What is it about relationships?
I have been working with a client recently (permission received to write about this due to its significance - for the benefit of this I will call her Debra) who has a destructive pattern when it comes to relationships.
The last one is a typical example, when Debra met a guy who was very full-on at the beginning of the relationship and then, after engrossing himself in her life, including insisting on meeting her family, ghosted her until she finally had enough and ended things. He eventually said that he hadn’t wanted to be with her for a while anyway.
As I said, this has become a pattern for her, meeting guys and then, after a while, they back off or treat her badly, and then it all comes to a crashing and, usually, emotionally-fuelled ending.
So, what is going on here?
Why is she experiencing the same types of relationships over and over no matter what she tells herself she wants, or actually what she doesn't want in a partner?
One thing at play here is Debra's type of attachment, and the attachment types she has relationships with. I will come back to her personal story in another article, but for today I am going to look at attachment so that we can understand what it means.
Attachment theory can play a significant role in a lot of relationship related-stories. In the 1950s, psychologist John Bowlby was the first to explain how humans look to form secure attachments within their significant relationships as children.
Attachment can be said to be an 'enduring emotional bond that connects people'(Bowlby 1969). The evolutionary theory of attachment (e.g. Bowlby) suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form emotional attachments with others.
The primary relationships that we experience as children not only provide us with food and water but safety and security on an emotional level. It is linked to survival as if we are not loved or feel insecure as babies/children, our brain thinks we are unlikely to survive.
It is essential for us all to feel a sense of emotional certainty as we grow up because of this link to survival.
If safety and security are missing or disrupted in some way then our brain will adapt to deal with the resulting discomfort and the pain that we experience. This creates emotional 'unsurety'.
This will lead to an attachment style that we are likely to carry throughout our lives until it is addressed and the brain learns that, despite what we experienced in childhood, we can have healthy and emotionally secure relationships.
What are the main types of attachment?
If the relationships are reliable and caring, a child is more likely to develop into a secure adult. Traits of a secure attachment;
- low avoidance
- low anxiety
- being comfortable with intimacy
- not being worried about rejection or preoccupied with relationships
- finding it easy to allow closeness to others; comfortable depending on them and being depended on
- not worrying about abandonment and rejection
- providing reassurance of their interest in them
- promptly responding to communication
- planning thoughtful time together
- approaching partners with compassion and kindness
If relationships are unreliable or chaotic and the child’s needs are not met, they will desperately attempt to establish contact with their caregiver with attention-seeking behaviours like crying or screaming. Traits of anxious attachment;
- high anxiety
- low avoidance
- craving closeness and intimacy
- very insecure about close relationships
- fearing that they want to be extremely emotionally close with others, but that others are reluctant to get as close as they would like
- worrying that their partner doesn’t love or value them and will abandon them
- having a high need for closeness that can scare people away
- worrying about their partner's 'investment' and trying to remain close to them
- communicating with partners a lot to avoid overthinking, seeking reassurance more than most, and misreading their partners' cues as signs of disinterest in them
If the caregiver is erratic or unable to meet the child’s needs, a child may become indifferent to them, shutting down from the uncertainty of getting attention. Traits of avoidant attachment;
- high avoidance
- low anxiety
- being uncomfortable with closeness
- not being concerned about people’s availability
- finding it difficult to trust and depend on others and prefer that others do not depend on them
- finding it important to feel independent and self-sufficient
- finding that partners tend to want to be more intimate than they are comfortable being
- attempting to maintain their independence, though often it may seem like they want something more
- they’ll be the classic hot-and-cold partner, who’s all in one day and gone the next
4. Anxious and avoidant
If they are unable to get their needs met then they will resort to both types of behaviour to gain attention or to shut down from the pain of the uncertainty of relationships. Traits of anxious/avoidant attachment;
- high avoidance and anxiety
- feeling uncomfortable with intimacy, and worrying about the partner’s commitment and love for them
- feeling uncomfortable getting close to others, and finding it difficult to trust and depend on them
- worrying they will get hurt if they get close to people
- a mix of the above traits - often being extreme in their reactions as they have no idea what to expect or how to manage how they feel
- being more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits due to levels of insecurity and emotional arousal when faced with uncomfortable situations
It is common for adults to have a combination of traits rather than fit into just one style. Certain relationships will not trigger any insecurity or emotional 'unsurety', as there are no relatable experiences, so they may be secure in some but avoidant or anxious in others.
If the experiences have been perceived as severe in childhood, then the smallest things can trigger unnecessary and unwarranted reactions or behaviours.
Which one do you associate with?
I will talk more about Debra’s experience and how this can play out in the practical world of dating and relationships in part two.
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