The Impact of Childhood Attachment on Adult Relationships

Attachment theory explains how the early emotional bonds between children and their caregivers shape their social and emotional development, impacting their relationships throughout life. At its core, attachment theory suggests that humans have an innate need to form strong emotional connections with others, especially with their primary caregivers (usually parents or caregivers who are consistently present in a child’s life).

Understanding Childhood Attachment Styles

Attachment theory, developed by British psychologist John Bowlby in the mid-20th century, suggests that our early interactions with caregivers influence how we relate to others throughout our lives. Attachment styles become our patterns of relating in interpersonal relationships. These attachment styles are typically categorised into four primary types:

Secure Attachment:

Children with secure attachments had caregivers who were consistently responsive to their needs. As a result, they tend to grow into adults who are comfortable with intimacy, trust others, and have healthy, balanced relationships.

Signs of secure attachment:

  • Ability to be emotionally available
  • Ability to regulate emotions
  • Comfortable being alone
  • Ability to seek emotional support
  • Comfortable in close relationships

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment:

This attachment style is often associated with inconsistent and unpredictable caregiving during childhood. People with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style may become overly dependent on their partners and worry about abandonment in adult relationships.

Signs of Anxious attachment

  • Depending on partner for validation and emotional regulation
  • Fear of abandonment/intense fear of rejection
  • Difficulty being alone
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Jealous tendencies
  • Highly sensitive to criticism

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment:

Children with dismissive-avoidant attachment styles had caregivers who were emotionally distant, cold and rejecting. As adults, they may struggle with emotional intimacy and tend to prioritise independence.

Signs of Avoidant Attachment 

  • Uncomfortable expressing feelings
  • Feels threatened by people getting close
  • Feels suffocated or trapped by close companions
  • Dismisses their own and others feelings
  • Feels emotionally isolated
  • May avoid relationships completely
  • Tendency to focus on “flaws” in others in order to maintain distance
  • Has had to rely on meeting their own needs and self soothing

Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganised) Attachment:

This attachment style can develop in response to traumatic or unpredictable caregiving. Adults with this style often desire close relationships but are afraid of getting hurt and may exhibit a mix of anxious and avoidant behaviours.

Signs of disorganised Adult Attachment:

  • Intense fear of rejection
  • Contradictory behaviours
  • Highly anxious
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Unable to regulate emotions
  • Easily dysregulated and distressed in relationships
  • Shows both anxious and dismissive attachment patterns in an unpredictable manner
  • Views relationships as threatening

How Childhood Attachment Influences Adult Relationships

  • Patterns of Behaviour: Our attachment style can dictate our behaviour in romantic relationships. Secure individuals tend to be open, trusting, and effective communicators, while those with insecure attachment styles may exhibit more challenging behaviours.
  • Conflict Resolution: The way we handle conflicts in adult relationships often mirrors our early experiences. Secure individuals are more likely to resolve conflicts constructively, while others may struggle with conflict avoidance or volatility.
  • Intimacy and Trust: Childhood attachment experiences shape our capacity for intimacy and trust. Secure individuals can develop deep emotional connections, whereas those with insecure attachment styles might grapple with trust issues and emotional walls.
  • Partner Selection: Interestingly, our attachment styles can influence the types of partners we are attracted to. For example, individuals with anxious-preoccupied attachment styles may be drawn to dismissive-avoidant partners, creating a cycle of emotional turmoil.

Navigating Romantic Partnerships with Different Attachment Styles

Understanding your own attachment style and that of your partner is the first step toward healthier relationships. Here are some insights and tools for managing your attachment style in relationship with others:

  • Secure Attachment: Securely attached people can provide stability and support to partners with insecure attachment styles. You can continue to focus on healthy, open communication, modelling self regulation and boundary setting.
  • Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: If you identify with this style, the work is on building self-esteem and reducing dependency on your partner. Seeking therapy to address underlying attachment wounds can be beneficial. Also important is to bring compassion to the parts of yourself that feel abandoned, practice expressing your needs more directly, be willing to acknowledge childhood pain and learn to gently begin to express your fear of abandonment with safe and trusted people.

  • Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: It’s essential for those with this attachment style to work on opening up emotionally and practising vulnerability. The work for this style is to practise showing up for their partners, offering appropriate reassurance and investing in emotional intimacy. If you relate to this style you can move towards greater security by bringing compassion to the parts of yourself that had to shut down, leaning towards connection even in small doses, paying attention to your own subtle feelings on a regular basis, and practising compromise in relationships. In connection with others you could also begin to acknowledge and own when you dismiss others’ needs and practice sharing small vulnerabilities that don’t feel too overwhelming.
  • Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganised) Attachment: Seeking therapy to address past traumas and attachment wounds is crucial. Take time and space to figure out what you need and practise communicating needs clearly.  Recognise and own when your attachment system has been activated and seek support rather than acting out. Work on improving self-soothing and emotion regulation. Resist the urge to suppress emotions or allow explosive outbursts. 

It is important to remember that when we are talking about attachment styles, it is just a theoretical framework that can help us understand how our early experiences can shame out relational tendencies and patterns in adulthood. However, people can display elements of multiple styles, depending on the context and nature of the relationship. For example, some people might be more dismissive in friendships but anxious in romantic relationships. Also important to note that these styles are not fixed and new research indicates that there is capacity for flexibility and change over a lifetime, through self awareness, healing of past trauma, processing attachment wounds in a safe space and having new, corrective experiences. 

Therapy in particular can offer the safe container to explore the past and experience healing through a nurturing, supportive relationship. In therapy, we work together in understanding and repairing your unique attachment style that developed within your early caregiver experiences. We identify unmet needs that led to this adaptation and work together to address emotional challenges, change fixed patterns, and improve emotional regulation and communication in relationships.

If you are curious about exploring new ways of being in a relationship or are having difficulties in your personal relationships, reach out and inquire about individual counselling for attachment.