Our childhood experience with attachment is the map of how we navigate relationships. As little human beings, we are under the care and influence of our caretakers. Our relationships with our caretakers programmed us to be secure or insecure in our primary relationships.
Poor or disrupted attachment can come not only from big significant traumas (abuse or neglect) but can also come from small, subtle and repeated events that are developmentally devastating. As children, we absorbed the energy around us. So if we were around anxiety, chaos, anger, depression, neglect, or distressed all the time, then it becomes ingrained in our brains. It becomes our “normal” and it is something that we subconsciously seek in relationships. This is what we are familiar with therefore this is where we want to be in. Although we know that this is not good for us, it is also what is comfortable because it is familiar.
So can we change this?
Yes, and it starts with being aware. Understanding our story and what happened to us in our past can help answer the questions that we have about why we end up in unfulfilling relationships repeatedly. Communicating our needs effectively with no threats, shame, force or manipulation can help us and our partners achieve peace in the relationship. And also respecting each other’s vulnerabilities and being there to support our partners.
People with a disrupted early attachment may have these problems:
- an inconsistent sense of self
- trouble identifying feelings and wants
- poor affect regulation
- low self-esteem, to the point of holding themselves to be worthless
- poor relational skills, including lack of assertiveness
- either volatile or low-intimacy relationships or no relationships
- either over responsibility or no ability to feel responsible in relational conflicts
- codependence, putting everyone else’s needs first
Reference: Robin Shapiro’s The Trauma Treatment Handbook
Here are the Attachment Styles of Relating (from the book, Wired for Love by Dr. Stan Tatkin):
- Anchors – easygoing, unencumbered by fears of abandonment or loss of autonomy. They are collaborative and cooperative by nature and they’re comfortable with physical and emotional intimacy. They can maintain their closeness for extended periods without getting anxious. These individuals had secure relationships with their primary caregivers and they’re able to bring an acquired sense of security into their adult relationships.
- Islands – individuals who have a hard time staying connected to their long term romantic partners (AKA avoidant attachment style in Psychology term). These are independent people who are highly creative and accomplished adults. But they usually feel trapped in primary romantic relationships, especially when the going gets tough. They will rather be alone because they fear being subsumed by the other person’s wants and needs. These people are threatened by conflicts and drama, they’re more likely to withdraw, keep secrets, and fear being exposed by partners. Islands often want to close relationships but are afraid of the responsibilities of another person. They fear of being needed but not really wanted. Their defensiveness is largely unconscious, driven by the conditioning of their nervous systems and brains.
- Waves – deeply desire connection with a partner. They’re usually generous people and passionate but they don’t believe in true intimacy. They think it is not possible to be truly intimate with another person because they are afraid of abandonment, withdrawal, rejection, and punishment which they experienced before and still hurt from it (because they haven’t processed this unresolved issue or past). The primary issue for them is that they are “angry resistant”, they want to hope but they are not hopeful. It’s a roller coaster ride for them. They tend to cling to their companions while also behaving in ways that can be hostile and distancing. Separation and reunions may trigger pushing their partners away, even as they want connection. And this is all rooted from their fear of what they want the most: a truly intimate relationship.
It’s never too late! It starts with awareness and then doing the hardest part – communication. Communication is key to healthy relationships. A lot of times, the person in the relationship does not feel safe to talk to their significant other because they do not know how (due to years of not communicating effectively). A third party can help. A couple’s therapist can help mediate a tough conversation between individuals so that the communication is productive and effective instead of blaming, shaming and yelling at each other.