How attachment styles affect adult relationships
Attachment (or the attachment bond) is an emotional relationship you have as an infant with your primary caregiver, probably your mother. Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist. It is often the quality of your first relationship that determines how you relate to others and respond to intimacy later in life.
As an infant, your primary caregiver should have made you feel safe, understood, and able to respond to you and your emotional needs. This will make it easier to form a secure, secure relationship. This usually means being confident, trustworthy, and hopeful as an adult. It also includes the ability to manage conflict and respond to intimacy.
Infancy can be confusing and frightening. If your caregiver is unable to comfort you or respond to to your needs consistently, it’s more likely that you had an insecure or unsuccessful attachment. Insecure attachment syndromes can lead to insecure attachment-prone infants who are unable to understand their emotions and those of others. This affects their ability build and maintain stable relationships. They might be unable to make friends, avoid intimacy or are too attached, fearful or anxious to have a meaningful relationship.
Our relationships can be shaped and influenced by the experiences we have between infancy, childhood, and adulthood. Understanding your attachment style is key to understanding why your adult relationships are having difficulties. The infant brain is so deeply influenced by attachment bonds, it can be difficult for you to understand why. Maybe you are a puzzler or self-destructive when you’re with a close friend. Perhaps you make the same mistakes repeatedly? Perhaps you have trouble making meaningful connections.
No matter what your relationship issues are, it is important to remember that your brain can change throughout your life. You can identify your attachment style and learn how to overcome your insecurities. This will help you to build stronger, more satisfying relationships.
How attachment styles influence adult relationships
The behavior in a relationship can define the attachment style or type. A person with a secure attachment style might be able share their feelings and seek help when they are having problems. On the other hand, those with insecure attachment styles may be more dependent on their close relationships and become clingy. They might also tend to act in selfish or manipulative ways when they feel vulnerable.
Understanding your attachment style and how it influences your intimate relationships will help you understand your behavior, your perception of your partner and your response to intimacy. These patterns can help you identify what you want in a relationship, and how to best overcome them.
Attachment styles are heavily influenced by the relationship between infant and primary caregiver, particularly in the first year. However, it is important to remember that attachment strength does not depend on how much parental love an infant receives or the quality of the care they receive. Attachment is based on nonverbal emotional communication between caregivers and infants.
A baby communicates their emotions by crying, cooing, and later, pointing and smiling. The caregiver interprets the signals and responds to the child’s needs for comfort, food, or affection. Secure attachment is formed when this nonverbal communication succeeds.
Socio-economic factors like wealth, education and ethnicity don’t impact the success of attachment. You shouldn’t blame your parents for your insecure attachment style if you have problems with your relationships. Your attachment style can be influenced by your personality, your adolescence and your adult experiences.
Types of attachment
There are four main styles of attachment, and we can not only categorize attachment as secure or unsecure.
- Secure attachment
- Attachment to an ambivalent (or anxious-preoccupied),
- Avoidant-dismissive attachment
- Attachments that are not well-organized
What secure attachment style looks like
People with secure attachment are more compassionate and better able to establish boundaries. They feel safer, more stable and happier in close relationships. They don’t have to be independent, but they thrive in close, meaningful relationships.
Adult relationships and how secure attachment styles affect adult relationships
A secure attachment style does not mean that you are perfect, or that you won’t have problems in relationships. You are likely to feel confident enough to accept responsibility for your mistakes and failures and to seek support and help when you need it.
- You value your self-worth and are able to be yourself with others. You feel comfortable sharing your emotions, hopes, and desires.
- If you find joy in being with other people, be open to seeking support and comfort from your partner. However, don’t let that stop you from enjoying the time together.
- Your partner can also rely on your support.
- You can maintain your emotional balance, and find healthy ways to resolve conflict within a relationship.
- You are resilient enough to bounce back from setbacks, disappointments and misfortunes in your relationships and other areas of your life.
Primary caregiver relationship
Secure attachment styles are more likely to be able to keep you engaged as a baby and manage your own stress. They can also calm you down and soothe you when you’re upset. You felt safe and secure. They communicated through emotions and responded to your changing needs regularly, which allowed your nervous system to “securely attach” to them.
No parent or caregiver can be perfect, and it is impossible to be present 24/7 for an infant. It’s not necessary for a child to feel secure attachment. However, if your caregiver misses your nonverbal cues it is likely that they continue trying to figure out your needs, keeping the secure attachment process moving along.
