How Childhood Attachment Styles Influence Your Adult Relationships

A mother monkey holds her baby lovingly

If you have noticed that your intimate relationships have been stressful or unfulfilling, it might be time to think about your attachment style. Attachment style derives from your earliest experiences with your parents.

Knowing the effects these parenting styles have on you as a child helps you better understand the roots of potential relationship issues, and where to begin when addressing these issues — whether on your own, or with the help of a therapist.

The Two Types of Attachment

There are two main types of attachment: secure and insecure.

Secure attachment explained

A securely attached baby knows that their parents are involved and caring. There is a healthy balance between comfort, affection, independence, and exploration. For instance, a securely attached baby will play with an interesting toy, but then crawl back to her mother for comfort when she is tired.

Secure attachment is created by a parent who is confident in expressing love, and also confident about allowing their child to explore their environment. A securely attached child learns that the world is a safe and friendly place, and that loved ones can be trusted to give you space, but also to provide you with nurturance and closeness.

As an adult in an intimate relationship, a securely attached person will be trusting and open, able to give their partner space while being confident that their partner will return to them. They will not be excessively jealous or distant, which are both hallmarks of insecurity.

Insecure attachment explained

Within insecure attachment, there are two subtypes: preoccupied and avoidant.

Preoccupied insecure attachment

People with preoccupied attachment had parents who could not be counted upon to give love and comfort when needed. They showed love, but only when it was convenient for them. At other times, they could act cold, distant, or even abusive. Parents with narcissism or borderline personality disorder often foster preoccupied attachment in their children. Kids with preoccupied attachment learn to be hypervigilant around their parents, trying to be present in case a loving moment happens, while keeping their guard up in case they end up getting hurt.

In adulthood, preoccupied individuals act jealous and clingy with their significant others. They struggle with trust and can act smothering and intrusive within intimate relationships. They are trying to make up for their childhood, where their parent’s love was unpredictable. Now, in adulthood, they want to control their partner and ensure that they are always present. As you can imagine, this often ends up pushing partners away, which makes the preoccupied partner even more anxious.

Avoidant insecure attachment

On the other end of the insecure attachment spectrum is avoidant attachment. Children with avoidant attachment learn that their parents cannot be relied upon for emotional sustenance at all. These parents are consistently cold, distant, or even neglectful or abusive. These kids learn that it is unsafe to rely upon others for emotional closeness, and they become extremely independent at an early age.

As adults, those with avoidant attachment have great difficulty with expressing need or vulnerability. They find it almost impossible to rely on anyone, or to ask for their needs to be met. This can be very frustrating for their romantic partners, who yearn for a closer connection than the avoidant partner may feel comfortable providing. Avoidant partners often cheat, or date many people simultaneously. Anything to avoid feeling dependent on one person, who they subconsciously fear will disappoint them as their parents did.

Mental Health Challenges Can Create Parental Distance

Parents of both types of insecurely attached people are not bad or ill-intentioned. They did not try to be distant or unpredictable. They love their children and may have been struggling with issues such as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, addiction, or trauma histories of their own.

They may have been overwhelmed by the demands of parenting, or in marriages that did not provide them with the emotional support that they needed. No matter the reason, it still stands that they were unable to give their children the secure love that they needed, and this has an impact long past childhood.

What to do if You’re Insecure in Your Attachment Style

If you recognize yourself or your partner in the above insecure attachment descriptions, you may want to consider therapy. If you recognize one, you likely recognize both, as avoidant and preoccupied individuals are typically drawn to one another and exacerbate each other’s attachment issues.. Additionally, reading up on attachment, such as the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, can provide you with important insight into yourself and your relationships.

It can be very illuminating to discuss your upbringing with a therapist, and to finally understand the root of whatever unfulfilling relationship patterns you exhibit.

 
relationships blog purchase CTA
 

Published by

Dr. Samantha Rodman

Clinical Psychologist