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April 3, 2020

How Childhood Experiences Affect Your Relationship Now

Relationship Attachment Theory

Many mushy metaphors about intimate relationships are cute but don’t explain how experiences in early childhood serve as building blocks for future relationships. Regardless of whether or not Mercury is in retrograde, some people tend to repeat relationship habits without noticing.

Attachment theory examines an individual’s childhood to understand the foundation for their experiences with relationships as adults. According to attachment theory, the bonds we make with our primary caregivers during infancy and early childhood shape the intimate relationships we have as adults.

Fundamental Relationship Assumptions

Mainstream music on the radio commonly refers to our innate need for love and affection. Humans are not capable of feeding and protecting themselves during childhood, they need constant care. Although over the years independence increases for most people, their core need for healthy relationships does not. Babies don’t need tutorials on how to cry or smile, they naturally engage in behaviors to draw attention from attachment figures that can feed and protect them during their childhood. Creating and maintaining an attachment with an attachment figure that provides a child with comfort and care sets the tone for how future relationships will be created and maintained. How sensitive a caregiver is to their child’s cries is also evolutionary adaptive.

The Relationship Attachment Behavior System

The attachment behavior system is like an internal control system which children use to monitor three key variables:

  1. Their internal states
  2. Their caregiver’s availability and responsiveness
  3. The presence of threats in the environment

This system serves as a guide to increase behaviors that maximize physical proximity to a caregiver and the feeling of security. Children with parents that respond to their needs are more likely to grow up and successfully reproduce. They feel safe from threat or harm and secure enough to explore their environment, whether that’s playing with toys or making friends. On the other hand, children that don’t react or behave in a way that ensures they will be taken care of during their childhood, or that have insensitive caregivers are less likely to successfully reproduce or have fulfilling relationships. When children feel their security is threatened, their fear and anxiety usually motivates them to try to restore closeness with their attachment figure. However, sometimes their fear and anxiety hyperactivates their attachment behavior system, leaving them terrified of abandonment. When children aren’t able to restore their relationship with their caregiver, their attachment behavior system deactivates the usual behaviors and reactions they use to get the attention and care they need. This further hinders their drive to restore closeness with their caregiver. Ideally, a reunion with their primary caregiver will occur and anxiety levels will return to normal and the cycle will reset.

Relationship Attachment Models

There are two main ways children can be programmed depending on how their caregivers treated them. Infants with responsive caregivers who are consistently warm and sensitive, especially when infants are upset, grow up believing they are worthy of love and attention, and that people are generally caring and dependable. Infants with inconsistent or harsh caregivers that are controlling, unpredictable, or overly intrusive when infants are upset, grow up believing they are unworthy of attention and affection and that caregivers are not dependable or trustworthy. Experiences with caregivers during our childhood pile up to create a working model in us. This working model is like an internal psychological structure which represents subconscious and conscious beliefs, expectations, and how people feel about themselves, others, and relationships. Think about the relationships you have seen. There have been connections found between how people relate to their partners and how they relate to their children. This supports that the attachment behavior system in intimate relationships and caregiver-child relationships are the same. Internal working models link childhood experiences with caregivers to adult romantic relationships.

The bridge to adulthood that most people walk on is full of fog, which causes a shift in their perspective, especially, in priorities. The focus of attachment is less on parental figures and more on a romantic partner. We rely less on physical proximity as we paint a mental picture of who people are and what they mean to us. Technology helps with this by providing us with physical pictures of a romantic partner, which reminds us of the intimate bond and comforts us when we want to see them but can’t. Internal working models continue learning and we adapt according to new experiences in relationships, which continue affecting subsequent relationships. The domino effect is a good way to visualize how good or bad experiences in relationships affect future relationships. For example, getting lied to or cheated on in a long-term relationship can shift a secure person to being more insecure about future relationships. The good news is, this means an insecure person who is blessed with an unconditionally supportive and understanding partner can shift to being more secure about future relationships.

Working models rely on existing information to frame new information. For example, an insecure individual usually believes they are unlovable and may never have a happy fulfilling relationship after a relationship fails, while a secure individual usually attributes the relationship failure to external factors, like bad timing and more easily accepts a lack of chemistry with someone. Working models regulate the expression and resolution of attachment needs.