As a child, the solid foundation of a strong attachment bond allowed you to be confident, trusting and hopeful in the face conflict.
Are you insecure or secure?
Secure attachment may not be for everyone. Even if you are a stable couple, it is possible that your partner has certain patterns of thinking or behavior that can cause conflict. This needs to be addressed. Begin by examining your relationship with the three insecure attachment styles.
Attachment style for anxious-preoccupied or ambivalent attachments
People with an ambivalent attachment style (also referred to as “anxious-preoccupied,” “ambivalent-anxious,” or simply “anxious attachment”) tend to be overly needy. People with this attachment style tend to be anxious, uncertain, and lack self-esteem. They fear that others won’t be able to share their emotional intimacy.
Adult relationships affected by ambivalent attachment styles
You may feel embarrassed if you are ambivalent, anxious-preoccupied or have a clingy attachment style. You may also feel anxious about your partner’s true love.
- Although you want to be with someone you love and feel close to them, you don’t trust your partner enough to feel secure.
- Intimate relationships can take control of your life and cause you to become obsessed with the other person.
- It may be difficult for you to set boundaries. You might view space between you and your partner as a threat. This can cause panic, anger, or fear about losing your partner.
- Your self-worth is largely determined by how you feel about your relationship. You tend to react to perceived threats and overreact to them.
- If you are away from your partner, you may feel anxious or jealous and may resort to controlling behavior, guilt, or other manipulative techniques to keep them close.
- Your partner should always be there to reassure you and give you lots of attention.
- You may be criticized by others for being too dependent or clingy, and it may make it difficult to build close relationships.
Primary caregiver relationship
Your primary caregiver or parent was likely inconsistent in their parenting style. They may have been responsive and engaged with your infant needs, but sometimes they were unavailable or distracted. You may feel anxious or uncertain about your parents’ ability to meet your needs. This could have led you to be uneasy in your first relationship.
Avoidant-dismissive attachment style
Adults who have an avoidant-dismissive, insecure attachment style are different from those who are anxious-preoccupied or ambivalent. They are not in search of intimacy but instead seek to avoid any emotional connection with others. They don’t want to rely on others or have them rely on them.
Adult relationships affected by avoidant attachment styles
You are an avoidant-dismissive attachment type and you find it difficult to accept emotional intimacy. You are a person who values independence and freedom and can be uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness in romantic relationships.
- You are an independent person who is content to take care of yourself and doesn’t need help from others.
- You tend to withdraw more if someone is trying to be close to you, or if a partner is more needy.
- Your partner may accuse you of being too distant, closed-off, rigid and intolerant if you aren’t comfortable with your emotions. You accuse them of being too dependent.
- To regain your freedom, you may minimize or ignore your partner’s feelings.
- You might prefer short-term, casual relationships over long-term, intimate relationships. Or you may seek out partners who are independent and who will keep their distance emotionally.
- Although you might think that intimacy and close relationships are not important, we all need them. We are wired to connect and even those with avoidant-dismissive attachment styles want a close, meaningful relationship. If only they could conquer their deep-seated fears about intimacy.
Primary caregiver relationship
Avoidant-dismissive attachment styles often result from a parent who was not available or rejected during your childhood. Your caregiver never met your needs regularly or predictedably, so you had to try to take care of yourself and seek self-soothe. This set the foundation for later life, when you would avoid intimacy and crave independence.
Disorganized/disoriented attachment style
Disorganized/disoriented attachment, also referred to as fearful-avoidant attachment, stems from intense fear, often as a result of childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse. This type of insecure attachment can lead to adult disorganization and dysfunction. Adults who feel this way are less likely to be loved or accepted in a relationship.
Adult relationships affected by a disorganized attachment style
A disorganized attachment style can make it difficult to manage your emotions. This can lead to unsafe relationships and unsafe world. You may attempt to reproduce the abusive behavior you were subjected to as an adult if you have experienced child abuse.
- Intimate relationships can be confusing and stressful for many people. They often oscillate between extremes of love or hate for their partner.
- Your partner may find you insensitive, selfish, controlling, or untrustworthy, which can lead them to be abusive, violent, or even aggressive. You can also be as harsh on yourself as on your partner.
