What Your Relationship With Your Parents in Childhood Portends
BY: CARLYLE JANSEN
Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in the late 1950s. He noticed that a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver, especially in terms of feelings of safety and security, affected their social, emotional and cognitive development. The theory evolved to show that the attachment we developed with our caregivers in our childhood affects how we interact with others in our relationships as adults. If we had a positive attachment in our childhood where we felt secure, cared for, and comforted in times of need, we generally have healthy attachments in our adult relationships. If we did not have a positive attachment as children, where we felt rejection or indifference by our caregivers to our pain, we might develop an anxious or avoidant style of connection with others.
Examining our own attachment style can help us better understand our behaviour patterns in relationships. We can also explore a partner’s or friend’s attachment style to better understand them, learn how to better meet their needs and/ or understand where some of the tension in our relationship arises.
Many of these relationship styles were formed and encoded at a preverbal stage and influenced by events for which we no longer have memory. Sometimes our responses only surface when we feel threatened, such as when we feel rejection, abandonment, criticism or physical danger. Sometimes our reactions can seem exaggerated given the current situation, but make sense when we consider earlier traumatic events and the patterns that they created.
People with a secure attachment (approximately 55- 60% of the population) had a good connection as children with their caregivers, feeling secure to venture out independently to explore the world and return home to a safe base. These people tend to thus feel safe and more satisfied in their relationships as adults in general. They are less likely to take things personally and are able to problem solve and engage in conflict in a healthy way, forgiving and accepting their partner’s shortcomings. They feel connected while they and their partner explore the world independently and separately. They also rely on their partner for support when feeling distressed and trust that it will be given, as well as being supportive to their partner in the same way. There is honesty, openness and equality. When it comes to sex, those with secure attachment tend to advocate for their own needs and respond to their partner’s desires without compromising their own.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
People with this style likely had inconsistent intimacy and security as children from their caregivers. They tend to want a partner to complete them, sometimes rushing into a less-than-ideal relationship. They can be watchful and hyper-vigilant, analyzing their partner’s actions for signs of love or abandonment. They can be emotionally clingy, demanding or possessive, looking for security in the relationship. Their very fear of abandonment and sense of jealousy ironically is what often drives a partner away. They might withdraw or have an emotional outburst in order to gain their partner’s attention. When it comes to sex, they tend to engage in sex in order to ease their insecurities, including pleasing their partner to gain their partner’s reassurance or love. Because they often ignore their own needs, they can become unhappy. They may even endure an abusive relationship at least initially, interpreting their partner’s possessiveness as a sign of passion and love.
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment
People with this style learned how to suppress their desire for closeness because they did not receive it as a child. They thus tend to be emotionally distant and self-sufficient. They do not rely on a partner, protecting their independence and believing that they do not need connection. They can become hyper-vigilant, looking for signs that a partner is trying to control their autonomy or freedom. They don’t want to feel too close as a defence mechanism against the possibility of the pain of rejection. When turmoil arises in the relationship they are able to turn off their feelings and detach. Dismissive avoidant people tend to enjoy the physical aspects of sex but with detached emotional connection to a partner.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment
People who developed a fearful avoidant style of attachment are afraid of both being too close and too detached. They want to get their needs met by a partner but then get anxious about being too close and getting hurt by them. They suppress their desire for closeness out of fear. When they fear abandonment they move closer and when they fear too much emotional intimacy they feel suffocated and pull away. As a result, they tend to be unpredictable in their emotions and moods which they might have a hard time controlling. They tend to have relationships that are filled with drama with many highs and lows.
What is my style?
There are many free online tests that will assess one’s attachment style as well as more formal (and usually more accurate) tests that can be done through a therapist or psychologist. One non-scientific way to guess our own or someone’s attachment style is by reflecting on our/ their behaviour, especially when a partner asks for more intimacy or closeness. A positive response will likely come from a securely attached person who is also able to compromise. Defensiveness or discomfort from the request are signs of dismissive avoidance. A fearful avoidant person might feel elated or claustrophobic as a result of the request, depending on the current level of intimacy. Someone with anxious preoccupied style might welcome the request but still need assurances about the relationship.
Can You Change Your Style?
We tend to maintain the type of attachment style that we learned early in life to our later relationships. We can change our style, although it requires some conscious effort, self-reflection, and maybe therapy for insight. If you do not have a secure attachment style, then learning to understand, express and value your own relationship needs is important. It is also good to enhance your self-esteem so that you can discern whether you can meet a partner’s needs without compromising your own or not. Especially for folks who are not securely attached, it is good to look for someone who does have a secure attachment. Otherwise, the dynamic between two individuals with non-secure attachments can be chaotic without a lot of self-reflection and commitment to communication.
Ultimately attachment style is just one tool for examining one’s relationship patterns. Any tool is just that: something that can be used from time to time as is useful. There are many other influences on our personalities, behaviours and relationships as well. It may be more relevant for some people and relationships than others. Have a look through the attachment style window for reflection and exploration to see if it raises any new insights for you.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to goodforher.com