How early parent-child relationships affect adult romantic relationships.
Our early experiences with those closest to us shape how we understand the nature of relationships. During these early years, we develop our attachment style. Attachment style influences who we fall in love with, how we behave in romantic relationships, and even how the relationship ends.
As we grow, the level of security that feel in our most important relationships, the tactics that we develop to get our needs met, and the coping strategies that we apply to manage our strongest feelings all strongly affect the attachment style that we develop.1
Secure vs Insecure Attachment Styles
If our parents or main caregivers responded to our needs in predictable and supportive ways while we were growing up, we were likely to develop a secure attachment style.2 Secure attachment is the result of our understanding that we were worthy of love and we can depend on those around us for support.
In contrast, if we had unpredictable, emotionally unavailable, or even hostile caregivers, we were likely to develop an insecure attachment style.
Insecure-anxious or Insecure-avoidant
Those with an insecure attachment style usually fall into one of two categories: insecure-anxious or insecure-avoidant.
Individuals with an insecure-anxious attachment style tend to need constant reassurance from their partners. They fear abandonment and can have difficulties trusting that they are loved and worthy of love. Insecure-anxious people have difficulty managing their emotions on their own. They feel emotions intensely. When upset, upset they need help from others in order to feel better.
Those with an insecure-avoidant attachment style use the opposite kind of behavior as a coping strategy in relationships. Avoidant individuals suppress their emotions and seek distance. Contrary to what it looks like, the avoidant seeks distance in order to maintain connection in their relationship. Many avoidant individuals have learned that being vulnerable and seeking closeness will drive people away. They may also become uncomfortable when others get too emotionally close as it is not something they are used to. This can, for obvious reasons, cause difficulties in romantic relationships.
The underlying rationale for the behavior of both insecure-anxious and insecure-avoidant is the same, to maintain closeness in the relationship, but the expression in behavior is different.
The Influence of Past Trauma on Attachment Style
From an evolutionary standpoint, developing a relationship with the primary caregiver is the most essential task. A child needs this relationship for survival.
During childhood we are especially hardwired for connection and closeness. Beyond the need for food and material sustenance, infants and children are just not biologically mature enough to cope with strong emotions such as fear and deep sadness that come from a lack of support and connection with an adult. As a result, children need the adults in our lives to do more than just take care of physical needs. As babies, toddlers, children, and adolescents we need adults to provide emotional support and comfort when we are afraid or upset.3
In the case of abusive or neglectful caregivers, the child is faced with an unresolvable dilemma that stems from the fact that the caregiver is both a source of comfort and fear. As the child grows into adulthood, they have difficulty trusting in relationships. Moreover, adults with a history of trauma often seek out partners who feel familiar. As a result, many of these adult relationships are unhealthy and possibly abusive.
Can your attachment style change?
If you know your attachment style is insecure, or if you seem to be attracted to abusive or unavailable partners, you can take steps to change. Attachment styles are not permanent and can be altered depending on your ongoing experience with relationships.
Working with a therapist can help you build the skills to manage your own emotions. A therapist can help you develop healthy coping strategies based on your own strengths. When you have security within yourself, you are then able to develop security in your relationships. The good news is that it all starts with you.
You can develop the changes within yourself to bring about your own wellbeing. This is an empowered approach and allows you to take control of how you feel rather than being dependent on those who may or may not show up when you need them. When you develop your own strength and security you can also develop secure and healthy relationships.
- Feeney, J. A., & Noller, P. (1990). Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 281.
- Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.
- Purnell, C. (2010). Childhood trauma and adult attachment. Healthcare Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal, 10(2), 1-7.