In an ideal world, we would all be born with perfectly attuned parents who love us truly and are there for us whenever we need them, but who also give us just the right amount of space and independence to flourish and fully develop our unique selves. Parents would provide a solid base from which we could venture out as separate individuals. They’d make us feel safe, seen and soothed… and therefore, secure. While this all sounds great, Dr. Ed Tronick, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard University, has found in his research that even the best parents, the ones who form secure relationships with their kids, only get it right about 30 percent of the time. For pretty much everyone, relationships with our early caretakers are complex and likely include some frustration and pain. Yet, whether we grew up with a secure or insecure attachment pattern, one thing is for sure, our present relationships are heavily influenced by our earliest attachments.
The way we experienced relationships in our very early lives creates an “internal working model” for how we view relationships throughout our lives. In other words, our past relationships affect everything from who we choose as a partner to how we are likely to interact with them and what behavior we will elicit from them. Our early relationships provide a template for how relationships go; can I depend on others? Will they sooth me when I need it? Will they see me for who I really am?
How we adapted to our early relationships, the defenses we formed, also shape how we will behave toward romantic partners. For example, do you believe you are better off not depending on others and taking care of yourself? Or do you believe the opposite, that you “need” to get your significant other to take care of you, and therefore, you are preoccupied by getting their attention? Are you trapped in a double bind of being afraid to get close to anyone yet terrified of being alone?
In many ways the attachment style we formed early on impacts how we behave in relationships and how we expect others to behave. If we’re wondering why certain dynamics keep playing out or patterns keep developing in our relationships, it’s important to consider the working models we’re bringing to the table.
The early attachment styles we experienced shape these internal working models. For example, many people grow up with an avoidant attachment to a parent. They may not have felt they could get their needs met easily by that parent, and therefore, adapted to become more self-contained and self-sufficient. As adults, they carry this model with them. They may not think people will be there for them, so they rely on themselves and resist trusting or getting too close.
On the other hand, many people grow up with an ambivalent attachment style in which they felt they had to cling to their parent or caretaker in order to get their needs met. Their parent may have been available and attuned some of the time, and then all of a sudden they’d be neglectful or rejecting. The parents may even become emotionally hungry at times, attempting to get their own needs met by their child. As a result, these people may grow up feeling desperate, insecure and clingy toward a romantic partner.
Our working models affect the way we see the world. We often perceive people as reflections of our past, assuming they will think and behave in certain patterns. We may also unconsciously choose partners who fit these patterns – whose own attachment styles complement/ mesh with ours. For example, if we grew up feeling ignored, we may find ourselves in relationships with people who are unavailable, aloof, cold or flat out rejecting. If we felt intruded on as kids, we may choose people who are controlling, jealous or demanding.
When two people come together, they both have their own working models that affect each other. Both partners may engage in behaviors that push or provoke each other in ways that encourage each other to play the other half of these old, familiar dynamics. As couples play out their side of the model, their relationships can start to look more and more like those of their past. This reinforces each partner’s working model, confirming what they already believe about love and relationships.
The good news is, we are not doomed to repeat the patterns of our past. We can change our model, but we have to identify it, so we can challenge it. Because our expectations and ideas about relationships form from our early experiences, it’s necessary to make sense of those experiences in order to create healthier relationships in the present. Allowing our past to consume us emotionally doesn’t work but neither does burying the past and pretending like it doesn’t affect us. What does work is creating a coherent narrative.
Attachment researchers speak of the importance of creating a coherent narrative as a technique for developing inner security, which allows us to form more healthy adult relationships. Through the Adult Attachment Interview, developed by Mary Main and her colleagues, researchers found that by assessing how well people are able to make sense of and convey their life story, it is possible to predict the attachments they will form with their children. It turns out that no matter how difficult a person’s childhood was, if they are able to make sense of and feel the full feeling of what they experienced as children, they are better able to form healthier ties with people close to them in the present.
In the online course I co-lead with Dr. Daniel Siegel, “Making Sense of Your Life,” he and I discuss how to go about the steps of creating a coherent narrative. We encourage people to explore their attachment history and understand the large and small early life events that shape who they are today. This endeavor is one that doesn’t just benefit our romantic relationships, but every relationship we form in life. As Dr. Siegel has said, ““The fantastic news is that if you can make sense of your childhood experiences—especially your relationships with your parents—you can transform your attachment models toward security. The reason this is important is that relationships— with friends, with romantic partners, with present or possible future offspring—will be profoundly enhanced. And you’ll feel better with yourself, too!”
Learn more about the online course "Making Sense of Your Life."
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org