Have you ever wondered why the same problems keep cropping up in your relationships? Or why it is that some people get into healthy relationships but it never seems to happen for you? It may be to do with the attachment style you learnt as a child.
In order to ensure they are safe and cared for, children develop a particular kind of bond with their primary caregivers, in which they seek regular contact with their caregivers and experience distress when separated from them. If the bond develops as it should, both child and caregivers seek proximity to each other and the caregivers are attuned to the child's needs. The result is that the child feels cared for and safe. This special bond, which endures over time, is known as "attachment".
As children grow, they send out attachment signals and adopt age-appropriate behaviours in order to make emotional connection to others. They will behave in a socially appealing way in order to get their needs met; they will seek out and keep close to their caregivers when they are fearful or anxious; they will send out distress signals designed to elicit attention. As they grow, they will move away from, and then return to, their loved ones. If the relationship between parent and child is sufficiently attuned, children are likely to grow up feeling loved and safe.
However, many things can happen which can interfere with the bonding process between children and their caregivers: a parent may leave or die or become ill; life circumstances may affect the parents to the extent that they are too preoccupied to be attuned to their children's needs; parents may have their own unresolved emotional difficulties, which may impede their ability to parent in a way which gives their child a sense of being loved and safe.
Research has shown that the quality of our attachments in the first years of life can affect our future relationships into adulthood. In addition, attachment styles can be passed on from one generation to the next.
A secure attachment develops when there is a healthy reciprocal relationship between child and carer. Social interaction is characterised by fun and playfulness and the child’s need for comfort when anxious or distressed is met quickly and effectively. The child feels able to explore the world at his/her own pace knowing that the parent or carer is a secure base to return to.
When they become adults, securely attached children are able to enter into mutual, balanced relationships. They expect that their needs will be met and that they will be able to meet the needs of others. They are able to show emotional connection through empathy, can talk about their feelings, and are familiar with a wide emotional repertoire in both themselves and others.
Securely attached children have internalised in early childhood the key elements of positive relationship building. This gives them lifelong protection from stress and emotional anxiety and a greater chance of coping with, and surviving, traumatic life events.
Avoidant attachment develops when parents or carergivers actively discourage signs of either affection or distress, believing that such feelings are wrong or should not be expressed. In these conditions, it is difficult for the child to access a feeling of being loved and nurtured, and he / she has to develop alternative coping mechanisms to survive emotionally. Children in this sort of environment can become withdrawn emotionally and learn to internalise painful and difficult feelings.
As adults, avoidant children find it difficult to connect with the emotional repertoire of others and find talking about their feelings a source of anxiety and distress. They find it hard to maintain relationships and they have a distrust of emotional intimacy.
Children experience ambivalent attachment when they are never quite sure whether their carers will meet their need for reassurance or comfort. The parent may sometimes respond to distress and anxiety or may sometimes ignore it. There is an unpredictability in the behaviour of the carer that makes the child feel "all over the place". The child often feels distressed but has no confidence that his / her distress will be heard. This form of attachment is particularly prevalent in families where there are mental health problems or issues with alcohol or substance misuse.
Ambivalent attachment in children often leads to mental health problems later in life, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Adults with an ambivalent attachment style also find it difficult to bounce back from distressing life events.
Disorganised attachment occurs when children send out attachment signals but these are not received or responded to appropriately by the parent or carer. Sometimes the parent appears unaware of the child’s needs. This attachment style can occur when the parent has unresolved emotional issues from his / her own past, has mental health problems, or has experienced a traumatic life event during the first years of the child’s life. Disorganised attachment can also occur in a child as the result of abuse.
Children with disorganised attachment often exhibit developmental delay. Young children show signs of emotional and behavioural difficulties from an early age, demonstrating aggressive, disruptive or withdrawn behaviours both at home and at school.
Disorganised attachment in infancy has been linked by both longitudinal and retrospective studies to a number of mental health problems and personality disorders. In addition, disorganised attachment is a risk factor that hugely increases a child’s vulnerability to other harmful influences or events.
An adult with a disorganised attachment style will be more susceptible to relationship breakdown, substance misuse, self-destructive and self-harming behaviours, eating disorders, suicide, offending behaviour and aggressive, violent and controlling behaviours.
Hope for change
All of the above attachment styles result from your best attempts to survive in the environment you grew up in. Once you have moved on from living with your parents, you may find that the coping styles that worked back are not effective in your adult relationships, and may even be destructive. Or you may find that although you really want to be in a relationship, you just can't allow other people in or don't believe anybody could really love you.
Whilst attachment styles tend to persist into adulthood, the good news is that there is hope for movement towards a secure attachment style in the right conditions. Understanding your attachment style and its vulnerabilities and strengths is a useful starting point for change, and counselling can provide a safe environment in which to explore how you relate to others.
If you are interested in finding out more about your attachment style, you might like to take this quiz.