Why Early Life Relationships Influence Adulthood Attachment

It might seem like a stretch to think that experiences with your caregiver that happened as early as day one...or even hour one...of life, would influence how you might experience relationships as an adult. Those non-verbal cues like eye contact, your caregiver's tone, their presence (consistent or otherwise), whether they held you, hugged you, and so many other interactions all affected future relationship. That's not intended to sound ominous but more, to help you possibly understand how some of the strengths or maybe vulnerabilities within your relationships now, might be influenced. If this is the first time you've heard about attachment styles, you might find it interesting to take a short quiz listed on The Attachment Project's website. 

While the explanation and an understanding of attachment styles can span books and podcasts, here is a simple introduction you might find helpful. If you're hoping for a more in-depth understand and to gather more information for you and/or your partner, I recommend the book Attached, to clients. An attachment framework is also one that many (of us) therapists use with clients. So, if you're looking for counselling support and notice some of what is shared here resonates, you might be curious about finding a counsellor who works through an attachment lens.

A secure attachment style, while most common, doesn't always seem so. I suggest that some of this has to do with other life experiences playing into how you are experiencing yourself or your partner, if you're in a relationship. About 66% of the population has a secure attachment. A secure attachment style doesn't mean you have been raised in the perfect home (there's no such thing!) with two parents, where no one ever yelled, everyone got along, and family dinners happened on a nightly basis. Absolutely not! However, it does typically mean that there was predictability within the home. Your younger self could anticipate some things such as having your needs met consistently. If you cried you were picked up, fed, changed, played with...someone connected with you. You were likely able to show/share your true emotions because it felt like a safe environment to do so, likely because of the experiences just mentioned. Because of this, you felt safe to explore, you knew someone would help you if needed and you could predict these things. There was trust and, well, a sense of security.

Insecure attachment styles (anxious, avoidant and disorganized) can be birthed through traumatic experiences, adverse childhood experiences and other unpredictable and uncontrollable events. It's important for you to know that your experiences are what happened to you and they aren't your fault. So, if you're struggling with an insecure attachment style (which can be so hard), it's not because of anything you did or didn't do. If you identify with one of the insecure attachment styles below, it also does not mean you had a traumatic upbringing. It could mean you had caregivers who were unable to consistently meet some of your needs. It's possible they were doing their best...but you still suffered. Both things can be true. And, you can heal and grow into a secure attachment style.

I will start with the anxious attachment style. This typically occurs if parents have been inconsistent. When they haven't delivered care in a consistent way such as meeting your needs for food/feeding, physical touch (like holding, cuddling, rocking, hugging, etc), or if their presence at home was unpredictable or sporadic this would be difficult. Perhaps they were physically present but due to circumstances they were unable to meet your emotional or psychological needs, well. They may have been physically present but emotionally absent. You might notice now as an older person, that your self-esteem is lower. When your mental, emotional, physical and other needs weren't met consistently it became difficult to have a deep understanding of what is and is not okay. Put differently, you now might struggle to understand whether your needs are "ok" to have, or if you are being needy. You might notice that you look to others (such as your partner) for (more than usual) validation. You might be clingy in particular during ruptures or arguments. Emotionally, there's a bit of a hunger or thirst for connection, stability and consistency within relationships. When this need goes unmet the person with the anxious attachment style will likely fear abandonment. The thought of being alone - especially when you might be dysregulated from an argument - is extremely difficult. You need the presence of others, to meet your emotional needs and experience a sense of security. You might notice that when you don't feel emotionally connected to others, you believe the relationship might be over. 

The next insecure attachment style is avoidant. Typically, you'll experience this if your caregivers were very strict, did not put up with the expressing of emotions (this could be excitement, sadness, joy, disgust or anger and anything in between). Also, your caregivers may have expected you to be very independent and not rely on others. The implicit message may have been that you cannot and should not rely on anyone but yourself. When you have an avoidant attachment style, as opposed to the low self-esteem that the anxious attachment provides, you might seem very confident to those around you. At the heart of that however, is possibly a learned need for self-relying or sufficiency. You might not have a high need for any type of intimacy and because of that, cultivating long lasting relationships (intimate and friendship) might be difficult. You might prefer to be alone or simply find that the emotional capacity often exchanged in relationships seems too much, or unnecessary. When in an argument with a loved one, your response will typically be to pull away. You'll want space and to be apart, either to process the argument or because the emotional energy it requires might seem ridiculous or unreachable.

Finally, the disorganized attachment style (also known as fearful-avoidant) is one experienced by the smallest proportion of the population. Typically, you might experience this way of connecting with others if you experienced fear (of caregivers) as a child. Your caregiver may have been very inconsistent in how they cared for you and there could have been abuse within your home. If this was your experience, I am so sorry. You did not deserve that and my hope is that this is helpful to you. The disorganized attachment style is very simply put, a combination of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. It's confusing and difficult for you, if you're experiencing it. You may reflect that your caregiver's behaviour was not only inconsistent but very unpredictable. You may notice that they could be calm and kind one moment and explosive the next. Your (nervous) system didn't know whether it was safe to be relaxed and open or rigid and self-protective. You likely spent time feeling unsafe. Possibly, you often assumed your needs would go unmet and this is extremely difficult for any child, let alone a young one. When a child doesn't receive consistent care, they begin to lose trust and so it's very possible you now find it very difficult to trust anyone at all.  As difficult as this is, it does make sense, doesn't it?  Even if/when others try to get close you might notice a strong urge to push them away because your nervous system is only familiar with inconsistent relationships. You will protect yourself, at the expense of a potentially healthy relationship. This is painful but it makes sense, when you keep in mind your childhood experiences. Part of you likely craves intimacy and another part fears it. This makes it difficult to form solid, consistent and secure relationships, because you have likely come to anticipate rejection as part of relationships. 

It is possible to recover and heal from your insecure attachment style. Transparently, the disorganized attachment style is the most difficult but it is possible. You might find it most helpful and supportive to seek out a counsellor who is trauma-informed, as your history likely includes traumatic experiences. You might find the relationship between you and your counsellor to be a vehicle to this healing. Their consistent, kind, caring, nonjudgmental presence might be welcome (and a bit foreign). I invite you to be curious with how you experience this professional relationship. Can you begin to heal from your past experiences? Can you begin to drop your shoulders and take a deep breath? Maybe you can, together, bear witness to some of the very difficult experiences you have had to endure and what you have done to protect yourself. Perhaps you can begin to heal. 

Ashleigh Keizer
M.A., RCC
8661 201 Street, Langley, BC (2nd floor), Langley, V2Y 0G9

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