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How Our Attachment System Effects our Relationships

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

When I approach my work with couples and individuals, I consider the most fundamental aspects of who we are as human beings. Not necessarily what culture has instructed us to be or feel, but what our whole history as a species has taught us to require for our survival, which is connection.

Contributing Factors of Attachment

We all yearn for connection with others, community, family, intimate partners, yet we all move toward it with differing levels of comfort. These differing levels is what Attachment Theory seeks to delineate and explain. Our attachment system doesn’t stand alone, it is a byproduct of our temperament, nervous system, and the what and how of our experiences in our family of origin growing up. In particular, our family of origin contributes considerably to our view of ourselves and others. That mix, impart, begins to shape a basic tendency to respond in particular ways given relationship in general, and our specific experiences with significant partners in our lives.

Our Developing Attachment System

As infants, unable to care for ourselves we look to a competent protector, generally, a parent, to meet our needs. As we have known for well over half a century, beginning with the work of John Bowlby, a child’s need for emotional connection is as crucial to human development as physiological care.

The degree to which our caregivers were able to be available and responsive to our physical and emotional needs creates an environment of expectation of what we may or may not receive from others. These expectations, absent differing experiences, can be retained, non-consciously, into adulthood. As adults, we then meet our partners who have received perhaps a differing dose or type of attentiveness as children, which can then set up individuals, couples, and families for future relational challenges.

The work of Bowlby and later the ground-breaking research experiments conducted by Mary Ainsworth established three categories of attachment patterns. Since Anisworth’s original research a fourth pattern has been identified by Mary Main. The following four attachment patterns or styles are those we would find in adults.

  • Secure; comfort with addressing the needs of their partner, and asking the same of them. Demonstrates receiving responsive and attentive parenting. This creates non-conscious emotional safety; I trust that you will be there, and I’m comfortable being there for you.

  • Anxious; sometimes the term preoccupied accompanies this style, the individual has difficulty trusting that their partner/relationship is secure, requires continued reassurance. Denotes ambivalent parenting, at times present, and others not. Creates a non-conscious question; will you be there? Is this relationship solid?

  • Avoidant; often the term dismissive accompanies this style, typically emotionally guarded, valuing self-reliance over intimacy or relationship, great difficulty with vulnerability. Typically, the result of parenting that was mostly absent and/or critical. Internal regulation comes from denying emotional connection. Emotional trust is minimal.

  • Disorganized; is generally considered a hybrid of Anxious and Avoidant and trauma may play a role. The individual wants to be romantically close yet fears it, becoming highly sensitive to abandonment threats. They may often present in a ‘freeze’ state, where decisions can be difficult.

Differing Patterns and Conflict

It’s important to keep in mind that these are general descriptors and can be quite fluid depending on the attachment style of our partners. We may present a different pattern in differing relationships. For example, if we have a generally secure attachment pattern, and we enter a relationship with an avoidant partner, our normative requests for connection, rebuffed by our partner, may have us present, behaviorally, as an anxiously attached partner.

What brings many couples into therapy is two differing attachment patterns that contribute to the conflict. However, these patterns are not set in stone, we have agency and a neurology that is malleable. Working with a therapist versed in attachment theory, and becoming more aware of your relationship conditions (which may trigger an insecure response) is at the heart of beginning to rewrite the pattern. Understanding of one’s pattern and how it is likely pressured by our relationship can allow us to begin to make different behavioral choices.

In short, understanding our attachment pattern and how it contributes to relational challenges, may initiate a different conversation with our partner. Perhaps, one where we develop greater curiosity about why we react disproportionately to a seemingly simple request, a bid for connection, or just holding hands.

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