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How Your Early Life Experiences Appear In Your Relationships

Throughout your journey to find love, you may have picked up on some of your negative traits, such as not being able to trust or needing to be constantly validated. You may be aware of these things but you might not be able to put your finger on why these traits are present or why they are difficult to change.


The answers you need may lie in the work of two psychologists - John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.


Bowlby and Ainsworth worked to understand the distress that children experience when their primary caregivers leave them alone.


At first, Bowlby created the Attachment Theory, which is a theory that focuses on relationships and bonds between parents and children and between romantic partners. This theory is based on a motivational system, called the attachment behavioral system, which gives rise to the bond between parents and their children and asks the fundamental question: “Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive?”


This attachment behavioral system is responsible for the bond that develops between adults in emotionally intimate relationships as well.


Early life experiences with our caregivers and the trauma some of us may have experienced in childhood can impact our relationships in adulthood as emotional bonds develop in early life. Our views of human connection can be impacted and altered if the people we depend on for survival hurt us or aren’t present.


To account for the individual differences in the attachment patterns in Bowlby’s system and the bonds between child and parent, Mary Ainsworth conducted the “strange situation” study, which resulted in the identification of major styles of attachment.


The types of attachment we have with our parents are important because our adult bonds tend to mirror those we first establish with primary caregivers. Our early attachment styles can help us understand patterns of behavior in adulthood and relationships.


These attachment styles include:


1. Secure Attachment

The secure attachment style is thought of as the most common. Children with this style of attachment typically show distress when separated from their parents or caregiver. Although upset when separated, these children likely feel assured that their caregiver will return and greet their parents with joy or other positive emotions when reunited. They will also feel comfortable seeking reassurance from their caregiver when frightened and prefer their parents to strangers.


Parents of children with a secure attachment bond tend to respond quickly to the needs of their children and play with their children more often. They are also generally more responsive to their children than parents of insecure children.


In adult relationships, individuals with a secure attachment style tend to feel safe, stable, and confident that their partner will be there for them. The trusting and lasting relationships they can form allow them to seek comfort and support from their partner while not getting overly anxious when apart. They are open to being depended on and depending on others, but not being entirely dependent. They appreciate their own self-worth and are able to be themselves in their relationships.


People with this type of attachment are usually comfortable sharing their feelings, hopes and needs, as well as seeking social support and help when necessary. They have the ability to maintain the balance of their emotions and find healthy ways to deal with any conflict that may arise in their relationships. Since they are secure and resilient, they are also able to take responsibility for their actions and mistakes.


The secure attachment bond formed in their early life experiences enables them to be self-confident, trusting, hopeful, comfortable in the face of conflict, and have high self-esteem.


2. Ambivalent or Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

Children with an ambivalent style of attachment become distressed when their parent or caregiver leaves, but they do not appear comforted or reassured when their parent returns. These children are also likely to be suspicious of strangers.


This may be a result of an inconsistency in their caregiver’s parenting style. At times their parents may have been attentive and responsive to their needs while at other times unavailable. This inconsistency and poor parental availability can prevent children from being able to depend on their primary caregiver to be there when needed. It can also lead them to feel anxious and/or uncertain about if their needs will be met.


These feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are also quite common in adults.


Adults with ambivalent attachment types worry that their needs in the relationship will not be met. They may also worry about whether their partner reciprocates feelings or loves them completely. These worries may appear as a need to be constantly validated and reassured, resulting in others criticizing them for being too ‘needy’ or ‘clingy’. This can cause issues in maintaining romantic relationships and can lead to frequent breakups. The ending of these relationships can be particularly hard for them as they tend to become distraught.


Adults with this style of attachment desire intimacy and closeness with their romantic partners but struggle to trust them or rely on them. They may also have a significant fear of abandonment and may view space or boundaries as a threat. This can result in controlling behavior or other manipulative tactics to keep their partner with them.

Perceiving threats to the relationships and needing to be continually validated may be an outcome of the lack of self-esteem these individuals have. Since their confidence tends to be low, much of their sense of self-worth comes from their relationship and how they are treated, which may be a reason why these adults overreact to any perceived threats.

Adults with ambivalent attachments are typically reluctant to become close to others, but once they do, the romantic relationship tends to consume their life and they become overly fixated on their partner.

3. Avoidant Attachment

With avoidant attachment, a child can exhibit avoidance of their parents, especially after a period of them being separated. These children may not seek contact or comfort from their caregivers and may not show a preference for their parents over strangers.


