Before you first step outside your yard as a child to make friends with other kids on the block, early attachment experiences with your parents or other primary caregivers may have already set up strong expectations — or fears — about social relationships. Even as young infants, we pick up cues about trust and dependability from the infant-caregiver relationship. Early attachment experiences generally predict the patterns of attachment that are experienced in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Snyder, Shapiro, & Treleaven, 2012). Foundational attachment theory suggests that there are four basic attachment styles: secure, anxious-resistant, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). If you observe even young children, you can see how these patterns shape their early attempts at prosocial behaviors. The ways that children handle themselves in social settings with peers or with authority figures illustrates the strength and the flavor of the relationship between the child and their caregiver.
Secure attachment, logically, is the most robust and healthy form. This reflects the development of secure attachments to caregivers over time as a child learns that their basic needs will be met by the adults in their world. These children grow up believing that the world is a good place and that people who care about you will support and care for you.
The anxious-resistant attachment bond is often called ambivalent attachment and may spring from the presence of a caregiver who is overly unavailable. Young children need the love and support of their caregivers, but these caregivers are not adequately present in the relationship.
Anxious-avoidant attachment describes the relationship between a child and a caregiver who may have introduced abuse or neglect into the relationship. The need for attachment is present, but the futility of seeking engagement keeps the child from initiating it.
Lastly, disorganized attachment manifests as seeming confusion in terms of response to the presence, departure, or absence of the child’s caregiver. This may arise from a child’s inconsistent experiences with their caregiver, which leads to a confused, disorganized response to the parent, whether the parent is absent or present.
In terms of friendships, if we extrapolate some of the early scenarios into adult-to-adult connections, you may recognize some of the qualities of those friends you might describe as toxic, as their behaviors may actually be self-protective behaviors that were modeled in metaphorically poisonous early bonds.
For instance, an ambivalent child may grow into an ambivalent young adult who desperately longs for warmth and social connections. However, their failure to attract the positive and supportive presence of their primary caregiver in their early years may have left them unskilled in the mutual give-and-take necessary for friendships, and they may be willing to go out of their way to please a friend, err on the side of co-dependence, and can be almost overwhelming in their need for approval or desire enmeshment. They may also be the friend who encourages your less-than-best behaviors (e.g., addictions, promiscuity, and so on), so that they can be the one you depend on or the one who enables you (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006).
The avoidant child may grow into the friend who stays on the periphery of your social friend-scape. Having been wounded deeply through personal relationships early in life, they may be hesitant to seek out close relationships as an adult. The expression “once burned, twice shy” is an apt description of the friendship-avoidant adult. Although they may long deeply to be a part of the group, have a close and intimate best friend, and be present and available for others, they may have no idea how to achieve these goals. They can be that “on-and-off-again” friend whose dependability and sense of empathy seem a bit spotty.
Developing a disorganized attachment style in childhood can produce a friend who seems to be always on their guard, afraid to fully trust, and ready to spring into action or retreat if threatened. It has even been suggested that a person who internalizes this style of attachment may spend their energy creating chaos and dysfunction in their adult relationships, as this is what is most familiar to them (Siegel D. And Solomon, 2003).
Thus, the potential for bringing “toxicity” into a current friendship may be predicated by someone’s earliest experiences in one-on-one relationships. Here are some suggestions for responding to those friends who you’d prefer to keep around, but who may be sabotaging your relationships without even realizing it:
Ambivalent Friends: Verbally affirm to your friend that you’re there for them, and that when a relationship is healthy and two-sided, behaviors such as clinging to you or trying to ingratiate themselves to you just aren’t helpful or necessary. Remind them of the times you’ve been there for them, and let them know that everyone needs some space if a relationship is going to thrive. Letting them know that you don’t need someone to “rescue” you may also be helpful if they try to create situations where you need “rescuing.”
Avoidant Friends: It may be hard to have “difficult conversations” with this type of friend. Fearful of being let down or let go, this friend may have a really tough time receiving and learning from honest and constructive feedback. Giving them positive feedback about what is “right” with the friendship first may make it easier to broach the subject of what is “off” in the relationship.
Disorganized Friends: This can be the most challenging friendship to maintain! Unskilled in healthy relationships, this friend relies on a variety of engagement behaviors that range from disappearing from your friend-scape when you need them to creating crisis after crisis to keep you running to their rescue. Letting this friend know that you’re worn out by their unpredictability may result in anything from a vanishing act to a new drama that has you cast as the hero. If it’s a friend you feel honor bound to keep, lower your expectations and enjoy it when the relationship feels like a normal friendship.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Siegel D. And Solomon D. (2003). Healing trauma: Attachment, mind, body, and brain. New York: Norton Publishing Group.
Snyder, R., Shapiro, S., & Treleaven, D. (2012). Attachment Theory and mindfulness. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 21(5), 709-717.