal interactions with other people.
A child develops anxious attachment patternswhen he has a parent or other significant adult whose behavior is inconsistent and contradictory. At times this adult is responsive and nurturing, but at other times they can, in some cases, be intrusive and emotionally hungry or, in other cases, be distant and emotionally unavailable. This leaves the child confused and insecure, never knowing what kind of treatment to expect from his caregiver. Typically, the child with anxious attachment patterns is clingy with his parent and acts desperate toward them. He tends to be distrustful and insecure. He is agitated and can’t calm down or feel at peace. His defensive reaction is to cling to his parent in an effort to get his needs met.
A child develops disorganized attachment patternsif she has a parent or other significant adult who is physically and/or emotionally abusive toward her. At such times, the child often responds to this adult’s frightening behavior by psychologically detaching from the experience. In a sense, she is no longer in her body, and afterward she has little or no memory of what occurred. The child with disorganized attachment patterns is torn between wanting and fearing her caregiver because her abuser and her source of comfort are in fact the same person. She runs up to her parent for safety, but as she gets close, she feels unsafe and pulls away. Her defensive solution is to escape this nightmarish dilemma by being emotionally disconnected.
Our early attachment patterns continue through our lives because they are deeply ingrained in our psyches. In a sense, we areprogrammed because the brain lays down strong memory traces of childhood experiences, a process that colors our perceptions of the world and influences how we relate to others.
Adult Attachment Styles
Attachment researchers who study adult romantic relationships have identified four primary styles of attachment in adult relationships: secure, dismissive avoidant, anxious preoccupied, and fearful avoidant. Our adult attachment styles—that is, the insecure styles—can be indicators of the childhood defenses that are continuing to affect us in our close relationships. As you read this section, think about your romantic relationships and what your attachment style may be.
Adults with a secure attachment styleare more satisfied in their romantic relationships. Their relationships tend to be honest, open, and equal, with both partners being independent yet loving toward each other. There is little drama in these types of relationships. Adults with secure attachment patterns are less defended against intimacy and love.
Adults with a dismissive avoidant attachment stylein their romantic relationships tend to seek isolation and feel pseudo-independent, their primary focus being self-sufficiency. They can’t acknowledge their own needs or those of others, and are therefore dismissing and disregarding of their partner’s needs. They are more comfortable with casual encounters and short-term relationships. In a more personal relationship, their defensive reaction is to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. They deny the importance of loved ones, and they detach from them easily.
Adults with an anxious preoccupied attachment stylein their romantic relationships tend to be insecure and unsure of their partner’s feelings and feel unsafe in their close relationships. Their defensive reaction is to be clingy, demanding, or possessive toward their partner. They are frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them.
Adults with a fearful avoidant attachment stylein their romantic relationships live in an ambivalent state, afraid of being too close to others but also afraid of being too distant. They are trapped in a defensive reaction to love: they go toward love, but when they get close to someone, they pull away for fear that they will be hurt. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, and then they may feel trapped when the partner gets close. They are often unpredictable in their moods. They try to keep a lid on their feelings but are often over-whelmed by their emotions. Their close relationships tend to be rocky or dramatic, with many highs and lows. Adults with a fearful avoidant attachment style are often in turbulent relationships.
Real Life Examples
Let’s look at the woman who lamented that even when she started out feeling optimistic about a relationship, her relationships never “went anywhere.” This woman realized that as a child, she developed avoidant attachment patterns as a result of having been neglected, which led to her being inward and self-sufficient. She also recognized that in her romantic relationships, she had the traits of a dismissive avoidant style. With these insights, she was able to see that she chose partners who, like herself, were self-contained and emotional unavailable, thus recreating the dynamics of her childhood environment. She understood that to have the deeper, long-term relationship that she desired, she should look for a partner who was outgoing and expressive. This would feel unfamiliar and make her uncomfortable at first, but if she challenged herself to sweat through this readjustment period, she would adapt to emotional intimacy and develop a secure attachment style.
Now take the man who wanted a loving partner, but always ended up with someone who was critical and rejecting. He recognized that he developed anxious attachment patterns as a child. His mother was inconsistent: at times caring and nurturing, but mostly critical and punishing. This left him confused and desperate toward her. He also became aware that in his romantic relationships, he had an anxious preoccupied attachment style. He understood how he had subconsciously been recreating the relationship dynamic with his mother by choosing women who were aloof and critical of him, which then made him insecure and desperate toward them. He then made a different choice and date a woman who was kind and sweet, but he didn’t find her as exciting as his usual girlfriends. The lack of criticism on her part and the absence of desperation on his part made the relationship seem boring to him. But over time, he became accustomed to being treated with love and respect and he developed a new, secure style of attachment in a romantic relationship.
This may seem like a lot of information to process, but it holds the key to unlocking the answers to why we keep repeating the same destructive relationship patterns, regardless of our best intentions. When we understand our childhood attachment patterns and our adult attachment styles, we can interrupt our programming by taking actions, such as making new and healthier choices of relationship partners. These actions will actually weaken the brain’s old memory traces and lay down and strengthen new ones. We will gradually change our attachment style and develop satisfying romantic relationships based on a new and secure style of attachment.
This blog also appeared on PsychologyToday.com