Before diving into this post, I encourage you to read this recent post, “What is Attachment?” to better understand the four types of attachment that I’ll be discussing here. As a brief overview, here’s the graphic again that shows four different children with four different attachment styles.
In this post, I’d like to discuss what happens to us as we grow into adulthood. We’ve spent some time focused on the importance of attachment in children. However, these early experiences are important because they impact us long term. They can influence multiple facets of our lives including what kind of relationships we form and what kind of parents we become. Let’s take a look at the four attachment styles we discussed in that last post and see what they can look like in adults.
This is what we all hope for. If a child grows up with a secure attachment, she understands healthy relationships. She is secure, grounded and expects relationships in life that are reliable. She can trust people. She can also consider and hold other people’s emotions for them. What this translates to is an adult who can tolerate difficulties in a relationship and utilize healthy coping skills to manage these challenges. By virtue of expecting others to be trustworthy and reliable, people with secure attachments tend to actually foster this in their relationships. Therefore, a child who grew up in an environment with a secure attachment will, not surprisingly, be more likely to form solid, healthy adult romantic relationships and friendships, and more likely and capable of raising her own children with a secure attachment.
If you will recall, this attachment style is more common in children whose parents were inconsistent - sometimes present (both emotionally and physically), and sometimes not. These children often present as highly anxious. As adults, children who grew up with this style of attachment may be overly-attuned to their partner. Trusting others is difficult and therefore, they may become hyper-aware of the other person and overly focused on small details. For example, they may wonder what the other person is thinking, or why he hasn’t called all day, or where he is at any particular moment. It can be harder for someone who was raised with this attachment style to trust and believe that loved ones will follow through or stick around. As you can imagine, this type of behavior can push other people away. For adults with an ambivalent attachment style, this pulling away is often met with attempts to pull loved ones back. The difficulties arise when the same behaviors that actually pushed one away (e.g., doubts, insecurities, questioning) are the same behaviors used to pull others back in. Two people who share this attachment style in a relationship are often chaotic together – fluctuating between close and distant, struggling to trust each other, and believing the other should “just know” what the other needs without asking.
This attachment style tends to result when a child has parents who were consistently not present or were dismissive. Consequently, these children begin to experience the world as a place where others cannot be relied upon and often have unmet emotional needs. As adults, this can manifest as fear of closeness or intimacy. These individuals are often afraid to get too close to others for fear of being hurt – understandably, they feel an innate need to protect themselves. And if your childhood experiences teach you to focus on and take care of yourself, it can be hard as an adult to be attuned to others and instinctively notice when others need support. This can appear to others as selfish or aloof, when in reality it may be a fear of the vulnerability that comes with putting one’s own needs aside to help someone else. Vulnerability is difficult for everyone, but more so for people whose vulnerability has historically been met with disappointment or hurt. In romantic relationships, people with this attachment style might pull away from a partner during times of difficulty, or might struggle to get close at all. And as parents, they may have a hard time understanding and connecting to their children in an attuned and intimate way.
As we know from studying attachment, disorganized-insecure is the most harmful of the attachment styles. This tends to result when caregivers are inconsistent; vacillating from caring behaviors to those which are frightening or terrifying. Unfortunately, children who grow up in this type of environment often struggle with relationships throughout life. Their relationships may be characterized by a desire to be close while at the same time pushing others away. In the most extreme cases, relationships among adults with this attachment style can involve physical or psychological violence. Adults who have grown up in such a disorganized home often struggle to understand their own ability to self-regulate, and ultimately look for others to fill this need for them. In a disorganized attachment environment, children don’t learn what healthy, reasonable parenting and nurturing looks like. So, as a result, they’re often unable to provide this type of relationship to their own children when they become parents. A parent who was raised in a disorganized attachment home might not understand why a child needs her, and might not have the context of what it feels like to be nurtured, nor how to provide that to others
Now, the difficulty that comes when we have such categories is that few of us fit squarely in just one. Most of us have complex histories and find that we take on parts of each, or lean toward one but have tendencies that align with others as well. I want to be clear that these kinds of generalizations are not made to categorize or diagnose people. And I’m not talking about this to justify or condone harmful behavior. So why share this? Well, I firmly believe that without awareness, there is little capacity to change. When we begin to understand why we or our loved ones do certain things, we can be proactive and do something about it. This may mean doing more of the same and helping our children develop the same strong skills we have. For others, it may require self-reflection about our families of origin as well as our current relationships. We often hear that we parent the way were parented. And to some extent, this is true. But – a huge, important note is – we don’t have to. As we improve and strengthen our self-awareness, we improve and strengthen our capacity to be more intentional in our relationships and how we parent our children.
So when we react strongly to something, we can ask ourselves, “Am I reacting to what’s happening in this moment, or am I instinctively slipping into patterns from my past?” When we are stressed, we are more likely to revert to a less functional style of parenting, especially when our default is based in an insecure style of attachment.
I highly recommend the book “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell. It dives deeper into many of these and other topics, for those who want to explore this further.
The good news for adults is similar to that which we emphasize for children. Our relationships with others can heal us and we can provide that which is essential for each other. And I would also say if you recognize any of the insecure attachment styles in yourself or your family and you are encountering difficulties in your relationships, asking for professional help can be an important and brave step toward making the changes you desire.