Understanding How You Work, So You Can Fix Your Relationships
A lot of people struggle with relationships. In fact, I’d say it’s the number one reason I see any of my patients. You may be floundering alone in a sea of heartache, and it might keep happening to you time and time again like an evil curse. If this happens with a whole bunch of different people and you are the only thing that is constant, then it might well be something to do with the way you form attachment bonds.
Attachment Theory deals with the strong emotional bond that one person creates with another. It is usually at its strongest between children and caregivers and between people involved in emotional relationships such as lovers and between family members. But it can operate in any interpersonal relationship, such as with work colleagues.
Attachment seems to suggest it’s a two-way thing. When it works well, and both individuals feel a strong bond of love, then it’s great. However, this is not always or necessarily the case. Despite how intensely you feel, the other person might not both feel the attachment bond as strongly. She might just not be that into you, even though you have her picture on your wall.
The originator of attachment theory is John Bowlby, a British psychologist working in the 1930s, with “troubled boys” who were very emotionally disturbed. He figured out that the degree of emotional disturbance these boys suffered from was directly related to the quality of the attachment bond they had with their mothers. The more chaotic, absent, or even abusive that relationship was, the more unhappy and distressed the boys were.
Bowlby’s theory was that infants have an inbuilt need to seek proximity to their caregiver. It turns out that this doesn’t have to be the mother; it can be anyone who is close and provides care. This is an instinctual process. So in the same way that birds build nests without looking on Youtube videos, the child seeks love from its mother.
This idea of instinctual drives to bond is very similar to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s Archetypes theory. Jung wrote that the pattern of behaviour exists in potential when we are born, but only gets developed through life experiences. So, we may have an instinct to seek a caregiver when we are small, but who the caregiver is, and the quality of the bond is filled in by life experiences.
These ideas mesh with Evolutionary Psychology theory. This branch of psychology explains modern human behaviour based on assumptions about how people acted “in the wild” before we became civilized. Evolutionary Psychologists flesh out their theories by observing the behaviour of our close relatives. When it comes to the study of attachment bonds, Harry Harlow’s 1958 studies of monkeys’ attachment behaviour showed that infant monkeys with unresponsive mothers had life-long damage.
In “the wild”, an infant’s survival depends on the quality of care it gets in its early years. Poor care means death. This is an instinctual process so the emotions around attachment are very deep and intense. It’s a life or death thing, and people feel it this way. Even though in our modern society poor caregiving might not lead to the child’s death, we feel the lack of love like a death threat. At least 75% of the suicidal patients I’ve seen in my career were suicidal due to the break-down of an emotional bond, usually with romantic partners but also with parents and children. It’s felt that strongly.
A secure attachment to our caregivers is essential for our mental and emotional well-being later in life. The emotional experiences we have as infants are used as the templates or models of all our later attachments. If we don’t develop reliable bonds with our early caregivers, our loving relationships in later life will be problematic.
Harry Harlow’s observations of monkeys showed that the ones with poor relationships with their caregivers were:
- Much more anxious
- Poor at social interaction
- Easily bullied and didn’t defend themselves
- Had difficulty forming mate bonds, and
- Were poor caregivers to their own children.
It’s important. It has massive impacts on our lives if it’s broken. But there’s evidence that it can be fixed.
In his 1958 book, Bowlby set out childhood attachment styles, usually with parents. The next major step in the development of Attachment Theory was through the work of American psychologist Mary Ainsworth in 1970. She studied in England with John Bowlby, and when she returned to the U.S., her work concluded that there were three attachment styles.
- Secure Attachment Style. The majority of people have this style, and this arises where the quality of attachment to their caregiver is good enough. It’s good enough that they can form relationships with other people in a way that is positive and does not cause anxiety when that other goes away for a while.
- Insecure Avoidant Attachment Style. These children have learned not to rely on their caregiver and become withdrawn. They do not seek contact and are often depressed. The caregiver here has often been absent or neglecting. Sometimes they are unavailable to the child because of their own problems, such as mental health or substance misuse.
