Attachment theory was something I learned about as an undergrad in psychology; a concept that was studied, memorized for the test and discarded from memory shortly afterwards. I never thought the term would have any real relevance in my own life.
My “aha moment” occurred during a wellness retreat in Northern New Mexico when I realized that my relationship with my mother has been a powerful influence on my interactions with men.
My mother!? Really?
And all this time I thought my “daddy issues” were the source of all problems in my romantic relationships!
My father wasn’t there and I struggled with feelings of abandonment, lack of self worth and self esteem. I attracted and selected men who treated me badly, were emotionally unavailable and ultimately left me like my father did.
At the retreat I realized that although my father’s absence had definitely affected me, it was my mother’s presence as primary caregiver that set the tone for how I would relate and interact with the people around me.
My mother suffers from Major Depressive Disorder because of her own childhood trauma. As a child, I never knew what to expect in my relationship with her. Most of the time, she was extremely attentive and affectionate. Other times, she was completely closed off and unavailable because of her depression.
I learned to adapt to this uncertainty by soaking up all of her attention when she was able to provide it, and convincing myself I didn’t need it when she wasn’t. I learned early on to minimize and suppress my own emotional needs in my relationship with others.
As an adult, I’ve grown up with the tendency to move both toward and away from romantic partners. I often say I want deep and meaningful connections with the men I date and I honor the idea of being able to be emotionally intimate with someone. However, when the time comes to open myself up and be vulnerable, I scare myself and feel the need to withdraw.
When I first became aware of this pattern, I felt completely hopeless. I didn’t believe that I would ever be able to have a healthy relationship with someone.
Yet, I also appreciated having another level of understanding of why I was behaving in certain way in my romantic relationships. With this newfound clarity, I knew that I could work to change my behavior.
My hope is that this will encourage you to examine and become aware of the way your relationship with your parents may be keeping you from satisfying and fulfilling relationships. Though it is a difficult process, it is possible to create a new way of relating with others.
What is an Attachment Style Anyway?
Attachment theory was first developed by John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who studied the interaction between infants and their primary caregivers especially in the context of separation. Bowlby discovered that these interactions could be classified according to the parent’s behavior and the child’s adaptive responses. He categorized these as the four patterns of attachment: secure, ambivalent, avoidant and disorganized.
A secure attachment occurs when the parent or primary caregiver is consistently available and responsive to the needs of the child. Conversely, an ambivalentattachment develops as a result of having caregivers who are inconsistent or overly protective when dealing with their children.
Parents who are distant or reject the needs of their child create an avoidant attachment. A disorganized pattern of attachment develops as a result of having parents or primary caregivers who are frightening and confusing when dealing with their children. Typically, these parents are living with unresolved trauma of their own.
Attachment Theory and Intimate Relationships
The bond that occurs between romantic partners tends to mirror that of the early infant-caregiver relationship. An individual who formed a secure attachment in childhood is very fortunate. They are more likely to be secure as adults and have healthier and more satisfying relationships.
Many of us, however, were not securely attached as infants making our adult relationships a bit more difficult. If you grew up with an attachment with a parent that was ambivalent, you might tend to cling to your romantic partner. An avoidant attachment style often creates an adult that is independent and has a difficult time formed a healthy “we” within their intimate relationships.
I was one of the ones who grew up with a disorganized attachment. People with this attachment style have difficulty forming emotionally meaningful and satisfying relationships and establishing clear boundaries.
If you grew up with an avoidant, ambivalent or disorganized style, the reality is that it will be difficult to develop intimate relationships that are healthy and fulfilling. Though it will be difficult, it is not impossible. There are things you can do to alter your pattern of attachment and develop healthier relationships.
Developing Healthier Relationships
Recognize and accept that your attachment style is part of your personal history. In order to grow, you must first bring these unconscious patterns of behavior into your awareness. Observe how your attachment style influences your relationships with others. Do not judge, blame or criticize yourself. You are simply recognizing and observing your patterns. Judgment of yourself only creates resistance and decreases the likelihood of change.
Learn to do yourself in new ways. Your attachment style does not have to dictate your destiny. You have the power to change yourself and your relationships with others. Once you develop an awareness of how you’ve been relating with others in the past and learn new relating skills, you free yourself up to act differently in future partnerships.
For me, acting differently means recognizing my tendency to avoid intimacy and seeking relationships with men that provide opportunities for me to reveal myself in new ways. In my most recent interaction with a man, I have acted in a radically new way. I am using Perceptual Language, a new way of communicating that helps me to share aspects of myself I generally hide from potential romantic partners.
With this new approach, when I begin to feel too vulnerable or too open, I express myself instead of pulling away. Giving voice to my feelings is transformative and powerful. I become conscious of how I’m behaving in the present moment, lessen my anxiety and ultimately and develop a deeper connection with myself and my partner.
We can’t go back and change our childhood, but we do have the opportunity and the power to create new ways of interacting and relating in adulthood.
How will you do yourself differently? Please share in the comments below.
Photo by Simon Rowe