How to understand adult attachment. Firstly, let me explain what I mean by attachment.
For over 70 years, it has been recognised that how we form emotional bonds begins in early childhood. Attachment Theory was first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950’s, where he stated that the way we form these bonds is directly correlated to the way we experience relationships at an early age, from birth in fact. And the process of developing healthy emotional relationships is a key factor in attaining happiness and improving quality of life.
A healthy relationship between a child and their caregiver lays the foundations of healthy attachments throughout the life of an individual. And that means the opposite is also true, an unhealthy attachment can lead to a life of disconnected, chaotic and relationships that never reach the level of connectedness and meaning that they could. These may show in difficulty forming attachments, struggles to maintain close relationships and may have problems with commitment.
A significant amount of the world’s population, around 40% have what is called an insecure attachment. There is no significant difference between race, religion, geographical location or cultural background.
A negative attachment in childhood doesn’t always lead to an unhealthy attachment in adult life, as an individual’s brain will dictate the best response to their environment. If it decided that you were still secure despite your surroundings then you can still develop something secure. On the flip side, you could have been brought up in a loving, caring environment and still struggle to connect in adult life.
An example of this was a client of my own. She grew up in a loving family and had string bonds with her parents, but they also loved each other deeply. When they showed each other affection she felt left out and unloved and felt she needed to chase affection. This led to her developing an insecure attachment that she played out in adult life.
However, children that live what is termed as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) – such as severe trauma, neglect and abuse, will have an adverse attachment and in some cases, this will lead to disordered personalities:
- Dependent Personality Disorder
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Avoidant Personality Disorder
Types of attachment
- Insecure: anxious, avoidant, anxious/avoidant (disorganised).
As a child this person generally receives love, support, encouragement, positive feedback, time and consideration. They attach securely, knowing that whatever happen there is someone to show them affection and soothes their mind when difficulties arise.
As adults they feel comfortable and confident being close to people and don’t over analyse or react to situations they are unhappy with.
When was faced with difficult relationship situations as a child they would have felt very insecure and exhibited the need to act out in order to receive attention – unable to control their emotions due to the distress they experienced. This could be seen as tantrums, crying uncontrollably, clinginess etc.
As adults they are unable to regulate their emotional responses and will have a tendency to chase affection in order to create security within themselves. The idea of rejection creates anxiety and over reaction – they may seem as though they enjoy ‘drama’ in their lives.
They could be distant at the beginning of relationships in order to see if it is safe for them to give, but if connection is then removed, they chase it, whether it is good for them or not (my client example above).
The brain decides the best way to deal with pain as a child is to shut it down, retreat into your own space and avoid any situation that is likely to lead to loss.
As adults, in the early stages of relationships they can be full on and 110% committed, but then retreat when they reach their threshold of commitment. They want the love and affection and connection, but don’t know how to manage it when it reaches a deeper level.
This is the most chaotic of the insecure types of attachment and is generally caused by ACE’s. The child craves connection (emotional security), but the primary caregiver creates insecurity within them. Gives love at times, but abuses, neglects at other times. They could witness domestic violence against someone else in the family and then become scared of the person they see as responsible for their safety.
(This is the type of attachment that is more likely to lead to the attachment disorders mentioned earlier).
Other Impacts of Insecure Attachment
In adults, attachment can do more than disrupt relationships. Several studies have linked attachment disorders to other physical, mental, and social problems.
- Alexithymia: Difficult to identify, express, or even experience emotions. They may come across as being cold and distant, which increases their difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.
- Depression and anxiety: Patients with attachment disorders tend to internalise emotions. Unresolved attachment was found to have a significant association with depression and anxiety due to emotional dysregulation.
- Addiction: Breakdown of attachment generally tends to go with addiction, as addiction can be seen as a self-isolating response. Alcohol consumption/drug use serve as an emotional coping strategy for adults with attachment disorders.
- Eating disorders: There is a strong association between insecure attachment and various types of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. This is attributed to self-identity issues and self-blame.
As you can see, if someone is unable to attach securely as a child, it can have lasting life impacts that mean they are unable to experience the healthiest and most connected relationships possible. At its worse, it can lead to certain attachment disorders, depression and even addictions.
There are other factors that go into being able to live healthy relationships, such as relational patterns and relationship beliefs, but I will leave those for another day.
Attachment is not a fixed space and can be worked through with the right type of support and guidance. Interpersonal Relationship Coaching (IRC) helps you to understand these traits within yourself (and others), move on from them and enable you to experience the quality relationships that you want in your life.