From the day we are born, we start to form relationships with people in our world and these early relationships guide our later relationships even in adulthood. The aim of this blog post is to explain how these early relationships often impact our intimate relationships in adulthood: what type of people we choose as partners and how we react when in a relationship or even in other social situations.
These early relationships impact also the way we see ourselves; do we believe to be valuable and lovable, worthy of another person’s attention or perhaps we feel that there is no one there for us in the world. We may be anxious, depressed, seek instant gratification and something external to soothe our system (emotions), if we did not receive adequate, consistent nurturing as a child.
Understanding this important link between the early relationships and later well-being can help us to understand not only our couple relationships and how to improve them but also how can we heal deep internal wounds caused by attachment trauma that has left us feeling empty and like there is an internal void.
I am passionate about spreading the word about attachment adaptations which form perhaps the most central part of our well-being. This post talks about the four attachment types and how they potentially influence you as an adult.
Attachment (relationship) types:
Babies develop an attachment to their primary care giver, usually the mother*. Depending on the way the baby experiences their mother and how she is able to respond to the baby’s both physical and emotional needs, the baby can develop different types of bonds with her. Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby were the pioneers in explaining the attachment patterns and how they impact children’s well-being.
A baby develops internal working models based on these early experiences. As an adult, these working models influence how you view everyday relationship related events, interaction with a romantic partner and yourself in general.
The child develops different types of relationships with each care giver and these adaptations impact on adult relationships in different ways. The names for child and adult attachment styles are slightly different but for simplicity I will only refer to the names used for child relationship styles.
If the mother is emotionally available and able to respond to the baby’s needs consistently most of the time, the baby develops an image of a mother as a secure base. Mother is someone who can be relied upon for food, comfort, and support at all times. This helps to develop a sense of “I am loveable”, “I can trust other people” and “the world is a safe place”.
In relationships, someone who has had consistent emotionally responsive parenting is relaxed. They find it easy to trust another person and believe that they are worthy of being loved and cared for by another person. A person with a secure attachment is also able to give in a relationship because they have an experience of the other being nurturing and caring.
The self-image of a person who has secure attachment adaptation is solid, they understand their both good qualities and their imperfections. They are able to manage stress and have internal resources for regulating emotions, as their early caregiver thought them this from day one.
If the mother is emotionally unavailable, perhaps preoccupied with their own difficulties, always at work and inconsistent in their mothering, the baby who has been internally program to turn to the mother for support and comfort cannot fully trust the mother to be available when needed. The baby develops an internal working model of “I can stay safe, only if you stay close”, “You are unpredictable” and “I have to scream and shout to get your attention”.
In adult relationships, it is difficult to trust that your partner truly wants to be with you and you often experience anxiety. You may feel more relaxed when they are near, but doubt about them when they are away. Alternatively, you may test you partner and their loyalty, as you struggle to trust that they are truly emotionally with you.
The self-image of a person who has had an ambivalent attachment adaptation is unclear. Often the focus is on the other and it is difficult to know who you are. You may struggle with anxiety, regulating your emotions with external things like food, substances and so on. You worry about what other people think of you and recently I wrote a post about it. You are probably great at detecting other people’s moods but you may panic easily and jump to conclusions.
Your task is to learn to slow down in relationships, give yourself time to detect your own emotions and needs and find further information on whether your judgment was justified.
Mothers of insecure-avoidant babies are often hostile, rejecting and cannot tolerate strong emotions. The baby develops a working model of “when I show strong emotions, mummy will get angry or rejects me – my emotions are not tolerated” and “the world is a hostile place”. In order to keep mummy close, the baby/toddler learns to shut his/her emotions and put up with the rejection. They may withdraw and even get depressed.
In adult relationships, someone with an avoidant attachment adaptation may seem distant and withdrawn. You want to be in a relationship (that is your natural instinct) but you are terrified of being in a relationship and emotionally connecting with another because you worry that they will not be there for you. Your partner may be frustrated with you because you seem so distant and uncaring. Their “demands” on you may feel overwhelming at times.
Your experience of emotional absence may have created this sense of an internal void. It is difficult to know who you are and what you want in life. You may experience a lot of worry and anxiety in your life, depression, have difficulties with regulating your emotions with substances, food or other things. Another post on childhood emotional neglect is also talking about this.
Your task is about learning to trust another and let trusted people in your world stop the internal feeling of loneliness.
This attachment adaptation is the rarest. Children, whose attachment figure is simultaneously the source of terror (e.g. physical / emotional abuse) and safety, are confused and develop disorganised attachment. They don’t know how to self-regulate in stressful situations. There is an enormous pull to attach which is a survival need, but the attachment figure is scary and the system tells to separate and go to safety.
As an adult, you may experience a mixture of feelings described by ambivalent and avoidant attachment adaptations. It may be very difficult for you to be in a relationship; You may experience terror in relationships and being abandoned, and be drawn to toxic relationships because they feel familiar. You may struggle to know how to calm yourself down and know who you really are. You may react easily to even the smallest of signs of being rejected. Our body stores all the emotional experiences even if we cannot remember them because they happened when we were so young that we cannot remember or because the memories were so painful and therefore for our survival they have been stored in areas of the brain that we cannot easily access. Therefore, you may encounter an experience in your daily life that suddenly caused a very strong emotional response. This is because your body detected a threat that may only have a 10-20% overlap with the original experience.
The task for you is to learn to regulate and self-sooth. Various Mindfulness and self-compassion exercises can start to create new neural pathways and teach you about self-soothing. The resource library has a self-compassion guided meditation and other resources for healing.
The good news is that if you didn’t have an opportunity to develop a secure attachment as a child, you can have what is called an acquired safe attachment adaptation as an adult. Being in a relationship with a person who was securely attached to their early caregiver can be healing if you allow yourself to be in a relationship with them.
Therapy is a place for forming a deep therapeutic relationship that allows exploration and healing through feeling nurtured and having another person giving you their undivided attention.
If you are looking for a therapist, please take a look my services page or organise you FREE 15 min consultation to talk about how therapy could help you to heal, live wholeheartedly and have fulfilling relationships.
* For simplicity I have used ‘mother’ as the example of a primary caregiver but it could have been a father or any other significant adult.
PODS training – Working with Relational Trauma: Dealing with disorganised attachment
Diane Poole Heller – Therapy Master Mind Circle
Lee, (2012). Compassionate Mind Approach to Recovering from Trauma