Attachment is an emotional bond that connects one individual to another. We form attachment relationships throughout our lives and according to John Bowlby’s theory of attachment, how we make those connections is profoundly affected by our earliest attachments with our primary caregivers. Relating with and bonding to others is essential for our survival in infancy as we are born in such an undeveloped state. As infants, we are completely reliant on others to provide for all our needs, food, water, shelter, warmth and physical and emotional safety. Our patterns of relating are learned as infants. If we are lucky, we are protected and nurtured by our primary caregivers (usually our parents) who understand and respond to our needs.

Reliable and consistent care teaches us we can trust – we learn we can communicate with others, and get our needs met. If we are born into circumstances that are less than ideal, we may learn we have to work harder to get our needs met. We may need to cry louder or longer. If our needs are not met in a timely manner or consistently, we can become stressed, and our immature systems become flooded with stress hormones. If this happens often, we develop maladaptive behaviour patterns. We learn not to trust, we learn that we need to engage in attention seeking behaviours such as over activity or aggression or, if our primary carer is consistently neglectful of our needs, we learn that however hard we try, our needs will probably not be met so we withdraw and detach. These are the patterns we carry into our later lives and will usually form the basis of our adult relationships. For example, we might be described as needy or controlling or moody in our adult relationships.

The security of our attachments is more complex than this brief summary suggests, and we are all on a dynamic continuum. Most of us have a blend of secure and insecure attachment. None of us will have had all our needs met all of the time, and this would not even be desirable as, in the real world, we need resilience, and this develops by having age-appropriate opportunities to find ways to solve our own problems. Too much self-reliance too early, can make for an apparently self-sufficient adult but avoidance, anxiety and mistrust can look like self sufficiency on the outside. Some of our behaviour patterns  might have ensured our survival as children but as adults they may not be so relevant.

Our maladaptive patterns may feel like they are hard wired into us but we can learn new healthier patterns as adults that can lead us to more satisfying adult relationships. Counselling can help this process. Understanding our own attachment styles as well as those of the others around us is the first step to change. To understand the elemental place of attachment in who we are, there are plenty of excellent resources to explore. My recommendations are:

©Louise Knight

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