Valentine’s Day is once again upon us, and for those who struggle with intimate relationships, it can be an unwelcome reminder of our limitations in love. Whether you are in a relationship, recovering from one that has just ended or looking for one, attachment theory might help you understand your relationship patterns and how they came about.
Attachment theory demonstrates how childhood experiences with our primary caregivers are likely affecting our relationships in adulthood. As babies, we unconsciously and intuitively seek attachment with our caregivers in order to survive. “Am I safe? Can I trust the world around me?” We unconsciously seek answers to these questions as we start interacting with the world around us. Growing up, we automatically adapt to pre-existing patterns of relating in our family of origin so as to optimize our chances of survival. So, for instance, if my parent is warm and generally attuned to my needs as an infant, I’m going to unconsciously develop the belief that I am safe. If, however, my parent fails to meet my emotional needs for whatever reason, I will adapt by damping or cutting myself off from needing. These early relationship experiences shape our brain and prime us for what to expect from future relationships
Developmental behavioral scientist Regina Sullivan explains that the social interactions and sensory stimulation between a child and their caregivers shapes the brain, for better or for worse, depending on the quality of their experiences. Furthermore, as researchers Levine and Heller explain, we later seek similar forms of physical and physiological closeness with our romantic partners as we received in childhood, because our brains have defined attachment through those early sensory experiences. Lastly, researchers have also found that genes and later life experiences can affect the way we connect with people in ways that can change our attachment styles.
Let’s look into the attachment styles:
Securely attached – People with a secure attachment style generally feel safe to explore the world, build relationships and commit to people. It is easy for them to be in an intimate relationship, and to communicate needs and wants to a partner. Securely attached individuals are not preoccupied with thoughts that their partner will abandon them; they are not checking their phones constantly, expecting a call; they have basic trust in their lovability and their ability to love
Anxious-preoccupied – Even though people with an anxious attachment style have capacity for intimacy, they are often preoccupied with the stability of the relationship. These individuals often worry that their partner will not love them back, or will stop loving them altogether, and generally seek a lot of reassurance. They may lack basic trust in their lovability that can lead to jealousy or controlling behavior in their relationships.
Dismissive-avoidant – People with an avoidant attachment style value their autonomy more than forming or maintaining close relationships. There may be desire to get close to others, but they simultaneously create distance against others, and dismiss their partner’s need for intimacy. They learned early on that surviving in their family meant dismissing their own emotional needs, and may even be unaware as adults of continuing to do so.
What about the relationship we have with our therapists?
If you suspect your symptoms of anxiety or depression, or your relationship difficulties, are stemming from an anxious or avoidant attachment style, therapy can help. First and foremost, identify how you feel in the room with your therapist. Has it been 12 sessions, yet you feel distant and uncomfortable sharing your deeper thoughts and feelings? Or perhaps you are worried that your therapist will abandon you? It is likely that your attachment style is manifesting itself in your relationship with your therapist and can be effectively addressed in session.
Your therapist can help you understand your attachment style, look into the patterns of your relationships deeply, learn more effective means of communicating and, over time, “earn” a more secure style of relating. Studies have shown that developing a safe, reliable, trusting and nonjudgmental connection with a therapist can have long-term,positive effects on our attachment system.
Like many other things, healing is a journey that requires a lot of work. It does not happen magically. But as a start, be aware of your attachment style; be open to explore yourself, and open to change.
This Valentine’s Day, remember that the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself.