How Early Attachment Shapes our Lives and Relationships
As human beings, we are wired for connection. This “wiring” is established through interactions with our caregivers from our very first moments of life. Developmental scientists and psychologists long ago coined this evolutionary wiring, “attachment,” and understood that it serves as the touchstone for not only how we engage and connect with others throughout our lives but also that it shapes our self-identity. In fact, our attachment bonds are so crucial to our development that psychoanalysts say that if we want to see how healthy a person is, just look at the health of their relationships.
So what does it mean to have an “attachment style?” If you’ve noticed unhealthy patterns in your relationships does that mean that you’re stuck and there’s no hope? Today’s blog will answer these questions as we explore the various styles of relating to others, and how our early attachment shapes our lives and relationships.
But first, let’s start at the beginning.
Attachment Research & Attachment Styles
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are the pioneers of attachment research, which welcomed a new wave of understanding in how our early childhood experiences shape our relationships in adulthood. Since babies and infants are entirely dependent on their caregivers for the first several years of their lives, Ainsworth decided to study infants’ responses during periods of separation and reunification with their caregivers.
Ainsworth’s Strange Situation
Building on Bowlby’s work that guessed at the survival function of attachment and its impact on us throughout life, Ainsworth engineered an experiment to decipher the differences in infants’ survival styles. She placed parent-child dyads in new and unfamiliar settings to activate the natural fear response in the infant. She then instructed the parent to step out of the room and leave the child alone so she could observe their reaction. She was particularly interested in the child’s response to their parent when they returned to reunite with their child.
After many trials, she found three recurring themes observed in the children. She grouped these findings into different attachment experiences: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant. In discovering your attachment style, the description should fit you in a way that feels mostly accurate, dependable, and predictable.
Secure attachment - these children were very easily distressed when their parents left them but were also easily comforted and able to relax when their parents did return.
Anxious attachment - these children were also easily distressed at being separated but had a harder time feeling comforted by their parents upon their return. In some cases, the children expressed anger toward the parent, sometimes “punishing” them for leaving.
Avoidant attachment - these children did not outwardly express anxiety at separation (though avoidant children still experience distress internally), and they ignored their parents when they did return.
A fourth style emerged after more studies, called “Disorganized” attachment, where the child reflected confusion and fear of the parent. These children did not have a predictable pattern of behaviors and often displayed a combination of anxious and avoidant behaviors.
It’s theorized that children’s responses to their parents were directly informed by their perceived assessment of their parent's ability to meet their needs and their availability over time. It is said that children are the most accurate lie-detectors, and even pre-verbal, they nonetheless possess an incredibly fine-tuned ability to perceive, assess, and organize the stimuli around them.
Attachment Maps in Adulthood
These instinctual patterns of early attachment are carried with us into adulthood and act as our psychological and emotional “maps,” from which we explore relationships. These primarily inform our romantic relationships since this is the arena where we typically explore sex, nurturing, intimacy, trust, and commitment.
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist who studies intimacy (security) and eroticism (freedom) in adult relationships, says, “How our parents loved us is the most important part of our history, which stays with us throughout our lifetimes.” The way we were—or were not— loved as children inform the story we tell ourselves and will produce the details we look for in others to test and verify these narratives.
What Does This Mean?
Those with insecure attachment styles— avoidant, anxious, or disorganized—will usually have a more challenging time forming stable and deep relationships with romantic partners.
Maybe we had a mother who was well-intentioned but could not read our need for comfort when we were scared, and instead, she interpreted our distress as hunger or defiance. She may have gotten frustrated or defeated when we would not eat and consistently communicated her inability to accurately read our needs.
The result could be that this mismatch created anxiety in our child-self, teaching us that our emotional needs should produce anxiety because we cannot rely on others to respond to us appropriately. In our relationships, we may feel like a burden to others or “too much” to handle. Likely, we will not have developed much confidence in our skills to communicate our needs as functioning, able adult. This insecurity will be felt deep in our bodies, further reinforcing these patterns.
While our earliest relationships may be to blame for our instinctual habits, we can still have empathy for our mother’s (or father’s) experiences as a child. Attachment styles are notoriously handed down generationally, and it’s likely that our mother may have been struggling with her own lack of healthy attachment figures. Without attention to this pattern and intentional effort to operate in a different way in our own relationships, we leave our children in the same dilemma.
Growing into New Attachment
The good news is that attachment patterns can change, and new patterns can emerge. In the therapy world, we call these “corrective emotional experiences.” These moments of attunement serve as promising routes toward more secure mental-emotional maps.
Healthy attachment essentially communicates, “I see you, and I will acknowledge your needs to the best of my ability through my genuine efforts out of my care for you.” For healthy bonds to form, this “matching” happens more than half of the time between two emotionally attuned people.
Finding trusted and dependable others with whom you can explore emotional intimacy will build increased confidence in yourself and others. In these adult relationships, you can develop a new awareness of your emotional needs and advocate for those needs to be met, overcoming the programming of your childhood.
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