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Adult Attachment Styles Contribute to Recurring Relationship Problems

A couple leands together at an amusement park. If you are one of the many people out there who finds yourself in patterns of unhealthy relationships, perhaps you’ll benefit from identifying your attachment style—which not only could answer fundamental questions for you around your relationship triggers but also provide clues as to why you attract certain types of people.

There is a great deal of research out there on infant attachment (John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, to name two) about how early interactions with caregivers set up internal working models of expectations of how others will behave towards them in the future. Infants that do not feel safe physically or emotionally—because their cries go unanswered, or their facial expressions are not mirrored appropriately—with their primary caregivers may become adults who, in a variety of ways, struggle in relationships.

In recent years, newer models have been developed to describe the way adults in intimate relationships relate to each other. Their attachment styles can usually be tied to their own earlier experiences and whether or not they’ve had their needs met. There are four types of adult attachment styles, but keep in mind: many people could be classified as an overlap of several. Take a look at the list below and see if you can identify with any of them.

• Secure-Autonomous: You believe relationships are generally safe. You are comfortable with emotions and intimacy. You are optimistic about relationships lasting and bringing you satisfaction.

• Avoidant: You devalue relationships and may feel as if you don’t need them. You are uncomfortable with intimacy and vulnerability. You struggle with trusting people.

• Ambivalent: You fear and often worry about being abandoned. You are anxious and have a hard time coping when you’re emotionally triggered. You feel like a victim.

• Unresolved/Disorganized: You struggle to function, control your emotions and may dissociate or space out.

Do you fit into one of these categories or a combination of a few? If you think back to your childhood, and what you know about your experience with your primary caregivers, does it make any sense to you that you might relate to your adult relationships in a similar way? Don’t we all still want a secure base, internally and in our in our intimate partnerships, to feel safe and contained in the world?

The unfortunate reality is that many of us have attachment wounds that run the gamut from serious abuse by parents to inadvertent mistakes by parents who’ve never learned how to be the best parent they could be to their own child. These patterns tend to repeat themselves down family lines.

Just because we didn’t form secure attachments in the beginning doesn’t mean we can’t experience secure attachments as adults. Forming attachments requires developing an understanding of what kind of attachment style we have, making sense of why that fits for us, and having new experiences that counter our expectations.

The new research around the neuroplasticity of the brain, by folks like Daniel Siegel, suggests that there can be new learnings that cover up old learnings. If you break your unhealthy relationship pattern long enough and have a healthy experience, your internal working models can shift as your brain forges new neural pathways of experience. Don’t listen if someone tells you people can’t change.

© Copyright 2009 by Lisa Kift. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Ashley Schenkel

    November 13th, 2009 at 9:28 PM

    Great article Lisa!

    I practice Emotionally Focused Therapy with couples and do just this work, help couples re-connect and form a secure attachment with one another.

    I tell clients often “Many of us have no reason to know what a good adult love relationship looks like.”

    Asking people to take these risks and try relating in a different manner feels so scary in the room, but the risk is worth the gain. What I love about the work I do is hearing couples say to each other at the end of therapy “She loves me. I know that now, I feel that now all the time.” What a wonderful thing to feel, say, believe, and hear!

  • Peter Parsons, L.I.C.S.W.

    November 14th, 2009 at 11:07 AM

    Thanks for this helpful information. I’m looking for “measurable treatment goals” for my Utilization Review paperwork. Can you suggest any resources? Thank you. Peter

  • Jackie

    November 14th, 2009 at 5:56 PM

    Funny how it always seems to come back to what we experinced as children. I guess that this is how we learn what is right and what is wrong and also becomes the model for how we think that relationships need to be. So parents if reading something like this does not open your eyes then there is nothing that will. Remember that everything that you say and do is held onto by your children and the mistakes that you make are probably the ones that they are going to be destined to make in the future. That should encourage all of us to be better role models for them.

  • Wilson

    November 15th, 2009 at 5:19 AM

    Wow. first time I realized the consequences of every interaction a child has in childhood. So much we dont understand about other people and ourselves as adults. Especially when things fall into a pattern in relationships

  • Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

    December 1st, 2009 at 2:55 PM

    Ashley – Great to get feedback from another therapist. EFT is a powerful modality and really gets to the attachment injuries.

    Peter – Can’t think of any resources for measurable treatment goals. Sorry!

    Jackie – Yes, it’s so important for us stay mindful of what we model to our children and the messages we send.

    Wilson – Yes, we humans are relationally oriented. From the very start we seek bonding with our primary caregivers – and so we do in our intimate partnerships.

    Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

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