Attachment Experiences and How They Affect Our Adult Relationships
As infants, we come wired to seek connection. Our very lives depend on it. The quality of the connections we experience affect how our brains develop. Our unconscious beliefs and our expectations of the world are wired into our brains by 7 months.
We do not have conscious memories of these first 7 months AND they affect us every day. To understand how they affect us, let’s look at the research that has been conducted on infants for the last 20 years.
Researchers observed mothers and infants for the first year of life. Then, when the infants were a year old, they were placed them in what researchers called a “strange situation.” Mother and infant entered a room with a stranger and some toys. Mother stayed for awhile, then left and returned a few minutes later. Based on how infants behaved in this strange situation, researchers identified children as either securely attached or insecurely attached. Among the insecurely attached infants, they identified three types of insecure attachment..
As adults, our behavior reflects a varying and blending of attachment experiences across different relationships and situations. Understanding attachment experiences and how various responses get activated can help us understand thinking and behavior that may otherwise puzzle us. Let’s looks at the types of attachment that researchers observed.
Secure attachment—In the first year, mom is usually attuned to child’s feelings and needs and appropriately responsive to those feelings and needs. In the strange situation, the child expresses some distress at mom leaving. The child seeks the mom out when she returns, gets soothed and returns to play
Insecure attachment (3 types)
Avoidant—In the first year, mom is not attuned to the baby’s feelings and needs. She may be rejecting or neglecting, or she may simply be depressed. In the strange situation, the child doesn’t cry on separation and doesn’t seek mom out when she returns.
Ambivalent/anxious—In the first year, mom is inconsistent, sometimes she is attuned and sometimes she is anxious or preoccupied, too overwhelmed by her own feelings to be attuned to the child. In the strange situation, the child has difficulty separating, and seeks and clings to mom when she returns.
Disorganized—In the first year, Mom displays unpredictable, scary behavior, which may include abuse. In the strange situation, the child is disoriented, not comfortable with toys or with mom. When mom comes back in the room, the child may freeze, run in circles, fall down, or behave in other unusual ways. The person who is supposed to be safe for the infant isn’t safe. Infants in this category are also assigned a secondary category (avoidant or ambivalent).
Those are the types of attachment. Now, let’s think about our adult relationships. Our adult relationships have times of connection and times of disconnection, times when we are attuned to the feelings and needs of the each other and times that we are not. Our attachment experiences in our first year of life affect the assumptions we make when we experience disconnection or lack of attunement in our adult relationships.
If your experiences led you to an avoidant attachment style, you are likely to assume that you have little chance of connection or reconnection. When you experience a disconnection, you are likely to take the stance that you don’t really need your partner anyway.
If your experiences led you to an anxious attachment, you assume you need to stay very close to your partner and to control them. You feel very scared of losing him or her. When you experience a disconnection, you are likely to feel very afraid and perhaps very angry because you feel threatened.
If your experiences led me to a disorganized attachment, when you experience a disconnection, you may feel disorientated and distressed. You may feel “out of you mind” and enraged.
Or perhaps, you were blessed to experience secure attachments as an infant and in your adult relationships. You may still want to notice your behavior at times you feel hurt or misunderstood. Do you pull away and get cold (avoidant behavior)? Do you get clingy (anxious behavior)? Or do you get enraged (disorganized behavior)? You may have had a secure attachment with your primary caregiver and different experiences with other caregivers. Or, you may have “earned” your secure attachment through psychological work, but still have times in which early experiences have a negative impact.
As you explore your responses and how they are triggered, you will be more empowered to understand and soothe yourself. You will be empowered to see the current situation with less distortion and to make better decisions.
Our attachment experiences affect us in dating situations as well as in long term relationships. When someone with avoidant attachment is dating, if the other person makes one mistake, the dating relationship may end abruptly. Or this person may never go out because no one is good enough. The person with avoidant attachment doesn’t really expect anything to work out anyway. When someone with ambivalent/anxious attachment is dating, they may seek an instant, inseparable relationship.
There are many ways to look at and think about ourselves and our relationships. I find attachment a helpful tool or lens for exploration. If you have questions, you can call or email me anytime. See the information below. Thanks.