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People Learn What They Live

Predictions of a Baby Boom following a year of frequent lockdowns have not borne fruit. In fact, the rate of separation and divorce has grown instead. There is no question that increased time together combined with increased stresses will have an impact on a couple, but whether that impact results in a strengthened or weakened union may often have to do with how secure the relationship was in the first place and how the attachment styles of the couple combine.

Each of us develops a particular attachment style early in our lives, depending on the responses that our primary caregivers give us. If, for example, they respond to our cries and needs with compassion and consistency, we learn to rely on them for connection, comfort and security and we develop a Secure Attachment style, which, all things being equal, grows into a Healthy Autonomy style as an adult. If on the other hand, we do not feel that connection or protection, we grow up with an Insecure Attachment style, of which there are three types.

1) Ambivalent /Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment

When our caregivers are inconsistent or inconsiderate, when we feel unable to predict their behaviour, we become overly focussed on them for cues to determine how to behave. Fearing abandonment, we become hyper-vigilant, clingy and learn coping mechanisms like being overly accommodating to our caregivers’ needs and ultimately those of our future partners.

2) Avoidant/Dismissive Attachment

When our caregivers are unavailable or rejecting, we learn not to expect comfort and connection; instead we learn to distrust our caregivers and avoid expressing our needs for fear that they will be ignored. Fearing closeness, we withdraw, become overly self-reliant and avoid interactions with our caregivers and ultimately life partners.

3) Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment

When our caregivers are abusive or chaotic in their behaviour, we grow up feeling scared, threatened and confused about how to behave or react. We have two conflicting instincts, both to bond, but also to survive. We learn at an early age that relationships are dangerous.

Long-term stress can cause old unresolved issues to re-emerge in powerful ways. In a crisis, the Secure individual will be able to feel their feelings and deal with what is happening. The Avoidant, however, while trying to deal with the issue, will avoid dealing with the feeling. The Ambivalent, on the other hand, will react with lots of feeling, but avoid dealing with the problem. And the Disorganized will be unable to deal with the feeling and or with the problem.

If both partners are Avoidant, they will want even more time and space alone, but may not be able to find it. If both are Ambivalent, they might show their neediness much more, thereby overwhelming the other. For the couple who combines Avoidance and Ambivalence styles, the more one needs connection or separateness, the more the other reacts in a negative way. And the Disorganized couple may be retraumatized by the stress and conflict that they are experiencing and find it difficult to function.

These attachment styles are not imprinted for life. As we grow and develop and learn, we can improve our attachment style given the right relationships. We can also learn to understand that our parents had their own attachment wounds that contributed to ours, and we may be better able to forgive them. And if we are parents, we can also learn to be aware of how our parenting style is influencing the attachment style of our own children.

If your attachment style is causing you stress and you would like to talk about it, please let me know. I’d be happy to help.

The title of this post is adapted from a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte, called Children Learn What They Live.

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