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How the Attachment Style You Learned as a Child Affects Your Relationships

When you think back to your childhood, how do you perceive the way your parents or primary caregiver took care of you? The way you recall that early relationship could have an impact on your adult attachment styles and relationships with romantic partners. You may find that in your relationships, you are anxious or jealous. You may feel suffocated. Or you may have a strong, secure partnership.

People have different attachment styles, and the idea stems from attachment theory, a human developmental theory. It states that your relationship with your parents or primary caregiver as a child shapes your future relationship style.

“Since a child depends on their caregivers for care and comfort, they perceive the world in the same way their caregiver responds to their needs,” said Yazhini Srivathsal, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “If the caregiver meets the child’s physical and emotional needs, the child perceives the world as a safe and loving environment and becomes securely attached.”

But if the child’s needs are not met, or met inconsistently, they perceive the world as a difficult and inconsistent place to navigate. That can lead to attachment issues.

There are four main attachment styles - secure, anxious, avoidant and disorganized. But it’s important to know that people don’t always fit entirely into one style of attachment or another. And attachment styles aren’t necessarily permanent. “Attachment styles can change as we grow and are in various relationships throughout our lives, both personally and professionally,” Dr. Srivathsal said.

1. The anxious attachment style

If you have an anxious or preoccupied attachment style, you may have a negative self-image and perceive other people as positive. You may work hard to seek approval, validation, support and responses from your partner. You may have an intense fear of abandonment, which can cause anxiety. If you don’t get the support or responses you want from your partner, you may find your anxiety gets worse, and you may seek attachment in other ways—you might even act in ways that trigger negative attention from your partner.

2. The avoidant attachment style

If you have an avoidant or dismissive attachment style, you are likely self-sufficient, have high self-esteem and perceive yourself as emotionally independent. “People with this attachment style feel they don’t have to be in a close or intimate relationship to feel whole,” Dr. Srivathsal said. But you may also be afraid of intimacy, feel suffocated in relationships and suppress your feelings in emotional situations to avoid closeness.

3. The disorganized attachment style

If you have a disorganized attachment style, also called a fearful-avoidant attachment style, you may have mixed feelings about your relationship. You want to be in the relationship, but you are fearful about it. You may want to be close to your partner, but you have trouble trusting them because you are afraid of getting hurt.

4. The secure attachment style

If you have a secure attachment style, you have a solid sense of self, and you respect others. You don’t mind being by yourself, but you can bond well with your partner, and you aren’t afraid of abandonment. You can communicate your thoughts and feelings, rely on your partner and be there for your partner.

How your attachment style affects the way you interact with your partner

“The relationships you have had in your life and the attachment style you have developed will have an impact on your relationship with your partner,” Dr. Srivathsal said. Despite all the growth that happens as you move from childhood to adulthood, it’s common to expect your partner to act like your parents.

Based on your attachment style, you might spot some of these behaviors in yourself:

  • If you have an anxious attachment style you may require a lot of reassurance from your partner and may be jealous or distrustful because you fear abandonment.
  • If you have an avoidant attachment style you may keep a distance between yourself and your partner and may end a relationship if it gets too serious.
  • If you have a disorganized attachment style you might have unpredictable behavior, being independent sometimes and clingy other times. You may also think your partner is unpredictable.
  • If you have a secure attachment style you may have a positive relationship and trust your partner.

Most people follow the same parenting style as their parents since it’s familiar. So, attachment styles can be passed down from one generation to the next. But keep in mind that significant life events, life experiences, and different partners can change your attachment style. So, if you have an insecure attachment style, you can develop healthy, stable relationships over time. And be aware that events and experiences could cause you to shift from a secure attachment style to an unhealthy one.

“It gives you a lot of power to know your own attachment style and how you got there,” Dr. Srivathsal said. You may feel as though you want to be in a familiar situation, with a relationship similar to your childhood relationship with your parent or caregiver. “But make sure it is a good situation for you and helps you grow as a person, based on your life goals. Work on yourself and make sure you build your self-esteem and love yourself how you think you should have been loved.”

Knowing how your attachment style could influence you, you and your partner can work together to make your relationships strong and healthy. “Make sure to have clear conversations about the expectations of each other in a relationship, respect boundaries, and assert your needs,” Dr. Srivathsal said. If you feel as though your attachment style is negatively impacting your relationship, you may want to seek professional help.

The bottom line

The way you related to your parent or primary caregiver when you were a child can influence how you interact with your partners and your emotional intimacy as an adult. But your attachment style isn’t fixed, and you may have different degrees of various attachment styles. If you would like to learn more about attachment styles and your relationship, connect with a Banner behavioral health specialist.

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