Depending on the state of the relationships you are currently in (or not in), February can either be an exciting month or a depressing one. Hallmark cards professing undying love and devotion or the thrill of a new romance line the shelves of grocery and drug stores, roses and balloons are being delivered to your home or office (or the home or office next to yours) and commercials for diamond jewelry, romantic getaways and dinners for two dominate the airwaves. If you are starting a promising relationship, or in a relationship that is relatively stable and fulfilling, Valentine’s Day is an occasion to celebrate your connection with your significant other. If you are recovering from a break up, or unhappily single, or in a conflicted relationship, Valentine’s Day just seems to magnify and mock your loneliness and pain.
Your attachment style greatly influences how you conduct and experience your relationships. The way your caregivers interacted with you in your infancy and early childhood literally “programs” your brain to react in certain ways by laying down neural pathways corresponding to relational styles you encountered early in life. If your needs were fairly consistently met in appropriate ways: you were fed when you were hungry, comforted when distressed, and given opportunities to safely explore your world and conquer developmental tasks with encouragement and support, you will develop a Secure attachment style with a basic trust in your environment to be predictable and safe.
People with Secure attachment styles can set healthy boundaries, give and receive support appropriately, regulate their emotions and display resilience in stressful situations. They are generally confident about their ability to navigate their world and solve problems.
Babies who are born into less stable situations, where one or both parents are depressed or dealing with other mental health issues that make them less capable of responding to their infant’s needs appropriately, single parent homes where emotional and financial resources may be stretched, homes with domestic violence, addictions or other issues that fail to create safety and security for the child may lead to disruption in the development of secure attachment and result in a less secure attachment style.
Children may develop an Avoidant attachment style in response to their caregiver’s emotionally unavailable, insensitive or even hostile response to their needs. The neural pathways in the brain that promote positive social bonding and responses fail to develop adequately, resulting in a relationship style that is aloof, self-reliant, emotionally shut down, and does not allow anyone to get close enough to form an intimate bond.
An Ambivalent attachment style is one where intimacy is both desired and feared (“Come closer/stay away”). These parents were inconsistent about meeting needs so the child develops coping mechanisms designed to influence the behavior of others to maximize the potential that their needs might be met. This unpredictability creates an insecurity and instability in the environment that leaves an ambivalently attached adult chronically dissatisfied and unable to receive consistent affection without eventually rejecting it and re-creating their childhood experience of always being “left wanting.”
With Disorganized attachment style, children experienced an early environment full of double binds, where they could never successfully resolve a developmental task without being given mixed messages. Children learn to fear intimacy due to the confusing and sometimes dangerous responses they received from unpredictable or abusive caregivers. The same situation could lead to different outcomes (being hugged vs. being hurt) causing children to doubt their ability to successfully influence their environment in positive ways. These adults generally lack the confidence to solve problems or set and achieve goals due their internal emotional chaos.
Experiencing even just one healthy relationship can help someone overcome a dysfunctional attachment style. Sometimes that person is a teacher, coach, mentor, neighbor or extended family member. A counselor may also fill that role for a time, helping a person identify the response patterns that are interfering with forming healthy relationships. Recognizing these patterns is the first step towards healing the wounds and forming new pathways for intimacy that lead to more satisfying connections with others.
Don’t let another Valentine’s Day go by without examining how your attachment style may be either helping or hurting your desire for intimate connection. We are wounded in relationships but can also experience healing through relationships. Your past does not have to limit your present and future capacity for healthy connection with others.
Resources on Attachment Styles:
How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich
Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain by Dan Siegel and Marion Solomon
“What is Attachment Theory?” (www.psychology.about.com)