Dr. Kevin Klar
How things begin makes a huge difference in what happens after. If your first meeting with someone is unpleasant, that may mean that your relationship is marked by that negative interaction and may never recover. However, an inauspicious beginning doesn’t automatically mean that the ending is already written. After all, things change, and predicted outcomes can be averted.
This all relates to attachment and how a person engages in relationships with others. Just because you have a particular attachment style in your relationships does not mean it cannot be changed for the better. Before getting ahead of ourselves, it’s important to understand what attachment is, and how it affects relationships.
What is attachment?“Attachment” refers to how a person interacts and behaves toward others in their various relationships. There are several attachment styles will be explored shortly, and these simply name different ways people deal with relationships.
These different ways of being in relationship with others are influenced largely by the experiences one has as a child. The formative years of one’s childhood make a profound impact on how they relate to other people.
The idea of attachment and attachment styles emerged from research and theory developed in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the work of John Bowlby, which was expanded upon by Mary Ainsworth.
Bowlby held the view that people’s experiences in early childhood are formative and influence how a person develops and behaves later in life. The attachments one forms with their parents or caregivers set one up for how one handles other relationships when they are older.
An attachment is a persistent and lasting sense of connectedness one has with other people. In early childhood, this attachment occurs between a child and their parent or caregiver. Depending on the sense of emotional and mental connectedness a child has with these parental figures, and depending on whether and how that child’s needs are met, different forms of attachment will result.
Part of Bowlby’s work was to suggest that children who are raised with the confidence that the person responsible for them is available and present to meet their needs are less likely to experience fear in uncertain circumstances within relationships.
This confidence and expectation for care and provision within relationships take root and are forged at crucial stages through experiences they have during their infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
When a person cultivates expectations through their life experiences that their needs will be met, this shapes what one expects within relationships at other stages of life and in other relationships. It’s important to remember that while those early, formative experiences have a huge influence on shaping attachment styles in later relationships, other experiences in life can reshape that style.
These different forms or styles of attachment are described below.
Different types of attachment.
Depending on your attachment style, how you think and react within relationships will differ. You may be preoccupied with anxious thoughts and feelings about whether your significant other really cares about you, or you may struggle to open up to other people or make commitments to them. These are often connected to one’s attachment style, which can be one explanation for those behaviors and patterns of thought.
Four types of attachment styles are widely recognized, and these are secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized attachment styles. These are described below.
When a person develops a bank of experiences that give them the conviction that their needs will be met within a relationship, they will likely develop a secure attachment style.
Such an individual will see and experience relationships as spaces that are safe and within which they can flourish. They feel like their needs can be met within those relationships, and they have the freedom to express themselves and their needs.
In a romantic relationship, a person with a secure attachment style can trust their significant other, and they can seek emotional support from their partner. They aren’t scared off by the emotions of others, and they can connect with others at a deep level. Not only are they emotionally available, but they can regulate their own emotions and can handle conflict within relationships well.
A person with a secure attachment style can navigate romantic relationships well without feelings of inadequacy or feeling unworthy of their partner’s affection. They don’t need constant reassurance from their partner that they are loved and appreciated. This makes them have a healthy self-understanding as well as healthy relationships with others around them.
Anxious or ambivalent attachment.This is one of the forms of insecure attachment. This form of attachment often develops from parenting or caregiving that isn’t consistent or properly attuned to the child’s needs. When one doesn’t have a sense of security about whether their needs will be met, or what to expect from their parent or caregiver, that instability can cultivate a fear of abandonment and rejection.
The uncertainty generated by inconsistency in the relationship can make the child, and the adult later on, susceptible to low self-esteem, clinginess, feeling unworthy of love, and a fear of rejection.
In a relationship, this can look like a deep sensitivity to criticism, and a deep-set desire to take care of other people’s feelings and meet others’ needs ahead of one’s own. They may also be intensely jealous, requiring constant reassurances of love from their partner.
These various characteristics that mark an anxious attachment can make for a challenging relationship dynamic.
Avoidant or dismissive attachment.
This is another form of insecure attachment, but it describes a dynamic in which a person struggles to commit to others or be intimate with them. It can develop when a child is expected to be independent or is left to fend for themselves.
Emotionally distant and physically absent caregivers may reject expressions of need or may be disinterested in the things that excite or engage the imagination of the child. The parent or caregiver may even refuse to help with difficult tasks, leaving the child to fend for themselves.
The result of such an upbringing will be a strong sense of independence which is accompanied by an aversion to relying on others or of expressing needs or emotions. This can result in relationships that are cold and distant, and which may lack a sense of intimacy, trust, and mutual dependence. One’s partner may feel like they’re always on the outside and aren’t allowed into the deepest confidences of their loved one, making for a challenging relationship.
This last form of insecure attachment is also known as anxious-disorganized attachment. It can result from a fear of one’s parents or caregivers, and it is often caused by abuse, neglect, or childhood trauma. When a parent or caregiver is at one point a source of comfort, and at another a source of fear, this can result in a disorganized attachment style as the child relates to these inconsistencies.
This form of attachment will often result in an inability to regulate one’s emotions, struggles to trust others, and a deep fear of rejection. In a relationship, the individual may exhibit confusing behaviors such as looking for love while also pushing others away because they fear getting close to others. They may pursue emotional intimacy while rejecting it because they fear getting hurt. It makes for a deeply unpredictable relationship.
Working through your attachment style.
How things begin matters, as it can shape the trajectory of the remainder of the story. However, your beginnings aren’t definitive. A person with an avoidant attachment style in childhood can become an adult with a secure attachment, and vice versa.
Whatever may have happened in the past to shape your attachment style is not written in stone, as one can find healing and develop different ways of thinking and being in relationships.
Knowing what your attachment style is matters, as that can go some way to explain some of the behaviors you exhibit in your relationships, and how they can potentially cause friction in those relationships.
However, that’s only the beginning. You can develop a more secure form of attachment and have healthier ways of relating to others. Speaking with a counselor can help you make sense of your experiences and unpack the implications for your relationships.
You can change your attachment style and develop healthy relationships. Your counselor can help you identify your attachment style, and they can provide you with the tools you need to change it into a more secure one.
By discerning and disrupting patterns of thought and behavior, learning how to assess your choices in relationships, and growing in your ability to communicate effectively can go a long way in developing healthier relationships.
Your past doesn’t necessarily determine your future. Seek out the help of a Christian counselor to begin addressing challenges in your relationships.
“Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Aranprime, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Daddy and Baby”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Daddy and Daughter”, Courtesy of Colin + Meg, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Malibu”, Courtesy of Annette Sousa, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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