Childhood experiences affect adult lives, especially in terms of how we socialize. That much is borne out by research on “attachment style,” which is determined by the ways in which your parent(s) interacted with you. So how does your childhood attachment style influence patterns in your life today, and how can you break those patterns?
When we think about childhood trauma, we may feel the temptation to say to ourselves: “But, that happened so long ago. What does that have to do with the now?” or “Why aren’t you over it if it happened back then?” Worse, quite a few of us may hear these things from other people.
This is likely due to the misinformed thought process that, if something is in the past, it doesn’t affect us now, or that if it does, it’s either due to major violence or being overly sensitive. This is not the case.
The idea that “the past is the past” is a medical and scientific misnomer. Time and time again, research shows the ways in which our childhood impacts us far into adulthood. It can affect your physical health, emotional health, self-esteem, career, responses to stimuli, and of course, your relationships. Many of the things we learn–often subconsciously–as a child influence our patterns as an adult.
One way in which childhood clearly influences adult patterns is in attachment styles. So how can you get to know your attachment style, understand its influence on your current relationships, and seek more secure relationship patterns?
Attachment styles and relationship patterns
First, let’s talk a little bit about attachment as a broad topic. Attachment theory and the research behind it is one of those pieces of proof that what we internalize in childhood lives on. It suggests that experiences in childhood (whether your needs, including emotional needs, were met, whether or not you experienced an overall sense of security, etc.), influence the ways we “attach” in our social relationships in other areas of life.
Here are the recognized attachment styles we know of and how they might manifest…
Anxious/Preoccupied attachment style:
A person with this attachment style fears being left or abandoned past the extent that is typical. As a result, they may seek reassurance, seem emotionally “excessive,” seek reassurance, fawn over those they like or want the approval of, and have trouble drawing boundaries or asserting their needs.
Disorganized/Fearful Avoidant attachment style:
A person with this attachment style has a desire for relationships, but they tend to pull away, refuse emotional intimacy, or avoid getting close to others so that they don’t get hurt. People may mistake them as purposely “hot and cold,” but the root of this is actually the same fear of being left or abandoned held by someone with an anxious attachment style.
Dismissive/Avoidant attachment style:
A person with this attachment style may have a high, unhealthy need for total independence. This often stems from not having had their needs met; they’ve learned that they can’t depend on people, so they have more trouble than most developing intimacy and may avoid or suppress feelings for someone. It’s true that codependency, which may be seen in those with anxious-preoccupied attachment, isn’t healthy, but neither is believing you can do it all on your own all of the time. The goal is interdependence.
Secure attachment style:
A person with this attachment style trusts that, if someone says they like them, they are safe to believe that this is true. They’re able to establish interdependence. They’re unlikely to have patterns of unstable, intense, or extreme relationships as someone with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style might. They’re able to connect with people emotionally, develop emotional intimacy, pace relationships healthily, express emotions, set boundaries, state their needs, and so on.
Your attachment style isn’t you. It’s something you can work on.
Your attachment style isn’t you. If you have an anxious attachment style, for example, you may not actually be clingy deep down. You do have needs, and there are boundaries you’d assert if it weren’t for the fear of being left or upsetting someone else. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you don’t leave connections you want or hurt anyone with the “push and pull” dynamic on purpose; you might end up feeling sad, lonely, or guilty afterward.
Curious about what attachment style you might have? You can find a free quiz here.
How to break patterns from a troubled childhood
If patterns that relate to attachment affect you, here are some things you can do:
1. Be aware of how your attachment style shows up in your life.
It’s a two-way street; the partners you pick will ideally be self-aware and conscientious, and it’s important that you are, too. Reflect on your patterns and see if there’s anything in your relationships that you want to change–running away when a bond starts to form, fearing that people will leave, telling people that they’ll leave without evidence that it’s true, and so on.
It’s also worth it to note that attachment shows up in your life in ways that don’t relate to romantic relationships at all. Your attachment style can also affect work, friendships, boundary-setting, self-esteem, overall wellbeing, and virtually every other aspect of your life.
Using work as an example, you might have a fear of negative feedback at work so severe that it affects your health or ability to fulfill tasks. You may experience burnout easier or faster as a result. Alternatively, you might quit jobs chronically or struggle to advocate for yourself.
2. Use opposite action when you want to self-sabotage.
When you want to break a pattern, your inner dialogue matters. Once you’re aware of your attachment style and how it shows up in your life, it can be helpful to create a plan for how to address thoughts that might arise as a result of it.
For example, let’s say you start seeing someone. It’s going well, and you start to develop feelings for them. Then, the urge to leave comes up; you want to text them and say, “we can’t see each other anymore.” You want to call it off before they get the chance to do it first.
However, you have no reason to believe that this person doesn’t like you. They show you a healthy level of affection, and the relationship is moving at an appropriate pace. You genuinely like them, and you’re compatible.
Here’s where you take a moment to pause. Acknowledge the fear, and say to yourself, “I want people who want me. Therefore, if they decided to leave, I’d rather not be with them. However, what we have is good. They seem to like me. I feel good when I’m with them. I’m safe. Let’s give it a chance.” This is called thought reframe. Some people, upon learning about their attachment style, choose to take some time off of dating and relationships until they can distinguish their genuine feelings, pick apart what is real vs. perceived danger, and use this process.
3. Choose the right partners. (Seek healthy relationships over comfortable relationships)
One of the most common pieces of advice for someone with an insecure attachment style is to date someone who is secure. Why is this the case? Also, how do you know if the person you’re dating is securely attached? There are a couple of things you can look for in a partner:
- Consistency. E.g. there’s no “hot and cold”/”push and pull” going on.
- Steady pacing. The relationship should not move at a rapid pace and become intense too soon.
- Healthy, genuine affection. Look for a person who shows you respect and takes the time to get to know you. They shouldn’t love-bomb you, nor should they withhold affection.
These traits indicate that a person is either pretty likely to be securely attached or, at least, aware enough to form a healthy bond. It’s possible to become more securely attached, and being cognizant of your attachment style can help you create–and keep–healthy relationships.
4. Take things slowly.
Many find it helpful, too, to take things slow. That way, you give yourself the time and space both to self-soothe and to internalize the possible security of a relationship. No matter where attachment shows up in your life, relationships or otherwise, you can most often take it one day at a time and tell yourself that you can’t necessarily control or predict what will happen.
In time, you’ll find that security and stability does exist. It doesn’t mean that every relationship will work out; no one has a life where every relationship works out. However, you will feel secure enough to know that things will be okay.
Just as research shows a correlation between our childhood and our attachment styles as an adult, it shows that we can work toward more secure attachment. Having someone to talk to you through this process can help. Peer support options like Supportiv are here for you when you need confidential, understanding connection.