To what degree do you feel secure in your relationships and your ability to depend upon, trust, and have a healthy level of interdependence? On a spectrum, are you overly independent or dependent? Do you land somewhere between the two?
The degree to which you feel secure in your adult relationships, whether romantic, as a peer, parent, or otherwise, is greatly affected by the relationship your primary caregivers (primarily your mother) had with you in the womb and through toddler years.
In utero experiences affect us from infancy into adulthood and are based in part on what our mother was feeling and experiencing during her pregnancy. For example, the degree to which a pregnant mother is calm, happy and healthy is linked to the physical and mental well-being of her child. Given that an infant is completely dependent, they have adept survival instincts and develop strategies to ensure their continual survival based on their caregivers and environment.
Numerous studies have shown that very early in life, a person develops an internal working model regarding relationships, bonding, and attachment. An individual develops beliefs about their own self-worth and how much they can depend on others to meet their needs.
An understanding of Attachment Theory and awareness of your own attachment style can help you gain significant insight into why you feel and behave the way you do as an adult, and why you find yourself more secure, anxious and/or avoidant in relationships.
Several streams of research have emerged from Bowlby’s (1988) and Ainsworth’s (1982) Attachment Theory. Early experiences with caregivers influence a person’s expectations, emotions, defenses, and relational behavior in all close relationships.
Attachment behavior from early childhood affects brain development, impacts the levels of cortisol released in response to stress, and has important consequences for emotional regulation, impulse control, interpersonal development and the development of personality in general. This is NOT to say that our programming and perceptions cannot and will not change through our lifespan. As a therapist, I have found that helping an individual understand the link between their early childhood experiences and how they attach in adult relationships can help them perceive new possibilities for themselves and ways of being in the world. Most individuals can develop new thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and form healthy attachments given motivation, capability, effective treatments and a loving, secure relationship(s).
Caregivers who are attuned, are aware, emotionally available, and responsive to their child’s needs. In moments of distress for the infant, they soothe, calm, offer protection, and help them regulate emotion. In response, the child feels nurtured, calm and secure, and safe to explore his world. Because a young child can experience a healthy dependence on their caregivers, they can mature to become independent and interdependent as an adult.
As adults, Securely Attached individuals typically say they:
- Can easily get close to others and their partner
- Can trust and depend upon their partner and that their partner can trust and depend upon them
- Feel confident in themselves and enjoy time with their partner, as well as time alone
- Do not fear that their partner will get too close to them or that their partner will abandon and reject them
Conversely, a primary caregiver who was typically unavailable, inattentive to her child’s needs, unresponsive to her child’s cries and anger, lacking in warmth and affection, or neglectful, would indirectly teach her child not to depend on her, to behave independently, not to show emotion or needs and to withdraw emotionally and physically. Depending upon the nurturance of other caregivers, this child could develop an Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style characterized by distancing themselves from others and intimate relationships as adults to reduce stress. Others may describe these individuals as being emotionally unavailable or distant, extremely self-reliant, withdrawn, aloof, or resistant and defensive when others get too close to them.
Adults with an Avoidant Attachment Style may report:
- Being uncomfortable being too close to others
- Difficulty trusting others completely and depending on them. They do not want others to depend on them either
- Partners wanting them to be more present, affectionate, and intimate, and to open-up and express more
On the other side of the anxiety spectrum of Avoidant Attachment is Anxious Resistant (Ambivalent) Attachment. In this case, primary caregivers are inconsistent with their children. They may sometimes be attuned, responsive and attentive, while at other times emotionally unavailable, intrusive, lacking boundaries, or unaware and insensitive to their child’s needs. The child becomes confused, distrustful of the parent, stressed and anxious. In response, the child attempts other strategies to gain their parent’s attention such as crying and becoming clingy due to fear and insecurity. The child does not feel safe to explore their world with the ease of a securely attached child.
Adults with Anxious Resistant Attachment may report:
- Others being reluctant to get as a close as they would like
- Worry that their partner doesn’t really love them
- Worry that their partners will leave them
- That their desire to get close to others scares them away
- Feeling dependent and/or uncomfortable being alone
- Being possessive and jealous
Psychologist, Mary Main, has been attributed with adding the fourth attachment style known as Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment. In Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment, the primary caregiver represents both a source of danger and protection for the child. When faced with a threat, a child typically and instinctively turns to the primary caregiver, which can be a mother or father, with the expectation they will receive protection and reassurance. In Disorganized Attachment, the parent reacts to the child’s upset by either being frightened or frightening to the child, raising the child’s fear. Mary Main calls disorganized attachment “fear without solution.” Under this scenario, the child does not learn a clear strategy for dealing with stress, hence the child feels confused and his behaviors disorganized.
Often a child develops this style due to a parent(s) who also has this style and unresolved fears or issues from abuse. If a mother for example, feels helpless and scared, the child will not have their own needs for security met. Children who display Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment Styles are also often the victim of physical and/or emotional abuse. The people they would normally go to for security are paradoxically the same people who abuse them. They can’t get away from or too close to their caregivers. Sadly, this is the conflict they feel in their adult relationships. These children and adults often lack emotional regulation and impulse control as they did not learn a strategy or mindset to self-soothe and reduce stress.
Adults with Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment:
- Have difficulty deciding if they want to be in a close relationship or not
- Do not see others as trustworthy or reliable
- Feel torn between wanting to get close to others and pulling away
- Have difficulty being vulnerable
- May exhibit aggression and feel depressed
- May “cut themselves” off from their feelings and dissociate from their “real self”
- Report that they do not feel worthy of love
- Are often described as consistently inconsistent. They live in a world of chaos and emotional turmoil and often sabotage in times of calm
These attachment styles are on a continuum. In reality, a part of you may fit into more than one, or all the styles to varying degrees. You also need to consider the various caregivers who had the most influence on you and how they affected you. Your style will vary as an adult to some degree depending on the significant person you are in relationship with as well. A significant other who demonstrates a primarily secure attachment style is healthy and often healing for other styles. Typically, securely attached individuals attract other securely attached individuals. As a rule of thumb, we typically are comfortable with people who are at the same level of comfort with attachment and closeness as we are.
I have been using assessments to help my clients gain greater insights into their attachment style and the degree to which they are securely attached to improve their relationship with themselves and others. Please let me know if this would be helpful to you!
About Karen Storsteen, M.S., M.A.
Having worked in the fields of human and organizational development for over 25 years, I have counseled and educated hundreds of thousands to self-actualize and reach their greatest potential. I help people let go of limiting thoughts and behaviors so they can experience the miraculous and catapult their lives forward.
Do you need clarity and peace of mind? I am here to assist you whether you are going through a difficult life transition, having relationship issues, seeking career counseling, grieving the loss of a loved one, desiring business consulting, or an intuitive read. I also provide intuitive and leadership development classes.
I have been featured on ABC, NBC and CBS, Inc. and TED Magazine, and have been a regular on morning radio and several FM/AM and internet radio stations. My work is well-recognized by Fortune 500 leaders, professional organizations (such as Mensa, the High IQ Society and the Project Management Institute), higher education, mental health professionals, the Crime Wire Bureau of Investigations (for finding missing people and solving suspicious crimes intuitively), media and the general public.
I graduated with Honors with a Master of Arts in Psychology from Regis University and a Master of Science in Management and Organization, and Master’s Minor in Finance, from the University of Colorado. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Business Management. I have numerous certifications in psychological, behavioral and organizational assessment and human-performance improvement technologies.
I provide counseling and business consulting services, as well as intuitive sessions globally and by phone.
To learn more, go to karensinsight.com and karenstorsteen.com.
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