This style of attachment can form due to abusive or neglectful caregivers who may have been unavailable or rejecting in early life experiences.


Adults with an avoidant attachment type may feel uncomfortable with closeness and/or intimacy and may even avoid intimacy with excuses. They will be unwilling or unable to invest much emotion into their relationships since they may be uncomfortable with their emotions, thoughts, or feelings. This lack of emotional connection can result in their partners accusing them of being closed off or distant.


These adults highly value and crave their independence and freedom. They prefer not to be dependent on others or have others be too dependent on them. This value of independence may appear as a lack of care for close relationships and/or a feeling of not needing others. The want for a sense of independence and freedom can even lead these individuals to minimize their partner’s feelings, accusing their partner of being too needy, engaging in affairs, keeping secrets, or straight up ending the relationship. When these relationships do end, they tend to not feel much distress at all.


The fear of intimacy and desire for freedom will likely lead adults with avoidant attachment types to engage in casual hookups or prefer casual relationships to long-term intimate ones. If they do end up in a long-term relationship, it will most likely be with a partner who is equally independent and who will also be emotionally distant. Any time a partner tries to get close or is ‘too needy’, these adults will withdraw.


4. Disorganized Attachment

Children with a disorganized attachment style show a mix of behaviors in their actions and responses to their caregivers, such as being avoidant or resistant. They tend to lack a clear attachment pattern, most likely due to an inconsistent parent or caregiver. Their caregiver may serve as both a source of comfort and fear for the child leading to them feeling or behaving in a confused, disoriented, dazed, or apprehensive way.


The primary parent or caregiver of this child may have overlooked or ignored the needs of the child. The parent may also have been dealing with their own unresolved trauma leading to erratic or chaotic behavior that traumatized or led to an intense fear the child with this attachment type might feel. It is possible that by the time this child was about six years old, they took on the parental role or acted as a parent for their caregiver.


It is probable that their childhood was shaped by abuse, neglect, or trauma.


As adults, these individuals may feel that they do not deserve love, intimacy, or closeness. They may desire the attention, love, security, and safety of their romantic partner but avoid emotional intimacy or developing close relationships because they are terrified of getting hurt again. They may even find intimate relationships confusing, frightening, unsafe, or unsettling which can result in them jumping between feeling love and hate for their partner. A lack of or refusal to take responsibility for their actions can be a downfall to their relationships.


Adults with disorganized attachments may unconsciously try to replicate the abusive patterns or behaviors they may have experienced in childhood. They may abuse alcohol or drugs, become aggressive or violent, or display antisocial or negative behavior patterns, as stated by Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D. for Help Guide. These individuals may also be insensitive, untrusting, selfish, or controlling towards their partner, leading to explosive or abusive behavior.


Our attachment styles can also affect our relationships in numerous, more general ways as well:


Communication

The way we communicate in our relationships can mirror the communication we were exposed to as a child. Some examples of communication styles that you may have experienced as a child, given by Hilary I. Lebow, and medically reviewed by Lori Lawrenz, Psy.D. for PsychCentral include:

Passive: indirect, self-denying, or apologetic

Passive-aggressive: emotionally dishonest and self-enhancing at the expense of others

Aggressive: inappropriate for some situations, blaming, controlling, direct, and attacking

If you experienced trauma in your childhood, this may also impact the way you communicate with others as an adult as well.


Trauma Reenactment

As humans, we are subconsciously drawn to the familiar, which some people refer to as the repetition dynamic in relationships. We may choose relationships that mimic or reinforce patterns, behaviors, and attachments learned or developed in childhood.


Often, this is a defense mechanism to stay within our comfort zone and fulfill our negative beliefs that we are not good enough or deserving of love. Other times, it can be an attempt to heal through similar challenges or act from a place of self-worth and confront our limiting beliefs.


Although your attachment style as a child may not directly connect to your attachment style now, it may help you understand how you establish or avoid intimacy. Attachment styles are typically out of our control, but there are aspects that can be worked on and overcome. Although some people may feel that they do not need to have close relationships, in all reality, we are hardwired as humans for connection but we just need to work on overcoming the fears or trauma from our early life experiences.


Some ways to improve our situation or overcome/resolve the trauma or fears from our early life experiences include:

  • Psychotherapy or psychology-based programs such as Inward

  • Inner work & awareness

  • Relationship care, such as sharing your traumatic experience or explaining why your childhood may be impacting your relationships, IF you are ready to share or feel that it is needed to help you heal.

  • Self-care, such as focusing on your diet, exercise, sleep, reflection, boosting your emotional intelligence, etc.

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