In my work with couples, I always find it very useful to discuss attachment styles. People are often unaware or unclear as to how past relationships with significant people in their lives (e.g., parents, siblings, caregivers, etc.) influences how they interact with their significant other. Attachment style refers to the characteristic manner in which people relate to others close to them, i.e, their “attachment figures.”

Children develop different attachment styles based on their experiences and interactions with primary caregivers. Research by psychiatrist John Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth shed light on this particular concept. Out of their research spawned the idea that there are three different ways in which children relate to their attachment figures (i.e., their parents): secure, anxious and avoidant. A fourth attachment style, disorganized, was added later. In one study examining this concept, researchers looked at how small children (typically age 2-3) responded when their mother briefly left them with a stranger, and returned several minutes later. In life, note that children don’t necessarily need a mother to form healthy attachment. It has been found that children can form a healthy attachment so long as they have one reliable and loving caregiver in their life.

One group of children who would become upset when their caregiver left, but would eventually calm down. When the caregiver returned, they would immediately go to him/her. These children were later categorized as securely attached children. These children can be free to explore their environment and express their emotions openly, knowing that there is a stable caregiver who can soothe, guide and assist them when needed. These individuals have an internal sense of safety, security and self- understanding that helps them navigate future relationships.

The next group of children did not have any pronounced reaction to their caregiver leaving, but would also not go up to the caregiver upon his/her return. Though researchers originally thought these children were quite independent, they were eventually categorized as having an avoidant attachment style. It is normal for a child to become upset when a loved one leaves, and the idea is that, if the child has a good relationship with the parent, she would be happy to see the parent after a period of absence because the parent is a stable source of comfort, security and guidance.

However, children with an avoidant attachment style learn through experience that mom/dad cannot be relied upon to soothe or comfort them in a stable, reliable, and/or positive fashion. Whether these parents are aware of it or not, they do not provide comfort to their children when they are distressed and may even discourage their children from showing distress. These children often have an internalized message that encourages them to avoid relationships, as they do not believe they can find someone who will allow them to be themselves or validate their experience.

The third category of children, the ones who fell into anxious/ambivalent attachment style, would become very distressed when the caregiver left the room. In contrast to the more securely attached children, they could not be soothed or calmed down in the wake of the caregiver’s absence. Upon the caregiver’s return, these children could not be soothed by their caregiver, and some acted angry or resistant to the caregiver’s return. Parents who promote this attachment style are inconsistent and/or unstable. When the child shows distress, these parents may sometimes comfort them, and at other times, may punish or ignore them. The child is left not knowing how to soothe themselves because they are not consistently soothed by their parents. A child raised in this environment becomes quite ambivalent about the caregiver’s availability to the point that they become preoccupied with it, and thus cannot freely go off to explore their environment. Many of these children are individuals who must take on the parental role at an early age, otherwise known as parentified children. These children must take on adult responsibilities way prematurely; these responsibilities may include doing the family laundry, sobering up a drunk parent, caring for other siblings in the absence of parent involvement, etc.

Children with the latter two attachment styles often times go into adulthood with low self-esteem, high anxiety and low self-worth. If a person learned that his needs would be met with punishment/abuse or would be ignored, they may later be unable to express or identify their emotional reactions. They would likely have a very difficult time with vulnerability, and may find themselves “numbing out,” or being cut off from their physical and/or emotional experience. The problem with this is people are emotional beings who are wired to have all sorts of vulnerabilities; the price of suppressing or denying the very things that make us human comes with the price of going through life being quite isolated, never being known and never knowing ourselves.

Both individual and couples therapy can help people better understand their attachment styles as well as the attachment style of the partner. If we can understand how our past relationships influence how we interact with our partner, we can become more aware of our blind spots and make more conscious choices to facilitate a healthy and connected relationship. Furthermore, therapy can help couples learn communication skills and other coping tools that they may have never experienced or seen modeled to them. These skills and tools can help the couple solve problems, better understand each other, use vulnerability as a way to connect and be intimate, and to self soothe.

Though we cannot choose the life or childhood we are born into, as adults we have the power to make different choices and work towards being the people we want to be.