Understanding relationship attachment styles – why our childhood affects our adult relationships

Understanding relationship attachment styles - why our childhood affects our adult relationships

Every child needs to know they are loved. So how we interact as children with our parents and caregivers has a hugely significant influence on who we become as adults.

In fact, what someone thinks of as their character traits and what others see as their characteristics may not really be their real self at all. What is seen as someone’s traits are frequently actually coping mechanisms that they’ve developed in childhood and then continued with throughout their adult lifetime.

“It’s not a conscious choice; it’s more an automatic decision the young self makes to stay afloat in stressful emotional waters,” explains physician, author and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté. “Through no conscious will of your own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with your own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time, you have developed a personality style that has turned out to be bad for your health in the long run.”

Trauma, toxic shame and a failure of love

Failure of love

That is it’s bad for your mental health as well as your physical wellbeing. It will always cause internal conflict that can show as depression, anxiety or addiction if how you are is different from who you’re meant to be.

Much of recovery is about this, finding the real person again. This is why in fact it’s called recovery. It is recovering the real person as they were made before various negative things happened that had various negative impacts.

This is such as trauma or toxic shame that caused someone to develop new ways to be – so they could cope and survive. Psychiatrist and author Dr. Peter Breggin actually thinks there is one thing behind every mental disorder – what he terms a “failure of love”.

“Unlike most creatures, we humans are born with an essentially fetal brain, which leaves us totally dependent upon others,” says Dr. Breggin. “Nurturing in the first few years of life guides the development and expression of our social nature and our power as a species to survive and to thrive, and lack of that nurturing leads to psychological and social impairments.”

What are the four attachment styles?

Attachment styles

One of the most basic and essential parts of life is our interaction with others. It is no wonder that our childhood years shape how we are in our relationships.

Many mental health and relationship experts believe our attachment styles are formed depending on how as children we interact with our parents and/or significant caregivers. Psychotherapist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) formed certain theories about love that are the roots of today’s understanding of this. 

Then in the 1950s, psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990) started looking extensively into relationships. He identified four types of distinct attachment styles that arise as a result of our childhood experiences.

These are still used by mental health and relationship experts to help people today. They are:

Secure Attachment

If a child feels certain they will remain safely loved because someone is always there for them, they are likely to form loving relationships when they reach adulthood. As a child they see that their needs will be met, their emotions recognized and validated.

So they form the idea that they will always be loved and that in general people are trustworthy. They feel secure, so they will form long-term healthy relationships without fear of abandonment.

Anxious Attachment

Also referred to as ambivalent attachment, anxious-preoccupied, or ambivalent-anxious, this attachment style comes about when a child has an inconsistent parenting pattern. That is, one day a parent (or both parents) is there for them – but the next day the parent or parents are in some way absent and not there for them.

This leaves them anxious as to which type of care they are going to get for their needs. To cope, they will continually seek approval from their parents and they will develop a fear of being abandoned. In adulthood, this means they are often extremely needy in their relationships, constantly feeling unloved, and are unlikely to be very trusting.

Avoidant Attachment

This is an attachment style that forms due to a child having unmet needs as they grew up. So there was rarely or never an adult around to listen to their emotions, validate how they felt, or show them love.

In adulthood, they cope with this by avoiding relationships – and this can include subconsciously sabotaging any relationship that starts to develop or that has progressed to a certain point that they feel is getting too intimate. This is often due to the fear of abandonment again and the negative feelings that would come back to remind them of being a child who was not properly cared for or loved.

They are often fiercely independent. But they will almost certainly not be in a romantic relationship and in fact frequently spend time alone.

Disorganized Attachment

This is a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles. It forms because a child’s parents become a source of fear rather than the source of safe wellbeing they should have been.

So people with the Disorganized Attachment style do not really know what to do regarding relationships. Usually, they desperately want to love and feel loved. But they are afraid to let anyone get too close. There is an overwhelming fear that those who are closest to them could also hurt them.

Thankfully, there are proven successful methods to move on from any problematic relationship style. Anyone is capable of having a loving and healthy functional relationship, romantic or otherwise.

As a family-run recovery center, everybody who chooses to spend time with us in our home here is seen as one of the family. We fully understand how vital it is for recovery to have a supportive, calm, and loving environment.

So Tikvah Lake – right by the most beautiful tranquil lake – is fortunate to be in an idyllic perfect natural setting to enhance wellbeing. In Florida, we’re also lucky enough to have sunshine virtually every day all year.

Our expert team has decades of expertise in looking after and guiding people with all emotional problems and mental health conditions. Call us today to have a chat about how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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