How Early Attachment with Parents Impacts Our Adult Relationships

June 25, 2021

The relationship children have with their primary caregivers—usually their mother and father, has a lasting impact.  Attachment patterns are established early in childhood and are pervasive.  They often influence who we choose as friends or partners and how those relationships progress over time.  That is why understanding your attachment style can help you understand your strengths and vulnerabilities in relationships.   

How attachment styles are formed

Attachment styles are developed in infancy and early childhood.  How the primary caregiver responds to a child’s cues when in distress actually shapes the developing brain.  This, then, influences us throughout life in terms of how we cope with loss, how we get our needs met, and how we behave in relationships.

There are four attachment styles.  Here’s a quick look at what circumstances lead to each attachment pattern and the implications for adult relationships.  

  • Secure Attachment Under the best of circumstances, parents are physically present and are emotionally engaged with their children. Caregivers are responsive and attuned to their child’s needs.  In such instances, children see their parent as a secure base from which they can venture out and independently explore the world. 
      • Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships, feeling connected while allowing themselves and their partner to move freely. Secure adults can offer support and comfort when their partner feels distressed.
      • Their relationship tends to be honest, open, and mutual and each partner feels independent and loving toward one another.  

All other attachment patterns are known as insecure attachment styles. 

  • Anxious AttachmentHere caregivers are inconsistent and unpredictable with affection. Parents may be overly involved as well as intermittently withdrawn.  This unpredictable fluctuation often leads children to feel anxious about their future relationships.
      • Someone with an anxious attachment has a deep fear of abandonment.  They tend to be very insecure about their relationships, often worrying that their partner will leave them.  Consequently, one will often need and seek validation and reassurance.   
      • Adults with anxious attachment also frequently look to their partner to rescue or complete them.  They may seek a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, but their actions may actually push their partner away.  
  • Avoidant attachment Here caregivers are not responsive, rather they are dismissive and often distant.  They are consistently disconnected emotionally from their child which results in the child believing their needs will go unmet.  
      • Adults with this attachment style often have a fear of intimacy. They live in an ambivalent state in which they are afraid of being both too close or too distant from others and struggle with trust. 
      • They typically maintain some distance from their partners or are largely emotionally unavailable in their relationships, preferring to be independent and rely on themselves.
  • Fearful-avoidant attachmentThis attachment style is a combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles.  The caregiver may be neglectful or even abusive leaving the child to feel frightened or traumatized.  
      • When this occurs, the child experiences a deep sense of fear and a lack of trust in others despite wanting close connections.  The child develops a poor understanding of boundaries and is confused about what a healthy relationship looks like.  
      • People with this attachment style both desperately crave affection, but at the same time want to avoid it at all costs. They are reluctant to develop a close romantic relationship despite their dire need to feel loved by others.
      • A person with fearful-avoidant attachment may even wind up in an abusive relationship.

Benefits of therapy

The attachment style you developed as a child doesn’t have to define your ways of relating to those you love in your adult life. If you come to know your attachment style, you can uncover ways you are defending yourself from getting close and emotionally connected with others. You can work toward forming an “earned secure attachment.” 

Reach out to 12 Oaks Counseling today.  You can challenge your insecurities and fears and develop and sustain satisfying, loving relationships.