How your childhood can impact your current relationships
Our past experiences influence our present ones – that’s nothing new or surprising. But how exactly, and why? This article discusses how our childhood can impact our current relationships, and how knowing your attachment style can help you to avoid repeating mistakes and improve the quality of your relationships…
Do you know someone who keeps repeating patterns in their (romantic) relationships? For instance, a friend dating partners who always turn out to be jealous / abusive / substance-abusing, or even just “too boring”? It might seem like pure chance or bad luck, but it might not be accidental at all!
Our relationships with our closest caregiver(s), usually parents, influence our present relationships. More concretely, the way they responded (or didn’t respond) to our needs can shape our beliefs about ourselves (how worthy we are), about others (whether they can be trusted) and about relationships (what "love" looks like).
Attachment is our innate (biological) drive to seek safety, to be protected from danger, and to form close and secure relationships. It was first described and studied by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, in the 1960s.
Two decades later, other scientists came to notice that romantic partnerships share some characteristics of the early relationships between child and caregiver - such as feeling safe when together and insecure when apart - and attachment began to be studied in romantic relationships.
Attachment styles in romantic relationships
There are three main types of attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant:
Secure attachment style:
A person with a secure attachment style feels self-confident, is able to form close relationships and talk about feelings, supports their partner when the latter is feeling bad, accepts their partner’s support, and is generally happier when their partner is around. Secure attachment develops when parents always, or almost always, adequately and sensitively responded to the child’s needs.
Anxious attachment style (insecure):
This develops when the caregiver is sometimes attentive to the child’s needs, but not always. This can also happen if the caregiver passes away or if the child is left alone a lot or with someone who is not attentive. Having experienced closeness but also abandonment, this person seeks close relationships in adulthood but feels anxious that a partner might leave. They require repeated assurance or they back off "before the partner does".
Avoidant attachment style (insecure):
This person protects their independence and might show coldness towards others. This attachment style develops through neglect by the caregivers, and when the child stopped "hoping" and withdrew emotionally.
There appears to be a small difference between genders: slightly more women than men tend to have the anxious attachment style, while the avoidant attachment style tends to be found more often in men. Overall, around 50% of all people form secure attachments, 20% form anxious attachments and 25% avoidant attachments (the remaining 5% form disorganized attachments).
So, how can my attachment style affect me?
In our romantic relationships, our attachment style can have an impact on whether, and to what extent, we open up to our partner, how much of our emotions we share, how supportive we are, and how okay we are with being interdependent (to an extent) with our partner.
Our attachment style may also affect our emotions and mental health, as well as physical health; secure attachment is associated with better states of mind and health. People with a secure attachment style pay more visits to medical professionals (and trust them more) and have health-protective lifestyles, while people with an insecure attachment style have a higher range of health-risk behaviours, like smoking, or risky sexual behaviour.
Sleep can also be impacted (to an extent) - insecure attachment is linked with more sleep problems (this can also be found in securely attached couples while separated).
Our attachment style may even affect how we behave on and use social media! People with anxiety attachment use social media more in general, but also when feeling bad, and they are more concerned with what others might think of them. In contrast, people with an avoidant attachment style use social media less and are not as open when on it.
Can I change my attachment style?
Attachment styles are not set in stone. They can change throughout our lives – for example, due to circumstances, such as having a secure relationship in adulthood, going through a terrible divorce or having a partner pass away.
They can also be changed throughout our lives – for example, through conscious effort and / or individual or couples therapy.
Thanks to Counsellor Kristýna Maulenová for her contribution to this article.
What are your thoughts on this article? Have you recognised a few patterns in your relationship(s)? Feel free to share your experience or your feedback on this article below.