What’s the Influence of Attachment on Relationships?

By Dr Chi Nguyen

Relationship problems are a common issue that many people seek out therapy services to help them address. One of the approaches that I use to work with clients who are looking to gain insight into their relationship patterns is to examine their attachment system. Attachment system refers to the bond between an individual and their caregiver(s), and it dates back as early as the infancy stage. As children we depend on our caregivers to meet all of our needs, and depending on how the caregivers respond can affect our future views of relationships and the world around us. 

For example, when an infant cries out and the caregiver responds to her needs reliably and consistently, she will feel safe, cared for, wanted, and likely to be primed for a secure attachment. As a result, this child will grow up believing the world is a relatively safe place, and that others will be there for them. On the other hand, if that child’s needs were not met, or if her caregiver responded in an inconsistent, confusing, or even frightening way, the child may develop an insecure attachment style and less than ideal coping strategies to manage that relationship. Subsequently, that child could develop an insecure attachment style and grow up to be guarded and distrustful of others.

One’s attachment system serves as the blueprint for how they perceive and relate to others and the world around them.

Types of attachment styles:

Secure attachment

Caregivers are attuned to the child’s needs and respond to their needs with warmth, affection, and physical contact in a consistent and appropriate way. As a result, these children feel safe and loved. As adults, they are able to connect with their partners, friends, and co-workers. They are confident in their relationships and can give and receive love and affection from their partners when needed. Under stressful situations these individuals are able to self-regulate and exhibit resilience when faced with distress. 

Avoidant attachment (Dismissive):

Caregivers were often not attuned to the child’s needs, absent, neglectful, or rejecting of the child. The child was often left on their own so they had to learn to meet their own needs. As a result, these children grow up to become overly independent, and they tend to prefer to be alone. Connections can be stressful for them, so they will check out or shut down, and have difficulties expressing their emotions and needs to others. In addition, they can be overly critical in relationships. 

Ambivalent/Anxious attachment (Preoccupied):

Caregivers are inconsistent, displaying on-again and off-again patterns of connection and responsiveness to the child. This intermittent behavior pattern from the caregiver leads the child to become fixated on the “other.” Children often have to be loud or extreme in their behavior for their needs to be met by their caregivers. Then, as adults these individuals can appear to be demanding in their relationships. They may end relationships too soon out of fear of being abandoned or may become overly clingy in relationships for fear of being alone. 

Disorganized attachment: 

This attachment style develops when the caregivers become a source of fear or threat for the child. It is often seen when people were physically, emotionally, or sexually abused or may have experienced (witnessed) other forms of childhood traumas. As adults, these individuals lack coherence in their relationships and vacillate between seeking out connections and rejecting closeness because of fear. They have difficulties maintaining close connections or feel secure in their intimate relationships. 

It is important to note that attachment styles are adaptable and we are all designed for secure attachment. Through practice, and with the support of a therapist or other secure relationships, one can develop new skills to strengthen and recover the innate secure attachment they may not have gotten in childhood. If you want to learn more on attachment styles and healthy relationships, reach out to Dr. Chi Nguyen at [email protected] for a free 15 minute phone consultation.

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