Two key functions of the attachment behavior system result in precise differences in how individuals desire and prefer closeness in intimate relationships. The first function allows individuals to detect threats in the environment; feelings of anxiety cause children to seek closeness to their caregiver. When children have constant exposure to an inattentive parent who unavailable, or inconsistent and unpredictable, they develop internal working models which result in chronic anxiety, insecurity, and sensitivity to rejection and abandonment. Such experiences may result in a low sense of self-worth and doubts about deserving love.

The second function is about whether or not an individual believes their caregiver is available and how likely an individual will turn toward or away from other loved ones when distressed. Usually when children get anxious, they turn toward their caregiver unless they are used to rejection from that caregiver. Instead, that child will have a perspective that warns against trusting others, against attaching, and ultimately lead to unsatisfactory relationships.

Four Broad Attachment Styles

According to attachment theory, the two main ways adults are different is measured by two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance. A tendency with anxiety about perceived threats to the attachment relationship by a child corresponds with a negative self-view. Another tendency is for avoidance of anxiety about attachment, which corresponds with a pretty negative view of others.

Think of Internal working models about attachments as a coin with two different sides. Anxiety, with generalized beliefs about one’s value and self-worth is represented by one side. The other side represents avoidance and generalized beliefs about the dependability and trustworthiness of others to meet one’s needs. Combinations of these two different dimensions result in four broad attachment styles: secure, preoccupied, dismissing, and fearful. About 60% of people have a secure attachment style and the rest have different variations of the three insecure attachment styles. Around 70% of people have stable attachment styles throughout their lives.

Which Attachment Style Do You Identify With?

Humans are motivated to seek comfort and closeness through relationships with others.

According to evolution, attachment styles are not optional. They are, however, generally stable across different relationships over a lifetime, with the exception of disrupting and difficult life events like death of a caregiver, chronic illness of a caregiver, and experiences involving intimacy and trust during adolescence. We are all affected by our nature and the way we are nurtured. Research shows the same findings about attachment styles and attachment behaviors for same-sex and different-sex couples. A “secure” person will not focus on problems in their relationships or be as agitated discussing those perceived problems like an “insecure” person will. When experiencing relationship conflict, a “secure” person’s view of the relationship is less likely to change than an “insecure” person’s view, which is likely to be very negative while experiencing relationship conflict. A “secure” person is likely to directly communicate their needs in a relationship while a “highly avoidant” person, seeking an intimate relationship will be more indirect. Ironically, “insecure” people have a tendency to perceive more threats and have excessive concerns about their relationships and escalate conflict, which lowers the chances of a relationship succeeding. Some people seem hardwired to “easily” navigate human intimacy but in the end, we are all yearn for comfort and closeness, we just have different approaches to reaching our goals in intimate relationships.

Note: For this self-check, keep in mind that “anxiety” refers to how much people worry about whether or not other will provide them with care and “avoidance” refers to how much people seek others or keep to themselves.

Secure Attachment Style

  • Low attachment related anxiety
  • Low attachment related avoidance
  • Positive view of self
  • Positive view of others
  • Feel worthy of other’s love
  • Confident others will be responsible and dependable

Preoccupied Attachment Style

  • High attachment related anxiety
  • Low attachment related avoidance
  • Negative view of self
  • Positive view of others
  • Depend on love from others to reassure, and validate who they are through attention, e.g. rejection leads to doubting self-worth)
  • Confident others will be caring and dependable

Dismissing attachment style

  • Low attachment related anxiety
  • Low attachment related avoidance
  • Positive view of self
  • Negative view of others
  • Deny need for closeness and intimate relationships, avoid closeness, and belittle its importance to maintain a positive self-view and negative view of others
  • Not confident others will be caring and dependable
  • Value independence and self-sufficiency

Fearful attachment style

  • High attachment related anxiety
  • Low attachment related avoidance
  • Negative view of self
  • Negative view of others
  • Feel unworthy of care and consideration from others
  • Seeks validation from others
  • Confident others will be responsible and dependable
  • Expect pain and rejection from relationships
  • Avoid intimacy and expected discomfort in relationships

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