Thursday, February 27, 2014

Becoming who we are: Attachment Styles

Have you ever wondered why you and your spouse or partner come back to old patterns of conflict, even when you have had these disagreements more than once? Do you have patterns of conflict that you have noticed over time? Often this means that something is unresolved, regardless of your previous attempts to hammer out answers or compromises.

There are numerous possibilities, but one of the most enduring might be related to our individual attachment styles. These are patterns of behavior we all have that tell us how to relate to others. These are our models for all our future relationships that we have to try to change if they don’t work for us as adults.

If we think of our earliest relationships, those with our Mom and Dad and others, we can get some sense of how we first learned the lessons of relating that live with us into adulthood.

Our parents had their own challenges and they could provide only what they knew to provide us. They had their own patterns that were, generally, consistently used with us for better and worse. They have passed down their treatment of us, from the way their own parents treated them. Did they come from a stable loving home with dependable, affectionate parents themselves? Or did they have the self-absorbed and neglectful parents that could not be considered reliable?

Ideally, our parents were able to provide consistent and predictable patterns to our lives that made us feel like we could expect that things would be loving and stable most of the time. Hopefully, this style of parenting allowed you to feel safe and supported especially when you were under some form of stress.

A majority of us (some estimate 60%) knew we could depend on our parents as positive influences to be there to rescue us if needed. But that leaves a large minority that did not have that same certainty. Perhaps our parents were inconsistent in their care of us or even let us down regularly. What happens to kids who become adults when they came from this background?

Imagine the toddler, who smiles as she looks back at Mom or Dad, and then walks away, a little further each time, until she eventually turns and comes back, or the parent races to catch up to her. Often, this exploration by the child ends in a loving embrace and the reassurance of the parent’s finding them with all the smiling and giggling that accompanies this “game”. This is an example of how secure attachments are built. We are learning that our feeling good, or not, is related to what we do and how we are rewarded by our parents is a big part of that process.

Now imagine another toddler, looking back and not seeing the smiling supportive face of a loving parent. Maybe there is the angry face of the anxious parent or maybe the parent isn’t there at all. What would you expect that child to do? They might look around hopefully at first but soon their smile is gone and they quickly show signs of anxiety; the abrupt side-to-side scanning and the slight grimace that grows into the crying of a lost child.

This lack of positive parental feedback often results in chronic anxiety and, over time, it can lead to an insecure or anxious type of attachment, developing. This style of attachment can become our set of adult expectations that can lead us to conclude that people are undependable, and yet we might feel that we need them desperately. There is a long list of possible beliefs that can be a part of this style that can result in our relationships being more difficult and less satisfying.

So why is it not always that easy to make these needs and expectations fit with those of our partner? Maybe you have different attachment styles or simply have different ways of expressing your feelings and needs. Practice saying what you need directly and specifically. You might consider how you can do this gently at first and then, if it is successful or not, try it again.

In all but the most, damaged relationships, it is usually possible to grow with your significant other in ways that make your lives more emotionally healthy and satisfying. How do you do that?

As always, recognize what is happening. What are your own patterns of behavior in your relationships and is conflict or sadness often a part of them? Tell yourself you are now looking for a better way to get your needs met rather than what you might have always done.

Discuss and negotiate what those things are that will make you feel the way you want to feel when you are with your partner. Stop thinking you can fix it once and forget about it. These efforts are often ongoing and doing them, and receiving what you most want, most of the time, can get you closer to your partner and a more fulfilling relationship. If you need help, ask for it.

I’m reminded of a card someone once gave me. It showed a famous exchange by Winnie the Pooh and his companion, Piglet, while walking hand-in-hand Piglet squeezed Pooh’s hand and Pooh asked, “What is it Piglet?” to which Piglet replied, “Oh nothing, I just wanted to be sure of you.” This is very similar to asking for and receiving the reassurance that someone is there for you, just as we expect from our partners. Just as we expected from our parents. Did it work out that way for you?

Our relationships can be more satisfying and more stable if we make the efforts to get them there. We will go deeper into this in our next post. Thanks for joining me.