© Andrea Bentley for Auckland Therapy Blog, 27 June 2018
“It’s not you, it’s me!”. Many of us have been left feeling hurt, confused and disillusioned by these words. Hearing them often enough can make us hesitant to enter into or commit to intimate relationships. And the relationships we do enter always seem to follow the same pattern and end in the same way.
If we want to understand why we do this, we can start with our attachment style and how it affects the types of relationships we enter into, how they progress, and why they end the way they do. Insight into our relational dynamics provides insight into the way we relate.
Our attachment style is established when we are newborns. It reflects the way the emotional bond with our primary caregivers was established. It is from this bond that we learn safety, trust and nurturance (or not), and it is vital to our physical, cognitive and mental development. This developing relationship between child and caregiver shapes the ways we relate in the world. These primary attachment relationships are our first attachment experiences, creating our attachment style and defining our relationship pattern as adults.
Attachment styles influence how we react to our needs and how we go about getting those needs met. We seek out relationships that are familiar and similar to early relationships with our primary caregiver, then repeat these patterns as adults. We do this unconsciously and unknowingly, sometimes to the detriment of ourselves and others. We make relationships difficult without ever understanding why.
The secure adult had caregivers who offered a secure base for venturing out and independently exploring the world. They felt supported and safe, and learned early how to get their needs met. Consequently, they are more likely to engage in fulfilling relationships. They find it easy to engage in intimate relationships because they feel secure and connected within themselves.
As a result, there is space and freedom for the relationship to flourish and feel mutually satisfying.
The anxious preoccupied adult had “sometimes” caregivers who were irregular in meeting their needs for security, love and trust. As a result, they alternate between needy or distant, constantly seeking to have their needs met by their partner only to push them away to avoid the pain of disappointment.
They may be rescuers who become possessive and demanding when they feel insecure. They view an independent partner as rejecting them and interpret even the smallest slight as a breach of trust, which affirms their belief that relationships are undependable and unsafe.
As the name suggests, the dismissive avoidant adult is emotionally distant from their partner. They see isolation as independence and believe they need to take care of themselves. Because their caregivers were also emotionally unavailable, they learned not to rely on others. They meet their own needs to avoid disappointment and hurt.
They come across as self-centred and emotionally unavailable, uncaring especially in distressing situations that require mutual support. When the end of a relationship becomes imminent, they shut down or leave first. They would rather be alone than run the risk of a relationship that doesn’t meet their needs to feel safe and secure.
In the fearful avoidant adult, the pull of wanting to be in relationship meets the push of fear of intimacy and abandonment, creating ambivalence. Ultimately, fear wins, and they become clingy when they feel rejected then distant if someone gets too close. Overwhelmed by anxiety, they struggle to emotionally regulate, which presents as confusion and mood swings.
They often find themselves in “toxic” relationships that mimic their early experiences with unavailable or abusive caregivers. Yet they throw everything they have into making a loving relationship in a desperate attempt to win the approval and love of their long-lost caregivers.
If we are not securely attached, we repeat our early behaviours and try to rework our childhood relationships so that we can feel loveable. Unfortunately, these maladaptive behaviours created to feel loved and accepted by our intimate partner are met with inevitable failure and despair around relationships. However, our attachment styles are not set in concrete, but they can provide insight into how we seek out adult relationships. Awareness of our attachment style and how it manifests can create opportunities for change.
Psychotherapy provides a way to understand and develop insight to redress relational dynamics that are no longer helpful. Through a safe and supportive relationship, therapy can provide opportunities to find new ways of coping that support you to develop and enter into secure and mutually satisfying relationships.