Insecure Attachment Styles & Adult Relationships

How Do Insecure Attachment Styles Impact Adult Relationships?

 “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” – Dalai Lama

Attachment styles develop within the context of your earliest relationships… the ones with your parent(s) or primary caregiver(s). According to attachment theory, these formative relationships serve as the foundation from which you develop an understanding of how relationships work, what to expect from other people, and how safe or “secure” you feel within a relational context. One way to think about the way attachments styles impact adult relationships is to imagine your attachment style as the “lens” through which you view relationships. If that lens is blurry or cracked, it’s understandable for the way you experience and interpret interpersonal situations to be a bit skewed.

Attachment Style Development

Attachment styles don’t simply develop overnight. A few really positive or negative encounters with your parent(s) / primary caregiver(s) are unlikely to make a huge impact. It’s through repetitive interactions – perceived as either frustrating or rewarding – that attachment styles take shape. If children learn that their attachment figures are unreliable, inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive, they may be at a greater risk for developing an insecure attachment style. On the other hand, if children learn that their parent(s) are generally available, emotionally attuned, and generally responsive to their needs, they are more likely to develop a secure attachment style.

Children have an intrinsic drive to seek proximity and bond with their primary caretaker. This is a highly adaptive survival strategy that ideally leads to the child’s capacity to manage stress, explore the world without undue fear, and develop a coherent sense of self in relation to others. When the relationship with a primary attachment figure does not provide sufficient structure, safety, or emotional attunement, children may be more likely than others to develop an anxious, avoidant, or fearful pattern of relating with other people. In addition to the impact parental behaviors on attachment style, a child’s inborn temperament plays a significant role in shaping the attachment bond.

The emotional, psychological, and social consequences of an insecure attachment style include:

  • Tuning out and becoming emotionally distant in relationships – often as a result of learning that early attachment figures are unwilling or unable to sufficiently meet basic needs.
  • Maintaining an insecure stance in relation to others, alternating between feeling needy sometimes and other times rejecting – often as a result of a parental figure who is “consistently inconsistent” or unpredictable.
  • Becoming aggressive, erratic, or angry – sometimes as a result of parental behavior that the child perceived as disorienting, abusive, or frightening.
  • Delayed normative social or cognitive developmental processes.

Insecure Attachment Styles in Adults

It is worth noting that not all children who experience inadequate, or even abusive, parenting go on to develop an insecure attachment style as an adult… just as not all children who receive emotionally attuned, available, or responsive care-taking necessarily go on to develop a secure attachment style as an adult. There are no guarantees, but there are risk factors and protective factors that can exert a significant influence on attachment. Additionally, the impact of parental behaviors should not be underestimated insofar as they represent a pivotal early blueprint from which future relationships are often drafted and constructed.

The two primary insecure attachment styles include:

Attachment Avoidance

People with high levels of attachment-related avoidance tend to be somewhat emotionally distant or avoid emotional connections with other people. Sometimes this type of insecure attachment may manifest itself as independence or self-reliance, although there is often a core belief within the person that others are undependable or unable to meet their needs. These adults may have grown up with parents who were critical or unavailable (physically, psychologically, or emotionally). In some cases, avoidant attachment can actually serve as an adaptive defense from intense distress/pain.

Attachment Anxiety

Adults with high levels of attachment-related anxiety have a tendency to cycle between feelings of insecurity/anxiety and controlling/blaming in close relationships. This relationship pattern can result in the individual behaving somewhat erratically or unpredictably, which can feel distressing to both parties. Ironically, behaving in such contradictory ways (pulling someone close one minute, and pushing them away the next) can bring about the very outcome that is often most dreaded: losing the relationship. This self-fulfilling prophecy can leave the anxiously attached adult feeling justified in their core beliefs about others, often as a result of inconsistent parenting. For instance, they may have had parents who behaved inconsistently, alternated between over-protection and under-protection, or were inappropriately intrusive.

When you reflect back on your early childhood and adolescent experiences with your parents, what thoughts and emotions come up for you? It is completely natural for the relationships you have with your parent(s) to set the stage for what you expect – and even seek out – in your close relationships as an adult. The idea behind uncovering your own attachment style is not to feel like there is something “wrong” with you. Far from it. The wisdom that comes from earnestly seeking this kind of self-knowledge can provide you with the key to unlock a different, and more joyful, future.

While you cannot go back in time and rewrite history, you can take responsibility for the power that you have now, as an adult, to choose the way the rest of your story goes. Challenge yourself to apply greater mindfulness to your relationships. Notice how the attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that you choose can either invite or disallow the way others perceive and treat you in relationships. You can begin to build relationships on a solid foundation of mutual respect, empathy, and kindness from this point forward… no matter how they may have felt in the past.

Remember to practice self-compassion and self-care, while simultaneously challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zone now and then. You will begin to feel the signal of a strong internal compass, with intuition guiding your chosen actions toward healthier relationships. Trusting yourself and treating yourself as worthy of love and respect can serve as crucial stepping stones along the path toward developing a more secure attachment style as an adult.

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If you are interested in learning what your adult attachment style is, try this free attachment style quiz, based on the widely used “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised” (ECR-R) questionnaire.

Segal, J., & Jaffe, J. (2014, February). Attachment and adult relationships: How the attachment bond shapes adult relationships. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eqa_attachment_bond.htm

Featured image: Dead Love by Tyler Hebert / CC BY 2.0

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