- Insecure Ambivalent or Resistant. Here the child is both clingy to the caregiver but will also reject the caregiver. The caregiver gives mixed messages. The child doesn’t know where they stand or what to do to get the approval they need, so the child becomes anxious. The Austrian psychologist Melanie Klein recorded observations of her patients who both hated and loved the caregiver, and flipped between the two. She called this the paranoid-schizoid position where the child splits the world and itself into good and evil. There is a great fear of the bad part.
A child with this attachment style desperately craves love, but hates and punishes the caregiver when they do not provide that love. Both love and hate are incredibly intense.
He or she wants to punish the caregiver for not meeting their needs but then fears either reprisal from the caregiver or the caregiver abandoning them. They flip between seeing the caregiver as an angel who can meet all their needs and demon who is hated for not meeting those needs.
The caregiver’s job in a secure attachment is to help the child learn to become self-managing and competent. If the child cannot learn this from their caregiver (maybe because the caregiver can’t manage it for themselves either) then the individual will be plagued by devastating anxiety. A secondary thing here is that they will seek someone all their life who can manage this anxiety for them because they simply do not believe they can do it themselves. They feel that if loved ones abandon them, they will die.
This death anxiety seems to be behind the flip-flopping I love you/I hate you mechanism at work in Borderline Personality Disorder. This is why they feel their emotions at a life or death level. My observation is that BPD is strongly associated with poor experiences being given care as a child, often from a caregiver who is suffering from this same attachment disorder. The title of this book: I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me, says it all.
We’ve jumped ahead a little because the next big step in Attachment Theory was provided through the work of Mary Main, an American psychologist who was a student of Mary Ainsworth. Main worked on adult attachment styles. To her, it seemed that a person reproduces the attachment style they learned as a child in all other relationships.
In 1985, Main came up with an additional style: Disorganized Attachment. Disorganized attachment is where the caregiver is both the solution to a child’s upset, and also the cause of it due. The caregiver will show punishing, absent, neglectful, or chaotic behaviour. With this attachment style, the child becomes punishing too. They can be abusive to the person they have the bond with. Unfortunately, that can go on to be the way a person behaves in their romantic relationships.
If you have a Secure Attachment style as a child, very likely, your romantic relationships will be secure. If you have an Insecure Avoidant Attachment style, you may be aloof and too independent in your romantic relationships, which can be unfulfilling and cold. Still, if you have an Insecure Ambivalent attachment as a child, then, unfortunately, your romantic relationships may well be rocky.
But It’s Not Your Fault
Please remember that the attachment style you developed as a child is not your fault. If you have a great one, you can’t take a lot of credit for that either, just be grateful. You are the victim or beneficiary without much input from you.
For those with Secure styles, great news! For those with Avoidant styles, you need to be prepared to be lonely or put some work in to fix your automatic reactions.
For those with Ambivalent styles, you must learn how you tick, get to understand your triggers, and put effort into not responding to trigger events.
The task is more urgent for those with Disorganized Attachment style because they feel emotions far more deeply like we said to the point of life or death. Fears of abandonment, real or imagined, are triggers for massive emotional surges that can destroy relationships and break them into tiny pieces.
We haven’t really gone into how awful the emotions are for people with Disorganized Attachment styles; they are terrible, intense and drive them to despair and thoughts of death. They can also drive them to retributory violence against the person who does not love them as they should. There is no justification for violence at any level, but particularly not in an adult relationship.
- So the first thing is you need to take responsibility for the intensity of your emotions in so far as they impact on others. We may have explained that the origin of these things is not your fault, but how you treat others is definitely your responsibility.
- The second thing is to realise you’re playing a shadow puppet game. You are no longer three years old. The person you are in a romantic relationship is not your childhood caregiver, for better or for worse. Wake up. Especially if this broken dance happens time and again. Wake up and be the adult you are now, not the child you were then.
- The third thing is to realise you do not need another person to provide your emotional needs. You don’t need them to keep you safe and manage your anxiety. You won’t die without their love. They don’t make you complete and whole; you are anyway. Join with them, not from a position of anxiety and need. Don’t be a relationship where one takes and the other gives. Or worse, still both take without giving. Be a contributor.
My advice: This is a huge and profound subject. Read up on it. You needn’t go to the extent of devouring the works of Bowlby, Ainsworth and Main, though you could, but examine the way you work in relationships. Which of those attachment styles rings true for you? Once you know that, you can begin to fix things because if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got!