- You might exhibit negative or antisocial behavior, use alcohol or drugs, or be prone to violence or aggression.
- Others might be discouraged by your unwillingness to accept responsibility for your actions.
- You long for the safety and security of an intimate relationship but you feel unworthy and afraid of being hurt again.
- You may have experienced abuse, neglect, trauma, or both.
Primary caregiver relationship
If your primary caregiver was dealing with unresolved trauma themselves, it can lead to the intense fear associated with a disorganized/disoriented attachment style. As an infant, the parent was often a source of both fear and comfort. This can lead to confusion and disorientation in your relationships. Other times, the parent may not have been attentive to your needs or have a chaotic, unpredictable behavior that could have been traumatizing or frightening.
Insecure attachment: Causes
Even a loving and conscientious parent can fail to create a secure attachment with their infant for many reasons. Your insecure attachment may be caused by:
A mother who is inexperienced or young and lacking the necessary parenting skills.
The caregiver suffered from depression due to isolation, lack of support or hormonal issues, causing them to leave the caregiving position.
The primary caregiver’s use of alcohol or other drugs has reduced their ability to accurately respond to your emotional or physical needs.
Traumatic experiences such as a serious injury or accident that interrupts the attachment process.
Physical neglect: Poor nutrition, insufficient exercise or neglect of medical problems.
Emotional abuse or neglect. As an example, your caregiver may not have paid attention to you as a child or made little effort to understand what your feelings were.
Physical and sexual abuse, regardless of physical injury or violation.
Separation of your primary caregiver because of illness, death or adoption.
Inconsistency with the primary caregiver. For example, you may have had a succession of nannies and staff at daycare centers.
Frequent placements or moves. You may have experienced constant changes in your environment as a result of spending your childhood in orphanages, or moving between foster homes.
Get help for insecure attachment
It doesn’t matter if you are noticing an insecure attachment style in your partner or yourself. You don’t have the right to accept the same expectations, behaviors, and attitudes throughout your life. You can change your attachment style and develop a more secure one as an adult.
The value of therapy can be immense, whether you are working with a therapist one-on-one or with your partner in couples counseling. An attachment therapist can help you understand your past and make you more secure.
Even if you don’t have the opportunity to access appropriate therapy, you can still do a lot to create a more secure attachment style. Learn as much about your insecure attachment style as you can. You will be better equipped to recognize and correct insecure attachment behaviors and reflexive attitudes that could be contributing to your relationship problems.
These tips will help you make the transition to a safer attachment style.
1. Improve your nonverbal communication skills
Attachment theory teaches us that adult relationships, like those with your primary caregivers, are dependent on nonverbal communication.
Although you might not realize it, every interaction with another person involves constant exchange of nonverbal signals. These include the gestures you make, the posture you take, the eye contact you make, and your posture. These nonverbal cues communicate a strong message about how you feel.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, improving your ability to read, interpret and communicate nonverbally with others can make a difference in how you interact with them. These skills can be improved by learning how to be present in the moment and managing stress.
2. Boost your emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient, or EQ, is the ability to use and understand your emotions in positive ways. This allows you to communicate better with your partner and to deal with conflict more effectively.
Building emotional intelligence is a way to strengthen your romantic relationship. Understanding your emotions and learning how to control them will help you communicate your feelings and needs to your partner better.
3. Establish relationships with people who are secure attached
A relationship with someone who has an insecure attachment style could lead to a marriage that is not in sync, difficult, confusing, or even painful. Although you can work together to overcome your insecurity, it’s possible to find a partner who has a secure attachment style. This will help you shift from negative thinking and behavior.
Your sense of security can be built by a strong and supportive relationship with someone you love. Although estimates vary, research shows that between 50-60% of people have a secure attachment style. This means there is a good chance you will find a romantic partner who can help overcome your insecurity. These people can help you identify and adopt new behaviors.
4. Any childhood traumas must be resolved
As we have discussed, trauma can disrupt the bonding and attachment process. Trauma can occur from any situation that affects your sense of safety. This could include a dangerous or unstable home, separation from your primary caregiver, severe illness, neglect, abuse, and even abandonment. If childhood trauma is not addressed, insecurity, fear, or helplessness can persist into adulthood.
Even if the trauma occurred many years ago, you can still take steps to heal, regain emotional balance, and re-establish trust and connection in your relationships.