Learning to relate: how important are early attachment relationships?




Our relationships in life are often heavily dependent on where our attachments lie, and what form they take. We each develop our particular attachment type in childhood, based on our relationship with our primary caregivers. 

Attachment types can therefore be intergenerational, in that the attachment type of parents can impact the attachment type of their children. There are four different attachment types that impact on behaviours in childhood, and these early attachment relationships can impact our adult relationships.

This blog is based on a paper I wrote as part of a course I am attending on Social and Psychological Health Studies. To read the full paper, with references, you can download it here.

According to John Bowlby, known for his pioneering work in Attachment Theory, the need to be in an important relationship is embedded in our DNA and this drives us to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them important to us. Bowlby suggests that there is a critical period of up to 5 years for developing attachment.

The four types of attachment can be described as:

Secure - where children appear to have comparable access to the signals to explore when they feel safe and to seek reassurance in connection when they do not.

Ambivalent/Preoccupied (also called Anxious) - where children were too preoccupied with knowing where their mothers were to explore freely and reacted to her leaving with severe distress.

Avoidant - where children can seem to be unusually relaxed given that the strange situation procedure subjects them to distressing environment.

Disorganised/Disoriented (also called fearful avoidant) - when the attachment figure is simultaneously experienced not only as the safe-haven but also as the source of danger, the child is caught between contradictory impulses to approach and avoid their primary attachment figure.

Our attachment type developed in childhood has a lasting impact on us, through adolescence and into adulthood. There is a link between the attachment type we form in childhood and the quality of our relationships in later life, as an infant’s primary attachment with their primary attachment figure forms a template which future relationships are modelled on.

Our attachment type developed in childhood has a lasting impact on us, through adolescence and into adulthood.

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People who are securely attached have greater trust and can connect with others, this is a foundation to them having a more successful life. Whereas those with any of the 3 types of insecure attachment tend to have poorer social skills and have problems forming relationships.

Those who securely attached as infants tended to have happy, lasting relationships. Those who have one of the three insecure attachment types finnd adult relationships more difficult, tend to separate, and believe love happens rarely.

How are you attached to your partner?

There is a strong association between our own attachment type and our romantic partner’s attachment type, suggesting that attachment type could impact on our choice of partners and our attachment type can impact on our relationship satisfaction. People with a secure attachment type typically get into a relationship with securely attached partners, however Anxious and Avoidant people tend to get into a relationship with each other.

When an Anxious attached person is in a relationship with an Avoidant attached person, they can get into what is known as the ‘Anxious-Avoidant relationship trap’. This trap plays out as both people look to get their attachment needs met. The Anxious attached person is looking for closeness, intimacy and reassurance. They have a fear of being abandoned and are preoccupied with their partners availability, whereas the Avoidant attached person prioritises self-sufficiency and independence in their relationships. They really value personal space and autonomy and are often uncomfortable with excessive intimacy or emotional vulnerability. Avoidants may respond to their partner's emotional needs by creating emotional distance or withdrawing, which can trigger anxiety and insecurity in their partner. This pattern can become stuck where neither partner gets their attachment needs met and as it feels to the other partner that their own needs don’t matter.

I find it interesting that as we get older, we can have different attachment types depending on the relationship. It’s also interesting that we can change our attachment type over time. A study found that approximately 30% of people changed their attachment type over a relatively short amount of time.

According to Attachment Theorist Sue Johnson, “attachment science is the best developmental theory of the development of personality” as it “better allows us know who we are” and by tuning into who we are, it allows us to work on ourselves in our relationships. In her research, Johnson used an MRI machine to monitor a woman’s brain. The research showed that using Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT) where she had bonding conversations so she felt close and connected with her partner, this could have a positive impact on a relationship, which also showed a difference on the MRI results. The results highlighted that we can calm our nervous system through EFT, be more emotionally present and connected with our attachment figures, and provide benefits to ourselves and others. Repairing our attachment type and becoming more secure helps us in other way as well. It allows us to be more resilient when it comes to trauma, as by being more secure we are more connected with ourselves and with others. Being more connected allows us to belong, according to Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, and we all have a need to love and belong.

Don’t fall into relationship traps

Looking at my own romantic relationship I can see where I have fallen into this Anxious-Avoidant trap, where neither of us are getting our attachment needs met. On researching my own attachment type I have found that, depending on the relationship, I can display a different attachment type. I found the web site https://yourpersonality.net/attachment/ provides me a good insight into where I am for different relationships over time. The picture below is from a recent test I completed on the site. When I look at my attachment types over time, I can see that my attachment type has moved or changed depending on how secure I believe my connection is with the person at the time I took the test.

The idea that we can change our attachment type and that we have different attachment types depending on the relationship gives me hope for myself, that I can work to become more securely attached.

While doing a test online to identify my attachment type is helpful, I found it really beneficial to see a description of the behaviours of each attachment type. There’s a Facebook page which displays graphics to help people understand their attachment type and to help them move to more securely attached. The following graphics from https://www.facebook.com/thesecurerelationship I found helped me to understand attachment types.


Nature or nurture?

Some psychologists, disagree with the idea that attachment behaviours formed in infancy shape the attachment relationships people have as adults, and that too much emphasis is placed on the parents on how a child "turns out". Some argue that as a child develops into adolescence, the attachment relationships with their parents becomes less important, and a new way of approaching attachment is formed. This new attachment is based on their peers and is a way of seeking independence from their parents. This newly formed independence is difficult at first, but the move away from their parents is important to developing fully their adult attachment type. The point is that adolescents rely on their social group and this has a large impact in the shaping of their personality, so we are missing a large part of the puzzle if we put all the responsibility on mothers or parents for their children’s behaviours in adulthood.

Getting our needs met

Attachment theory is all about relationships, and the adaptations we’ve made allow us to get our needs met in these relationships. The attachment type classification we have allows us to know the type of adaptation we’ve made. The adaptations we’ve subconsciously implemented as a child to get our needs met, may not be meeting our needs as an adult and in fact could be making our relationships more difficult. It is well known that healthy relationships have an impact on our physical and mental health.

Our early attachment relationships are critically important throughout our lives and can have a positive and/or a negative impact on our relationships.

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I believe our early attachment relationships are critically important throughout our lives and can have a positive and/or a negative impact on relationships during our lives. However, it is clear to me that while our early attachment relationships are important to develop our attachment type, these types aren’t cast in stone as they can change depending on the relationship or based on the work, we do to become more securely attached by becoming aware of our subconscious adaptations and changing our patterns. These changes in attachment types can also happen over a relatively short period of time. Attachment relationships can help us have resilience to deal with trauma and help us to find love and belonging.

How about you? What is your experience of relationships and can you see how attachments have shaped them?

Let us know in the comments below.

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