In recent years, as psychological concepts become more mainstream, people are making greater efforts to understand themselves and the world around them. For many, this means that the relationships that define their lives will have their turn under the microscope at some point.
In discussions of early childhood relationships, attachment theory takes center stage, but how does this affect us in the long-term? Are we predetermined to play out these patterns in our relationships forever? How do love and sex addiction fit into the script, and is knowledge of these concepts enough to create actual change?
Although we’re starting with many unanswered questions, it can help review what we do know.
Background: Bowlby and Ainsworth
Attachment theory was originally developed by John Bowlby and later built upon by his colleague, Mary Ainsworth. They both had an interest in understanding the reaction of infants who had been separated from their parents. Where Bowlby did the preliminary research to understand the evolutionary function of the “attachment behavioral system”, Ainsworth, through scientific study, conceptualized and identified the main “attachment styles”.
Children who found to have a “secure attachment” —whose strategy for maintaining closeness to their caregivers was determined to be most effective—initially became upset when their parents left the room and were confronted with Ainsworth’s “strange situation.” However, upon the parents’ return, they actively sought their parent’s comfort and were quickly comforted by him or her. Nearly 60% of children studied responded in this way.
For about 20% of children, when their parent left the room, they became extremely distressed and refused to be consoled even by the eventual return of their parent. These children gave conflicting messages about their desire to be comforted, yet they also appeared to want to “punish” the parent for leaving.
The third grouping of children identified by Ainsworth was termed “avoidant” to reflect the child’s apparent ambivalence about the coming and going of their parent. These children, which were originally thought to be the remaining 20%, appeared to actively avoid seeking contact with their parent upon their return, turning their attention instead to play with objects on the floor.
This fourth attachment style was identified and classified later due to the research of Mary Main. Children with a disorganized attachment style have no clear strategy to get their needs met in the presence of an unpredictable or even fear-inducing caregiver. This is often reflected in the child’s temperament as depression, anger, or acting entirely passive altogether.
Of course, what we learned next is that children did not naturally separate into these categories, but were influenced by their interactions at home with their parents during the first year of their lives.
Children who were “secure” tended to have parents who were responsive and attentive to their needs, and for the three types of insecure attachment, the opposite was found to be true.
Adult Romantic Relationships
What we end up seeing are similar dynamics played out in our adult relationships. These are based on the memories we have of what our relationships with our parents were like, or the expectations, beliefs, “rules” or “scripts” for behaving and thinking that we develop as a result of being a part of our family.
Some people can easily find security in their relationships–to feel confident that their partners will be there for them, and to be open to depending on others and having others depend on them.
Insecurity in relationships may follow the anxious-preoccupied script: those with this attachment style worry that others may not love them completely, and be easily frustrated or angered when they feel their needs are not being met.
Others follow the rules of avoidance: they may appear ambivalent about close relationships and may prefer not to be too dependent upon other people or to have others be overly dependent upon them.
Those who have developed a disorganized style are simultaneously terrified of abandonment and suffocation in their intimate relationships. Because the caregivers in their life were inconsistent and unpredictable, they never developed an organized strategy for relating to others.
What Attachment Style are You?
This simple questionnaire was developed by Hazan and Shaver (1987).
Read the three paragraphs listed below, and respond according to which best characterizes the way you think, feel, and behave in close relationships:
- “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”
- “I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”
- “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.”
These paragraphs correspond with the following attachment types: avoidant (paragraph A), secure (paragraph B), and anxious-resistant (paragraph C).
Why Does My Attachment Style Matter?
It can be easy to dismiss this knowledge of attachment style as irrelevant, or that it does not affect your life in a meaningful way. However, there are some significant reasons to pay attention to attachment style:
We Choose Partners Based on Attachment Preferences
Existing research confirms that we often end up in relationships with others who confirm our existing beliefs about what relationships should look like. A phrase newly coupled people often say about their partner comes to mind, “I feel like I’ve known them my whole life” and the truth is, they probably have. They have found someone who replicates the “drama” of their early childhood experiences with their caregivers.
We Can Get Stuck in Toxic Patterns
Operating from a place of insecure attachment, we often push away anyone who is available and chase after those who are not, creating a cycle of sex or love addiction. We become hooked not just on sex but on romance, fantasy, and intrigue.
When caught in a cycle of love addiction, we play out old fantasies portrayed by Disney and the media, and dream of the day our prince will deliver us from the unrelenting pain and loneliness of the environment in which we were raised. Doing so, we play our part in co-constructing the same worn-out narrative.
It’s not difficult to see how this happens, as, through fantasy, we learned to dissociate from the pain of a poorly tuned caregiver and find comfort in our fictional reality.
We Learn Unhelpful Coping Strategies
In the same way, insecure attachment leaves us primed and vulnerable to developing a number of unhelpful strategies to be able to regulate our emotions. Because we never knew the consistent attunement of a caregiver, we never learned to self-soothe and went searching for something outside of ourselves to regulate what was happening internally.
This often shows up later in our lives as a problematic relationship with food, alcohol, substances, sex, or other people.
- Alcohol Addiction – whether it’s believing you need a drink to be social around others, when you’re stressed, or just to make it through the day, these are signs that you may want to reconsider your reliance on alcohol.
- Substance Abuse – you may use substances to manage pain, to feel something, or to feel nothing at all. Each signifies that you are using avoidance strategies to deal with your emotions and stressors, leading to both physical and psychological dependence.
- Eating Disorders – food becomes your method of gaining control over your world, restricting or nourishing yourself according to internal beliefs about what you believe you “deserve”.
- Love Addiction – you’re seeking relief from underlying mood problems such as depression or anxiety by relying on dissociative strategies of fantasy and serial relationships.
- Sex Addiction – compulsive sexual behaviors and preoccupation with sexual fantasies become a central focus in your life, and —similar to each addiction mentioned above— becomes your primary way for managing emotions related to underlying depression, anxiety, or unresolved trauma.
We Pass on These Strategies to Our Children
When we don’t take the time to consider the quality of our relationships with our parents, to consider the ways we were raised and how it affects us as adults, we impact more lives than just our own. Just as we cannot ultimately blame our parents for the way that we were raised —as they likely developed their own strategies for coping with unavailable caregivers as well— so too does the cycle continue with us unless we choose to do things differently.
Attachment Style and Life Satisfaction
Ultimately, learning about your attachment style matters because it gives you some context and ability to understand where the problems you currently face take root. This knowledge can be powerful, but only when it is backed by action, and like mentioned above, when it is followed by a decision to do things differently.
Taking stock of your life, if you notice a problematic relationship with food, alcohol, sex, substances, or a chronic pattern of unfulfilling or toxic relationships, it may be time to consider seeking help.
Treatment at The Ranch TN
Located only 45 minutes from Nashville, our primary mental health treatment center in Tennessee offers a number of treatment programs for mental health, eating disorders, love and sex addiction, and substance abuse. If you or a loved one is ready to begin the journey to a healthier life, do not hesitate to call today! (888) 351-1005