One of the most common reasons for people to seek counselling is that they are having difficulty maintaining healthy and fulfilling relationships with others. In this post I am going to be talking about couple relationships specifically and how the nature of the couple relationship is related to attachment style. Although I am focusing on couple relationships in this post, the underlying theory on attachment applies to relationships with family and friends as well. Couple relationships can be one of the most joyful and satisfying experiences in life but they can also be one of the most difficult and painful. It is possible, through understanding, work and insight, to create the type of relationship that you desire, be it with a current partner or a potential partner.
‘Attachment style’ refers to how we relate to ourselves and our partners in the context of an intimate relationship. It encompasses how we feel and think about ourselves, our partner and the interactions and patterns of communication that occur in the space between the two partners, in the relationship. Attachment style develops in childhood and is based mainly on the type and quality of our early relationships with caregivers. For many and varied reasons, it happens that sometimes, as vulnerable children, we do not feel safe, and the development of a secure attachment pattern is interrupted.
Attachment style can basically be broken down into two types, secure and insecure. There are several specific subcategories of insecure attachment but for the purpose of simplicity, I will just refer to secure or insecure attachment in this post.
A person with a secure attachment style generally holds a worldview that includes a basic trust of others. a belief that he or she is lovable and a sense of self that is stable and doesn’t shift and change depending on who one is with. People who have a secure attachment style are able to understand and accept their own imperfections and those of their partner. This style of attachment allows people to understand that the world is not black and white, that there are gray areas and uncertainties and risks inherent in relationships. This style allows one to fully engage emotionally in the relationship and contributes to deep intimacy, growth and fulfillment. The secure attachment style encompasses a self that can be trusted and relied upon to manage and survive should the relationship end.
Given the qualities of the secure attachment style, it follows that the insecure attachment style begins with a basic lack of trust in the self and others. A person with an insecure attachment style questions, often outside of conscious awareness, their own value, judgment and worth. If one doubts their own value, it follows that one would also question how someone else could actually, truly love them. And when someone comes along who does love them, it is difficult to trust that this is true. This underlying insecurity leads to constant doubt in the self, the partner and the relationship. It leads to many behaviours and reactions that damage and erode the relationship and the cycle is self-perpetuating. And to top that off, it is likely that people with insecure attachment styles are attracted to, and in a relationship with, partners who also have an insecure attachment style.
One pattern of relationship that results from insecure attachment styles is the one that is full of fear, manifesting in jealousy, suspicion, possessiveness and controlling behaviours. The underlying mechanism here is a PRIMAL FEAR of abandonment. The fear is intense and is difficult to disengage from. Thoughts and fears around the partner and the relationship are pervasive and the resulting behaviours and reactions range from intense, fearful clinging to the partner to intense rage towards the partner and everything in between. There is a wide spectrum of severity in these behaviours, from what would be perceived as flattering jealousy or possessiveness, at one end, to severe restrictive behaviours at the other, such as one partner not allowing the other to leave the home.
We need now to touch on the subject of perception. How we perceive ourselves, other people and relationships is unique and subjective. Our own, individual perceptions are coloured by our past experiences and belief systems. So, each person has a unique pair of glasses, or lenses, through which they view the world. If we put on a pair of glasses that have tinted pink lenses, what we see will be pink objects in the world. Our perception of ourselves and others is coloured by the collection of emotional experiences we have had from birth onwards. When we are very young, and before we really have language skills, experiences are stored in consciousness as emotional impressions and reactions. When young children experience the fear of being alone, rejected or abandoned, it is a PRIMAL FEAR that feels like a threat to their life and existence. They will adapt their behaviour in many ways in order to get their needs met and feel some sense of security. When we grow up, these patterns, fears and reactions are buried deeply in our subconscious. We interpret and react, as adults, through our individual collection of experiences, in other words, through our unique lens.
I am going to end this post here. This is a ton of information to take in and think about. If you are interested in this topic, it would be useful and helpful to take some time to journal or think about what type of attachment style you think you have and about what events and situations may have coloured how you perceive the world.
I will post Part 2 in the next week and will give some concrete examples of how relationships develop and what reactions are triggered when there is an insecure attachment style.
Please feel free to comment on this post, including letting me know if it is logical and understandable, or too theoretical, or any other thoughts you might have about it.