We are inherently social creatures, wired for connection. From the moment we are conceived, our survival is dependent upon another human being. The characteristics of our relationships with our primary caregivers has great bearing on our emotional development and future romantic relationships. When there is a rupture in this child/parent relationship, our brains and bodies respond as if our survival is at stake (because it is). If these ruptures are significant or chronic, it often results in relational/emotional trauma and an insecure attachment.
Attachment is the emotional bond that we share with our primary caregivers (and romantic partners, later in life). It is dependent upon our caregivers being available and responsive to both our physical and emotional needs. This affects our feelings of safety in the world and in relationships. Our attachments tend to be either secure or insecure.
We typically form a secure attachment style when our primary caregivers were caring, nurturing, consistent, dependable, and responsive to our needs. As children, we need to know that we have a safe base we can return to for comfort as we explore a new, sometimes frightening world. Insecure attachment styles (anxious or avoidant) are formed when our caregivers were not dependable or adequately responsive to our needs. This could be due to outright neglect, abuse, or abandonment. Or it could be due to something more subtle, like inconsistent emotional attunement and attention to needs. People who had parents struggling with significant mental illness, substance use, relational conflict, insecure attachment, or difficulty reading social and emotional cues tend to form insecure attachments with their caregivers.
Attachment also shows up in our adult romantic relationships. Our early attachment dynamics give us a “template” for what love looks like. Whether or not this template is actually a very painful one, when we are in a similar dynamic, our brains recognize it and register it as love. If our parents were emotionally dismissive and withdrawn, there is a high chance that we will end up with a partner who has similar patterns. This is why we often find ourselves in the same unfulfilling relationships over and over again.
Our attachment style also affects the way we show up in relationships. I’ll outline some of this next:
Most of us fall into one of three attachment categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant (a few of us will fall into an anxious-avoidant or disorganized category). Though, certain situations could cause us to move into a style different from our primary (ex. an infidelity could cause an otherwise securely attached individual to show some anxious attachment style traits). These categories are not meant to be restricting boxes or labels, but a framework used to understand how we generally tend to experience relationships.
Secure: Those with a secure attachment style find it easy to form close relationships. They feel comfortable with depending on others and having others depend on them. They are quick to respond to their partner’s emotional needs. They do not experience much anxiety when away from their partner. They trust that their partner will be there for them when they return for connection. These individuals had dependable and nurturing caregivers.
Anxious: Those with an anxious attachment style tend to crave a high level of emotional intimacy. They spend a lot of time trying to pull their partners closer and get attached quickly. They often feel like they care for others more than others care for them. People with an anxious attachment style tend to experience high levels of anxiety when their partner is not around and often feel “empty” or “incomplete” without them. They fear abandonment and rejection by their partner. This is usually the result of having primary caregivers who were inconsistent and unpredictable. At times, their caregiver was attuned and caring to their emotional needs, and at other times they were insensitive and dismissive. In an attempt to feel secure and get their need met, they learned to cling to their attachment figure.
Avoidant: Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to feel uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. Independence and self-sufficiency are very important to them. The may avoid having others depend on them or having to depend on others. They have a tendency to suppress their emotions and seem to easily cut people out of their lives. This is usually the result of early attachment figures who were emotionally withdrawn and dismissive of emotional needs. They learned that it was safer to pretend not to have emotional needs than to have their needs consistently denied.
(Those with an anxious-avoidant style tend to experience some of both the anxious and avoidant categories. They crave closeness but are also afraid to get too close. There is a clear push-pull dynamic in their relationships—pulling their partner closer but then quickly pushing them away. Their relationships tend to have a lot of highs and lows. This is usually the result of primary caregiver relationships that were scary and deeply unsafe at times. They want to let people in but are afraid of being hurt.)
No attachment style is bad or wrong. It’s simply the way that we had to adapt to get our needs met and protect ourselves. Sometimes these aren’t working for us anymore though, and we can learn new ways of being in relationship. Learning about our attachment styles and love “templates” can give us the information we need to make more informed choices in our romantic lives.
Whether you have a secure or insecure attachment style, the good news is that you can always develop a greater degree of safety and security in relationships. I enjoy helping clients gain a deeper understanding of how their attachment styles are impacting them and helping them heal from the emotional and relational traumas of the past.
The subject of attachment and emotional trauma is far too complex for any one blog post to do it justice and there are other types of relationships and experiences which can impact your attachment style.
If you want to learn more about your attachment style, heal from your emotional/relational wounds, and create healthier relationships, contact me today!