Falling in love, getting to care for the person we call our partner, deciding to spend the rest of our days with them, living happily forever after are fairly common scenarios. While for some of us dreams come true and couple happiness is a life-long gift, for others things seem to never get better. Choosing the wrong person, obsessing over being abandoned by the one we love or worrying about being cheated on are also fairly common outcomes once the honey-moon period fades away. Why do some of us find it so hard to create and keep strong emotional bonds with partners, and only dream of that happy ever after? The answers might be in their childhood and the attachment type they developed in relation to their primary carer.
From Bowlby’s theory to Today’s research
John Bowlby was one of the first developmental psychologists to research the topic of attachment in young children, showing that their relationship with the main caregiver – usually a parent – impacts both their ability to form strong emotional bonds with other people, as well as their psycho-social development. According to his ideas, children need to feel safe and secure, and have her immediate needs met in order to develop harmoniously. It is a parent’s job to be there for the child, like a safe base the child can depart from and return to after going and exploring the environment. Observational studies led by Mary Ainsworth, as well as the studies of Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver expanded on Bowlby’s contribution, re-enforcing the idea that the type of attachment a child develops to their main caregiver will impact their personality, behaviour and the nature of their interaction with other significant people in their lives, such as life partners in adulthood.
Types of attachment and types of relationships
Developmental psychologists believe there are two main types of attachment a child can develop in relation to a parent: secure and insecure (anxious avoidant and anxious ambivalent). Over half of the non-clinical population has a secure attachment, which allows people to develop relatively harmonious relationships with others and enjoy long-lasting, soul-nurturing relationships. Psychologists argue this is because their main caregiver was present, sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs, providing the child with a safe base for exploration and helping the child to regulate their emotions when distressed. These type of children will become adults who will be able to rely on themselves as well as on others for having their needs satisfied, meeting the other mid-way and building an equal, fair and healthy couple.
On the other hand, children whose parents were absent, non-responsive and/or distracted may grow with an anxious ambivalent attachment model. As adults, they will often seem cold, uninvolved, distant and uncaring, forming a couple with partners who are demanding and in constant need of attention. There will be serious struggles, but the couple can survive for a very long time due to the maladaptive mechanisms behind it. Being scared of being hurt again, anxious avoidant people will look for a partner who seems the opposite of their parent (present, over-reacting and over-responsive). Sometimes, that means ending up in controlling relationships, with no potential for personal expression and growth.
Finally, the anxious ambivalent model refers to the children whose parents were somehow caring, but not enough and constant in their responsiveness. Leading a busy life, being depressed or just too distracted by their phone, parents teach their children that they are not a priority to them. Only high amounts of displayed distress would entice a response, which will make these children grow up as anxious ambivalent, in need of permanent reassurance. Therefore, they want to be with their partner all the time, are clingy, possessive, unable to feel complete in the absence of their loved one, always worrying that they would be left. Their relationships have many highs and lows, and are often full of drama and intimacy struggles.
The bad news is that there is no such thing as perfect parenting, and the attachment model a child develops is beyond their control. The good news is that an attachment model is not for life and, once understood, can be deconstructed and re-constructed to open a door of opportunities for personal growth and happy relationships. As children, adults and parents, we can make the lives of those we love and well as our own lives better by understanding who we are and why. If you would like to start your journey towards a happier and healthier way of relating and being, we are here for you. Please get in touch and let us help.