Attachment is a natural phenomenon – one that occurs in nearly every significant interpersonal relationship. Attachment almost always begins within the first few years of life, occurring between an infant and his or her mother (or primary caregiver). Some believe that attachment begins between mother and child when the child is still in the womb. One thing is for certain – our earliest relationships will inevitably set the tone for the way we function in all of our future interpersonal relationships. They will set the stage for the way we employ boundaries, the degree to which we rely on others to fulfill our emotional needs, and the way in which we communicate.
When we form unhealthy attachments early on in life, we will have much more difficulty forming and maintaining successful relationships in the long run. Unhealthy attachment includes poor boundaries, high levels of fear and anxiety when separation is suggested, and the overall inability to practice independence or autonomy. In this specific article, we will focus on several unhealthy relational patterns, often exhibited by those with diagnosable personality disorders, or those who have undergone significant relational trauma.
The Importance of Healthy Bonding
One of the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of humanity is our innate ability to form meaningful bonds with others. Whether an individual is a ‘people-person’ or an introvert, he or she will inevitably crave close interpersonal connection. Forming bonds with others is crucial to living a fulfilled and accomplished life – it is often said (throughout the therapeutic and mental health community) that the only two classifications of people who do not require or desire bonding are narcissists and sociopaths. For infants, bonding is absolutely vital to healthy development. In order for infants to learn, grow, and develop the skills necessary to becoming a functioning and productive member of society, they must first learn to form healthy attachment bonds with their parents or primary caregivers.
One of the predominant issues that individuals face in their later relationships is feeling as if their needs are not being met. When an individual begins to feel as if his or her emotional needs are being neglected, he or she will likely begin to engage in attention-seeking behaviors. This is most common amongst adolescents and young adults. For example – if a young man feels as if his older siblings are receiving the most parental attention, he may begin engaging in self-harming behaviors, such as cutting, sexual promiscuity, or drug abuse, in order to alarm his parents and redirect their attention back to him. Attention does not need to be positive – so long as it is being paid.
It is important to note that not all self-destructive behavior is attention-seeking. In some instances, individuals will simply thrive off of drama and dysfunction. They may derive great pleasure from arousing concern in others, or disrupting healthy patterns of familial functioning. In cases such as these, it is often important for the family to come together in a therapeutic setting and address the negative impact of such behavioral patterns. However, if the individual is suffering from a borderline personality disorder, another personality disorder, or a psychotic disorder, more intensive care will be required in order to successfully reverse unhealthy relational patterns.
Poor Personal Boundaries
The inability to construct and maintain healthy boundaries can lead to a number of relational issues. One of the most common boundary-related issues that those who experienced insecure attachment early on face is getting too close too soon. Every relationship has a natural progression – it is unrealistic to assume that someone we have known for several hours is going to be a lifelong best friend. It is okay to connect with people, and it is normal to enjoy connecting with new people. But red flags are certainly raised when an individual consistently forms ‘meaningful connections’ based on shallow and brief interactions. This is especially common in romantic relationships. After several weeks of dating, individuals may believe that they cannot live without their new partner. There is a delusional component to their sentiment, which is not grounded in reality and which stems from insecure attachment bonds early on in life. A child who was deprived of his mother’s love during infancy will spend his adult life searching for that love in a series of unhealthy and often short-lived relationships. Individuals such as these may be labeled ‘clingy’ or ‘irresponsible’, when in reality, they are simply looking for a love connection that they were never able to previously experience in all the wrong places.
Lacking a Sense of Self
Lacking secure and healthy attachment bonds early on will often result in difficulty when it comes to developing a strong sense of personal identity and self-confidence. When individuals lack a belief in their own abilities, they will often look for someone to mimic or emulate. Adolescents and young adults may look to celebrities such as singers or actors, teachers they admire, or peers that are receiving the kind of social attention they desire. Individuals such as these (who can be adults as well, and commonly are), will commonly get sucked into the latest fashion trends and beauty standards, and will feel anxious and frustrated when they do not look the way they feel they should. They will spend excessive amounts of time and money trying to ‘fit in’, seeking relational validation via the pursuit of shallow and external things.
Those who lack healthy attachment bonds early on in life, specifically during infancy, will typically grow into emotionally hungry and excessively insecure adults. However, this is not always the case. Some individuals who undergo significant early relational trauma end up being very resilient, and are able to bounce back in adulthood. It all depends on the individual. The ability to heal also depends on the individual – some will be able to break through unhealthy relational patters with a bit of intensive therapeutic care, while others (often those who are dealing with co-occurring disorders) might require a higher level of care.
If you or someone you love is struggling to break free of unhealthy relational patterns, please feel free to contact us today for more information.