Attachment. You’ve heard about it right? How you and your partner can have a better, more fulfilling relationship by learning about your attachment styles and how they mesh (or don’t as the case may be).

But attachment isn’t just for the romantically involved.

Attachment affects our social and emotional wellbeing — our confidence, our ability to get on with others, even our ability to identify a career path.

How can attachment be that important?

Attachment is designed to help us survive.

It helps us relate to our caregivers and by doing so ensures that we remain in proximity to those who are able to feed, protect and soothe us. Not only that, but our attachment behavior elicits these caring behaviors in our parents and helps generate a lasting bond that influences our early development.

Infancy and Attachment

Before we are born, we are already absorbing information from our environment. Our mother’s mental state and emotional wellbeing have a big influence on our development — even at this early stage.

Obviously a mother’s physical wellbeing impacts the growing child, but if she is stressed, unsupported or anxious, this will also influence the child’s early environment through the presence of stress hormones in the blood which pass through the placental wall.

People with a history of insecure attachment will be more vulnerable to mental illness and other problems in later life.

We learn who we are through our early attachments. We also learn how to relate and what to expect of relationships. If we don’t receive adequate mirroring and attunement in infancy we don’t learn to value ourselves and in some cases, we might never learn who we are at all.

We are not born perfectly formed.

Our nervous system and our brain develop in concert with our primary caregiver (usually, but not always our mother). This relationship allows us to experience the world safely.

As we grow, we learn and explore, getting to know ourselves and our environment. This important experience-dependent development sets up structures and pathways that influence our wellbeing over the lifespan. But sometimes things don’t go so well. Our mother is stressed or unwell, anxious or unsupported. In some cases, parents might have a history of trauma that has never been resolved. These factors will all influence the attachment relationship. The more we are ignored as infants, forced into unwanted interactions or left to manage our own distress, the more we will lose ourselves.

Babies are exquisitely sensitive to the mood and mental state of their caregivers.

A parent with unresolved trauma may unwittingly transfer the intense affect associated with the trauma through eye contact, facial expression and patterns of interaction. An infant who is being parented by someone with a history of unresolved trauma will be left at the mercy of disorganizing states. They will be far too much for the developing nervous system.

The more sensitive the child, the more they are at risk. Premature infants are especially vulnerable.

Sometimes infants and young children will learn to cope with these states by splitting off from the experience, leading to the use of dissociation as a coping mechanism later on. Because these experiences often come at a time before we have language, they are not remembered, but remain with us, affecting our sense of ourselves and our ability to relate to others. We will sometimes be left with a felt sense of ourselves as being “unlovable” and with ongoing, chronic and unconscious shame.

Although this sounds dire, reparative experiences of attachment can help us grow and resolve our trauma. These experiences can come through therapy, but they can also come through stable, intimate relationships where we can feel safely held and nurtured and experience ourselves as worthy of compassion and love, perhaps for the first time.