Many individuals find themselves repeatedly experiencing difficulties with relationships in their life, including intimate, friendships, and even professional ones, but not understand why this happens. They just find it difficult, or even impossible, to maintain fulfilling and safe relationships – something always seems to be amiss.
To understand why this happens, it is key to understand the nature of relationships in their early life. Often, our first experiences of social interactions that take place with primary caregivers can go on to influence how we understand and operate in all relationships across life. As babies, each one of our experiences is a “first time” experience. In these early years of life, our brains absorb information and try to learn about the world, in order to form a mental map or framework with which they can more efficiently make decisions and operate over time. This framework of social interaction is called our “Attachment Style”. For this reason, the early environment is critical in influencing how we come to behave in relationships.
All individuals have basic psychological needs for healthy growth and development. These include connectedness, mastery and competence, and sense of control and agency. When the early environment and caregivers satisfy these needs to the child, individuals are more likely to form an adaptive attachment style that allows for healthy social, emotional, and mental function. However, when any or all these needs go unmet, it can lead to them forming maladaptive attachment styles that go on to inhibit healthy development. The 4 main attachment styles are:
1. Secure: healthy attachment, characterised by feeling secure in relationships and ability for independence as well as dependency.
2. Avoidant/Dismissive: a form of insecure attachment whereby close emotional connection is avoided, and importance of independence is overly emphasised.
3. Anxious: a form of insecure attachment where there is high anxiety about relationships, and often can lead to co-dependency.
4. Disorganised: inconsistency in attachment, often oscillating between extremes.
Attachment styles, and early experiences of caregiving, can influence various aspects of our lives. Research has shown that attachment plays an important role in development of emotional regulation skills. Emotional regulation is the ability to appropriately experiences, integrate and express emotions, and the neuronal circuits in charge of these skills are developed in early and formative years. In secure attachment, when the caregiver is attentive and responsive to a child’s needs, the child develops flexible and appropriate emotional regulation skills, and also learns to similarly attend to their needs later in life.
However, if caregivers were neglectful, rejecting or harmful, it can lead to insecure attachment and poor emotional regulation ability. In anxious attachment, the caregiver would typically have been inconsistent with their attention, often even preoccupied with their own anxieties. In turn, children may maximise negative affect to obtain their attention. For such children, they may find it hard to predict when they would receive affection, and as adults go on to feel anxious in relationships. Additionally, they may find it difficult to down-regulate their emotions, and often relying on others to help with this, which contributes to co-dependency; they may also learn to be highly attuned to others’ needs but compromise their own. In avoidant attachment, caregivers might have been conditional with their affection, often rejecting of the child’s negative affect. Therefore, the child may minimise when they are upset. As adults this may lead to difficulty identifying and expressing emotions, and fear/avoidance of becoming close or vulnerable with others. As such, emotional interdependence or intimacy may feel uncomfortable.
As humans, we are wired to learn from our environment and do whatever we need to survive, even if this means relying on maladaptive skills. There is a reason we come to be the way we are. The problems occurs when we continue to rely on those skills as we grow older, and they are no longer relevant.
It is clear that early experiences of caregiving have an impact on our wellbeing and relationships. However, this need not mean we are determined by our past. Research indicates that individuals can change their attachment styles and behaviours. This often starts with recognising the impacts that our early environments have had, and re-learning how to fulfil our emotional needs. Self-compassion and validation are at the core of this – the ability to recognise and name what is occurring in our internal world, and warmly accepting these thoughts and feelings as a significant and valid. This is not an easy or quick process, and it cannot be as our old patterns are all we have known for a long time and helped get us to where we are. However, with time and acceptance, these old frameworks can find a way to become healthier.