How Childhood Affects Your Relationships
Written by Laken Howard for Bustle
Narcissistic Abuse Awareness and Guidance with Randi Fine
If you’ve ever wondered why you tend to behave a certain way in your relationships, figuring out your attachment style can give you a ton of useful insight. To put it in the simplest terms, attachment theory — first developed in the 1960s by psychologists Mary Ainsowrth and John Bowlby — states that the way your caregivers interact with you during your childhood significantly influences your social and emotional development. Then, during adulthood, those learned behaviors and expectations (aka your attachment style) inform how you relate to and interact with others.
“Your attachment style is usually formed in childhood when relating to your parents and family,” Brianna Rader, relationship and sex educator and founder of the Juicebox Sex & Relationship App, tells Bustle. “Knowing your attachment style can help you be more self-aware and recognize your strengths and weaknesses when dating and forming relationships.”
If you’re looking to better your love life, figuring out your attachment style can be an immensely helpful tool: understanding why you have certain habits or exhibit certain patterns in relationships is the first step to correcting bad behavior and improving how you form relationships. Although there are many variations on each, there are four main attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Here’s a breakdown of what causes each, and how it can impact the way you conduct your relationships.
What Is Secure Attachment?
According to Rader, those with secure attachment are best described as people who feel secure and connected in their relationships, and, as a result, allow themselves and their partners a certain level of distance and freedom. The root of these healthy behaviors? Having a caregiver who was attentive, supportive, and consistent throughout your upbringing.
“In childhood, the securely attached person likely experienced parents who are consistently responsive, supported emotional expression and regulation, and helped the child to develop an accurate sense of self and strong self-esteem,” Dr. Alyssa Adams, clinical psychologist and relationship coach, tells Bustle. “This child is developing a core belief system of worthiness and trust.”
Dating With Secure Attachment
If you grew up with a secure attachment to your caregiver, that gives you a leg-up when it comes to forming relationships in a healthy, positive way as an adult. You might find it easier to trust others, be vulnerable with a partner, and foster genuine and close connections.
“In adulthood, this partner will have a strong sense of self and a foundation for self-esteem,” Adams says. “[They] will likely be secure in their independence and would like a partner to enhance [their] life. This person feels whole and balanced without a partner and views relationships as a positive part of life. This person seeks relationships and emotional closeness and can provide it in return.”
However, having a secure attachment style doesn’t make someone a ‘perfect’ partner: everyone makes mistakes in relationships, and there are plenty of other factors that can influence your behavior in a relationship aside from your attachment style, like your previous relationship experiences and your personal history. Even if you have many good relationship habits as a result of a positive, stable upbringing, it’s important not to get complacent in your relationships:
What Is Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment?
If you notice that you have a tendency to be clingy in your relationships, feel desperate to bond with your partner, or even push your partner away at times, Rader says you likely experienced an anxious-preoccupied attachment style with your caregiver.
“This person’s childhood would likely be characterized by inconsistent parental attention, unpredictable support and responsiveness from caregivers, and a confusion regarding what to expect from a caregiver,” Adams says. “This child’s caregiver vacillates between providing safety, support, and emotional closeness and offering critical words, an intrusive approach, or controlling behavior.”
Dating With Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment
When you experience inconsistent support and comfort during your childhood, it can manifest in your adult relationships in unhealthy ways. If you grew up craving stability and emotional support at home, you might experience insecurity and doubts in your adult relationships, as well as need more reassurance from and contact with your partner.
“In adulthood, this style may appear to need constant reassurance, attention, and approval, but the person may experience low self-esteem and a strong inner critic,” Adams says. “The person may experience low confidence, frequent doubts, and fear rejection or critique in the relationship. This partner may be on the lookout for mistrust or infidelity in the relationship, may seem jealous, but [they] may also crave closeness, praise, and need constant contact. This might be the person who is nervous when a text isn’t replied to rapidly.”
Knowing how to ask for what you need from your partner is key to maintaining a healthy relationship — and if you’re aware that you have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, it’s even more crucial to communicate your needs and expectations. For example, it’s totally OK to need more reassurance from your partner, but if you don’t communicate that need, it can put a strain on both of you and create resentment in the relationship.
What Is Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment?
If you grew up with a caregiver who was detached or emotionally unavailable, Rader says that can manifest in adulthood as a tendency to emotionally distance yourself from your partner, too. Not being able to develop an emotional closeness to a caregiver as a child can make it more difficult to open up to others and nurture intimate connections as an adult.
“The caregiver was likely not ‘in tune’ with [their] child and may have not been responsive or emotionally supportive,” Adams says. “The parent was likely detached, distracted, and may have not fostered any amount of emotional expression in his or her child. The child may have learned that [they] need to physically and emotionally take care of [themselves].”
Dating With Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment
When forming relationships as an adult, Adams says that those with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style might experience unhealthy relationship habits such as restricting your feelings, limited emotional expression, and an avoidant approach to stress and communication.
“This person may be extremely difficult to create an emotional connection with, and [they] would likely not be interested in emotions or creating emotional closeness,” Adams says. “The person would not be introspective and would be unlikely to acknowledge or reflect on their feelings, and, as a result, this person may avoid relationships and may appear isolated. This person might be described as a ‘loner’ and would feel no need to develop relationships or emotional bonds with others.”
Allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable in a relationship isn’t easy for anyone, and if you didn’t experience close emotional bonds during your childhood it’s that much more difficult to develop close and healthy connections as an adult. The good news? It’s totally possible to learn to be more vulnerable in a relationship — and talking with a therapist is a great place to start if you’re unsure how to go about opening up.
What Is Fearful-Avoidant Attachment?
The last of the four main attachment styles is fearful-avoidant, which Rader classifies as people who aren’t just averse to, but fearful of, emotional closeness and intimacy. This attachment style is typically the result of being raised in an environment that was either abusive or otherwise cruel, and it can have a significant impact on your ability to form healthy relationships in adulthood.
“During childhood, the caregiver may be abusive, threatening, or cruel, which causes the child to feel unsafe with the very person who is supposed to ensure their safety,” Adams says. “Children may feel detached from their caregiver who is also their source of stress. They likely have learned to distance themselves from emotions and detach or dissociate during times of trauma or intense stress.”
Dating With Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
If you were raised by a caregiver who was neglectful, abusive, or mean, Adams says your attachment style could be characterized by a cold, aloof style of interaction, or even a ‘push-pull’ dynamic in your relationship.
“These adults may often engage in relationships but may feel very uncomfortable with emotional closeness and may push their partner away, which may result in having inconsistent or unstable relationships,” Adams says.
If you didn’t experience any warmth or emotional closeness from your caregiver as a child, it can be daunting and difficult to learn how to engage in a healthy, intimate relationship for the first time as an adult. That being said, it’s totally possible to learn how to have a healthy relationship later in life, though it will take both time and effort.
Can You Change Your Attachment Style?
“It’s important to note that those who do not develop secure attachments in childhood can change their relationship destiny and can modify their attachment style as adults — it will take some work but it can be done,” Adams says.
Ultimately, your attachment style is only one facet of who you are, and doesn’t necessarily dictate your relationship success. There are so many degrees and variations of the four main attachments styles, that even if you have the same attachment style as someone else, that doesn’t mean you’ll have exactly the same relationship habits and hang-ups. The good news? So long as you’re willing to do the legwork of building good relationship habits, there’s no reason you can’t maintain a happy and healthy relationship, regardless of your attachment style.