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Relationships

The Relationships That Shape Us

How attachment style impacts adult relationship satisfaction.

Key points

  • Attachment style refers to how our caregiver interactions in childhood shape how we think, feel, and act in our adult relationships.
  • While attachment style, either secure or insecure, is established in childhood, it has the ability to be improved over time.
  • Cultivating healthier attachment starts with processing how the past is impacting our experience of the present moment.
  • By identifying our relationships patterns influenced by our attachment style, we can consciously choose to replace them with healthier ones.

As social creatures, relationships are our natural habitat. Our close bonds shape who we are and have a profound impact on our mental health and well-being.

From the moment our parents cradle us in their arms for the first time, they instantly soothe us and make us feel safe in this strange new world we’ve landed in. In the first years of our lives, our relationship with our caregivers creates a mental blueprint for what to expect from others in the future and has an imprint on our levels of trust, openness, and security in future romantic relationships. When our parents are consistently loving and supportive, we tend to feel confident and secure in our romantic bonds later in life. If our parents were dismissive or inconsistent, we can carry mistrust and insecurity into our future partnerships. The way we learn to view others based on our experience with our parents is known as our attachment style (Bowlby, 1988).

The parallels between relationships with early caregivers and later romantic partners can be boiled down to one thing: their ability to make us feel safe and cared for. In a world of infinite unknowns and uncertainty, the people close to us buffer the intolerable fear of not knowing what will happen next.

The reassurance we need in order to explore the world as young children is similar to the need for reassurance from others as we navigate the many phases and challenges of adulthood. A partner who takes an interest in our inner experience and consistently shows up for us increases our well-being and immunological functioning (Cozolino, 2014).

But what if our relationships are a source of danger instead of safety? The power of relationships to impact our lives has just as much potential for good as it does to create damage. Children who were mistreated, abused, and neglected enter into adult relationships with an unhealthy model of interacting with those close to them. They have learned that getting close to other people is a source of potential hurt and distress, causing them to act in erratic or damaging patterns with intimate partners.

Our attachment style, either secure or insecure, is a powerful unconscious force that colors our subjective experience of love and romantic partnerships. We all have one, and so do our partners, and it is continuously impacted by every close relationship we have.

Our failures and negative experiences become encoded in the fear centers of the brain called the amygdala, which is why past heartbreak tends to haunt us long after we’ve “moved on.” Even years after we get cheated on in a toxic relationship and we meet a healthy partner who is worthy of our trust, our amygdala will subtly but powerfully influence our experience.

This isn’t happening on a conscious level, so we likely won’t think “This person is dangerous and should be avoided.” Instead, our amygdala will put our bodies on alert, causing knots in our stomach during moments of intimacy, or we might find ourselves canceling plans, and avoiding getting close to that partner without understanding why. Often the why has to do with past negative experiences that have impacted our feelings of security and we’re essentially transferring them onto the present moment. When we can identify these unhelpful patterns, we have the ability to choose to respond differently.

While attachment is established in our early lives, it can be altered over the course of our lives through new experiences. Essentially, we have the ability to teach our brains to open up to new possibilities of what it means to be close to someone. If our childhoods created a negative association with being close to others, we can counterbalance this with positive experiences in adulthood. Our brains are association machines and constantly encode new information from new experiences, and we have the ability to replace old patterns with newer, healthier ones.

David Richo, the author of When the Past is Present, recommends using the acronym APRI when navigating the transfer of old emotions. This model for processing can be applied in identifying relational patterns and moving toward healthier attachment:

Address: Identify the problem.

I have a hard time trusting my partner with my feelings because my mom denied and shamed me when I experienced strong emotions as a child.

Process: Express feelings, non-aggressively without losing control.

I feel disappointed that I had to suppress so much of what I was feeling as a child and I wish I would have been given the option to experience my emotions exactly as I felt them.

Resolve: Take action.

When I feel the urge to dismiss a feeling that arises in me, I’m going to pause and remind myself that I deserve to feel whatever I feel and express it honestly.

Integrate: Reshaping our lives around the information we’ve learned.

In order to adopt this new way of processing, I’m going to tell my partner about it and ask that he patiently helps me to navigate my feelings as they present themselves rather than agreeing to my dismissal of them.

The harmonious melding of two lives into a single relationship system is a complicated and ever-moving target. In order to cultivate healthy attachment as adults, we must learn to recognize how our past comes to shape our perception of the present moment. By creating safety between partners, we can mutually explore the way that our individual needs, fears, and insecurities come to color our experience of the world. Bridging the gap between the inner workings of two people is an essential component of deep and lasting intimacy in meaningful relationships.

References

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge.

Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. W W Norton & Co.

Richo, D. (2008). When the past is present: Healing the emotional wounds that sabotage our relationships. Boston: Shambhala.

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