Is Your Childhood Wrecking Your Love Life?

Looking at working models of relationship

Posted Jul 21, 2015

Aaron Burden/
Source: Aaron Burden/

Our childhood experiences shape us in myriad ways, not the least of which is how our early attachments to our parents form our mental representations of how relationships work. These representations lie outside of our consciousness, unless we’ve actively brought them into awareness through therapy or self-education. A securely attached child with attuned and caring parents learns that the world is safe, that love is there for the asking, and that support is available. He or she is confident about expressing needs, comfortable getting close to others, and in touch with his or her emotions. The insecurely attached child learns instead that that support isn’t reliable; that love may be absent, withheld, withdrawn, or intermittently available; and, in worst case, that the world of emotional connection is unsafe and even dangerous. The insecurely attached child and later adult will develop either an anxious or an avoidant style of relating.

Anxious attachment reflects the perception of relationship as basically unreliable; these people worry and even obsess about the sincerity of their partners’ commitment, get jealous and angry when they feel threatened (which is often), and are constantly looking out for cues or signs that their partners’ interest is flagging. The avoidant also sees relationship as unreliable and possibly dangerous but here the answer is distance, self-reliance and independence, and directed effort at being uninvolved on an intimate level. While the anxiously attached person immerses him or herself in the relationship and loses sight of boundaries, the avoidantly attached individual acts as if he or she is in a relationship, all the while staying emotionally outside of it.

Alas, much of relationship stress—not to mention discord, fracture, and rupture—can be understood as the result of people with very different attachment styles getting together. Put two securely attached people together and you can cue the violins and, all things considered, they are good to go. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they won’t ever disagree or fight, or that they will necessarily stay together forever. It does mean that they have a home court advantage in terms of being able to communicate, a shared goal of needing and wanting real intimacy, and are less likely to engage in some of the more toxic behaviors—demand/withdraw, belittling your partner, making criticism highly personal, and the like—that bedevil relationships and are, according to John Gottman and other experts, the fuel for divorce.

But combine one securely attached person with an anxiously attached person and get ready for some real challenges and don’t forget to fasten your seatbelts. That was the case for Mike and Susie who had been dating for two years. Mike had been doing his best to quell Susie’s constant need for reassurance and her anxiety about whether he really loved her until he was promoted and suddenly found himself traveling ten days out of every month for work. In an effort to reassure her and to show his commitment, Mike suggested they move in together which they did. But that didn’t help; Susie would call or text him during working hours, even though he’d had told her that it was unlikely he would be able to respond. When he didn’t answer, she would get progressively more wound up as the day went on. In person or over the phone, their arguments became constant, covering the same ground over and over—with Susie complaining that she wasn’t important to him and Mike saying that he felt suffocated—until, finally, Mike moved out and ended the relationship.

A secure man or woman may initially be attracted to an avoidant partner—she or he may seem fiercely independent, even mysterious, and a challenge—but will conclude, sooner or later, that the thrill of the chase isn’t worth it and that his or her needs aren’t being met in terms of intimacy and sharing.

But the real tinderbox of mismatches is that of the anxiously attached with the avoidantly attached, a predictable disaster-in-the-making with one person reacting with super-charged neediness, clingy behavior, and angst and the other—already inclined to keep at a distance in relationship—feeling the need to run for the hills, while being content to play the game at least for a while. He or she may like the feeling of control or the rush of power that pushing a needy person around can give some people. Each person in the relationship in this case locates his or her need for intimacy—and understanding of what constitutes closeness—at opposite ends of the spectrum.

How to recognize attachment styles in yourself and others

Luckily, there’s no shortage of excellent research on attachment styles and available information, and perhaps the key to either disentangling yourself from a “bad fit” relationship or seeing if it can possibly be salvaged is understanding the motivations that underlie the behaviors of the anxiously and avoidantly attached. Here are some of the characteristics that science has discovered:

1. They have sex for different reasons

That’s exactly what a study by Dory A. Schachner and Phillip R. Shaver clarified. Previous research showed that avoidant people were less likely to fall in love, more likely to play games and manipulate, and preferred non-committal casual sex. Additionally, an earlier study by these authors showed that while avoidants were likely to try to poach someone else’s guy or gal, it was only for the purpose of short-term sex and self-aggrandizement. In this study, Schachner and Shaver hypothesized and showed that avoidant people would be motivated to have sex for status-related reasons or to maintain control. In contrast, anxious individuals were motivated to have sex because of their fear of abandonment and need to feel valued by their partner; in this scenario, having sex is a way of tamping down fear and feeling cared for. While the authors admit that the study was limited since it was conducted with young adults (college students) as participants, nonetheless they noted that relatively avoidant people “do not have sex to promote intimacy or express warm feeling for their partner. On the other hand, relatively anxious people, regardless of gender, have sex for reasons associated with insecurity and a need for intimacy—to feel valued by their partners, to feel overpowered by their partners, to induce their partners to love them more—and to help themselves feel better…”

It’s interesting that, albeit for wholly different reasons, both the anxious and the avoidant see sex as being about the self, not the partner or the dyad. That observation is borne out and underscored by another study cited below.

