Part 1: Understanding Adult Attachment Theory: The Impact of Your Childhood on Today’s Relationships
While we often think of attachment as something a child develops with a parent or caregiver, understanding the way we meet or attach to others can provide powerful insight into our relationship dynamics as adults. A deeper understanding can also help us understand and prepare for challenges that will arise in dating and relationships, which we will dive into in Part II of this piece. First, let’s take a closer look at what attachment is and why it is important to understand.
What is Attachment?
According to the ground-breaking research in the 1960’s, John Bowlby uncovered that attachment is an emotional and physical bond that develops in order to create stability and security in one’s world. In his studies, he found that it first develops between you, as an infant, and your parents (or caregivers) as a result of you depending on the availability, consistency and security of your caregiver to physically survive. You used proximity-seeking behaviors, such as crying, reaching, and eventually crawling and walking, to maintain closeness to your caregiver for sustenance, safety and connection.
As the you matured, emotional survival came into play as your psychological and physical development literally depended on the quality of your relationship with your caregiver(s).
Based on the emotional and physical consistency and availability of your caregivers, you internalized an idea of how relationships, people, and the world worked, and this served as a model for future relationships. For example, if your caregiver was consistently present, available to meet your needs, and saw you as worthwhile and valuable, that experience validated your perception of yourself as worthy. This typically results in a secure attachment style.
On the other hand, if your caregiver was unable or unwilling to be predictable and available to meet your emotional and physical needs, either because they were absent, or preoccupied with other relationships, substances, or their own needs and experiences, you may have internalized a version of yourself as unworthy of care and attention, and that people are generally unreliable and unpredictable. This typically results in either an insecure-ambivalent or insecure-avoidant attachment style (learn more in part 2).
In more rare cases, parents can sometimes be in a state of trauma themselves, act scary towards you, or be unable to keep you safe from harm (e.g., domestic violence and abuse), which can lead to a poorly developed, inconsistent sense of self and coping strategies. Such experiences can lead to your believing that the world is not a safe or protective place. This typically results in an insecure-disorganized (called unresolved in adulthood) attachment style (see part 2).
In short, one’s early attachment experiences with caregivers create a roadmap for future relationships. This roadmap is known by psychologists as an attachment style (e.g., Hazan & Shaver and Bartholomew & Horowitz).
Attachment Across the Lifespan
You’re probably wondering how the attachment between you and your caregivers relates to your adult romantic relationships. The answer is, the way you felt, and may still feel, about your early relationship experiences with and between your parents influence your adult relationship patterns or attachment style.
How does this happen, you ask? This happens through three simple, yet complicated steps, which were outlined by attachment pioneer, John Bowlby in 1973:
1. Your parents displayed relationship behaviors with each other or with a significant other, and also with you and any siblings.
2. You internalize that model (i.e., sense of self as worthy of love and care, how to treat others, perception of the world) as the model for relationships in the future.
3. As an adult, you engage in relationships (romantic and platonic) that mimic that internalized model, thereby reinforcing the model.
A question that I often get asked is, “Can attachment styles change over your life, or are they fixed?” While attachment styles generally remain the same throughout your life, attachment researcher L. Alan Sroufe (1996) revealed that it is possible to change with in the following three situations:
Radical changes in parent-child interactions as a child matures
A reparative relationship experience with another close figure (e.g., grandmother, nanny)
Therefore, in order to enhance your intimate relationships as an adult, it is important to understand your attachment style, how it developed, and how it influences your attachment in adult relationships.
In part two of this series, we’ll explore the specifics of adult attachment styles, the ways in which these styles come together, and the most common conflicts to watch for when dating each style, depending on your unique attachment system.
Contact Dr. Kristen Hick if you would like to explore your attachment style and how it influences your relationships.
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Bartholomew, K. & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.
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