2. They experience sexual activity differently with different consequences for relationship

Another study, this one by Gurit Birnbaum and others, looked beyond the motives for having sex and focused instead on how the anxious and the avoidant experience sex, and how for each sexual activity connects to relationship. In this case, the participants ranged in age from 17 to 48. What’s interesting about this line of inquiry is that, as the authors note, while it’s true that empirical evidence links sexual satisfaction to the quality and stability of a romantic relationship, clinical evidence suggests that “harmonious couples can have relatively distressed sexual interactions whereas other couples have turbulent relationships but great sex.” They go to write that a theoretical framework for understanding the role sex plays in romantic relationship, particularly the interplay between sexual activity and relational problems, appears to be lacking, and they suggest that attachment styles might provide one. The results were illuminating. Their first study had participants self-report scales of attachment orientation and then answer questions about sexual experience, relational issues, sex-related issues, and feelings and thoughts about pleasure. They found that highly anxious people reported focusing on their own needs while wanting their partner’s emotional involvement but also reported aversive feelings during sexual intercourse and doubts about being loved. Avoidant people reported low levels of pleasure and pleasure-related feelings, and strong aversive feelings during sexual intercourse; they too were focused on their own needs. In the second smaller study, fifty participants kept a diary for 42 days, reporting on both sexual activity and relationship quality each day, as well as their feelings and thoughts after having sex. Not altogether surprisingly, a good sexual experience, especially among women, decreased relational anxiety while a not-so-good one increased it. Either way, the authors noted that, for the anxiously attached,  sex functioned as a barometer for the quality of the relationship. That wasn’t true for avoidants for whom both good sex and bad sex alike did not affect their view of the relationship. This led the researchers to conclude that avoidants have sex for “relationship-irrelevant” reasons. So much for trying to increase a feeling of intimacy with an avoidant.

3. People who are insecurely attached are diminished by connection, not made stronger

This is perhaps the least discussed aspect of the bigger differences between the securely attached and those who aren’t. As the work of Brooke Feeney has shown, paradoxically, securely attached people who can depend on their partners actually become more independent and more able to take chances and risks because they know they will have support if there’s a setback. For different reasons, the anxious and the avoidant don’t experience this kind of personal growth through connection.

Another study found similar results, this time focusing on energy. The researchers posited that because securely attached people are more skilled and able to manage negative emotion and because managing negative emotion uses up energy and self-control, the securely attached would be more energetic. In contrast, the insecurely attached are using their energy to deal with triggers and activations of the attachment systems—whether that’s “I’m being abandoned!” or “I’m being encroached!” Using primes on participants —visualizing either a securely attached person or an insecurely attached one—and then writing about the experience and reporting how energetic they felt, the researchers confirmed their hypothesis over a series of experiments. This actually makes perfect sense. Just spend a few minutes visualizing what you feel like with an emotionally demanding or withdrawn person compared with someone who is available and grounded, and check your own energy levels.

4. Insecure attachment may have been an evolutionary advantage, if not a personal one

Okay, all you insecurely attached folks—I am one of you although I have earned some security along the way—why are there so many of us if being securely attached yields more happiness and satisfaction? That’s what a team of psychologists wanted to know: if some 40% of us (and perhaps more) are insecurely attached, where’s the evolutionary advantage? They theorized that we may be the Paul Reveres of evolution, the ones who don’t stay calm and optimistic in the face of threat like our securely attached peers who may ignore or underestimate the severity of a threat. The anxiously attached might be the clarion callers in this scenario while the avoidants who are always concerned with themselves first might have set an example and showed the way out to those warm, fuzzy, and secure types. This is all theory, of course, but I am not about to write a thank-you note to evolution for the lessons of my childhood.

But mental representations aren’t set in stone.

They can be changed; it’s called earned secure attachment. If how you relate is making you unhappy or thwarting your efforts to really connect, there’s work to be done. You can make those unconscious patterns conscious and change them. Secure attachment, thank goodness, isn’t just for those lucky few who had enviable childhoods.

Copyright © 2015 by Peg Streep



Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994,

Schachner, Dory A. and Philip R. Shaver, “Attachment Dimensions and Sexual Motives,”Personal Relationships  (2004), 11, 179-195.

Birnbaum, Gurit E., Harry T. Reis, Mario Mikullineer, Omri Gillath, and Agala Orpaz, “When Sex is More than Just Sex: Attachment Orientations, Sexual Experience, and Relationship Quality, “ (2006), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol.91, no.5, 929-943.

Feeney, Brooke C. “The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence promotes Independence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007), vol, 92, no, 22, 268-285.

Luke, Michelle Anne, Constantine Sedikides, and Kathy Carnelley, “Your Love Lifts Me Higher: The Energizing Quality of Secure Relationships,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2012), 38 (6), 721-733.Ein-dor, Taschi, Mario Mikulincer, Guy Duron, and Phillip R. Shaver,” The Attachment Paradox: How Can So Many of Us (the Insecure Ones (Have No Adaptive Advantages?”Perspectives on Psychological Science (2010), 5 (2), 123-141.