“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.” – Sigmund Freud
Developing and maintaining healthy, functional adult relationships certainly takes a lot of work. Forging a long-term partnership with another human being is no small task – in doing so, we must learn to communicate, compromise, and set firm personal boundaries. We must learn to continuously meet our own personal needs, while considering and respecting the needs of our partner. While developing a healthy adult relationship is never easy, for some of us, it may be a near impossibility.
Why are some better equipped to faster mutually-beneficial partnerships? While there are many contributing factors, the attachment bonds we form during childhood have quite a lot to do with our ability to emotionally function as adults.
Secure and Insecure Attachment
Some of us were lucky enough to have grown up in nurturing, supportive, and harmonious households. Our parents or primary caregivers met all of our needs – emotional and otherwise. They showed us adequate, positive attention, and taught us how to properly behave without verbally or physically harming us. They encouraged us to be ourselves, and taught us how to effectively interact with others. This is called secure attachment. We are far more likely to develop into emotionally stable and functional adults when our first relationship – that with our parents or primary caregivers – is wholesome and constructive.
Unfortunately, for many of us, this was not the case. There are several different attachment styles that stem from abuse during childhood. When we hear the phrase ‘childhood abuse’, we likely think of extreme cases of neglect, sexual assault, and physical violence. In actuality, childhood abuse more often looks like an ongoing denial of personal needs – and it is far more common than we may think.
Insecure Attachment Styles
- Dismissive-avoidant and insecure-avoidant.
Those who experience the above-listed styles of attachment were likely neglected throughout childhood. This does not necessarily mean that their parents or primary caregivers were not around, but rather that they were ignored, invalidated, or that their emotional needs were consistently overlooked. Those with insecure-avoidant attachment styles will typically push people away, keeping everyone at an arm’s distance. They may shut down rather than express emotional vulnerability, appearing disinterested. However, while they may act as if they do not desire any kind of emotional connection, they often deeply desire an intimate relationship.
- Anxious-preoccupied and insecure-ambivalent.
This style of attachment often occurs when the parents or primary caregivers were harshly inconsistent in their attention-giving. Sometimes the caregivers would show the child adequate attention, and then, as if for no reason, begin neglecting and ignoring the child’s needs. Those with insecure-ambivalent characteristics tend to suffer from extremely low self-esteem, and derive much of their self-worth from their romantic relationship. They are often referred to as clingy, and spend more time focusing on the needs of their partnering than they do practicing adequate self-care. Oftentimes, individuals with insecure-ambivalent attachment styles will drive their partners away through their paranoid and erratic behavior.
- Fearful-avoidant and disorganized-disoriented.
Children who are incessantly neglected or abused throughout childhood may develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style. They grow up believing that the people they are supposed to love the most – and the people that are supposed to love them – are actually the ones that cause them the most pain. Because of this, they may fear intimacy in adulthood, and actively avoid emotional closeness. They will also likely be attracted to unhealthy and abusive partners.
Childhood Wounding and Adult Relationships
More often than not, our parents do not intentionally neglect, abandon, or abuse us. Raising a child is extremely difficult, seeing as children have such a wide array of needs. Secure attachment is possible even when parenting is not perfect (and of course this is the case, because perfect parenting simply does not exist). During our formative years, we are prone to adopting maladaptive coping mechanisms; we bring these behavioral patterns with us into adulthood, and they become more and more apparent the longer we spend attempting to develop and maintain romantic partnerships. It is easy to believe that past wounds would have healed as we matured from impressionable children into self-sufficient and established adults. After all, time heals all wounds… doesn’t it?
The age-old saying applies to wounds that we sustain in adulthood; wounds that we understand will heal over time, after the natural and impermanent grieving process has taken place and we are ready to move on. Time heals the wounds of failed relationships, lost jobs, sick pets, and deceased family members. Time does not heal the wounds we sustain during childhood, however. In order to grow ourselves up emotionally and begin developing healthy and mature relationships with others, we must tend to the needs of our wounded inner children. We must see them, hear them, encourage them, and begin fulfilling the needs that our caregivers were unable to successfully meet.
The first step is determining your own attachment style, and the attachment style of your partner (if you are currently in a relationship). Acknowledge your self-defeating coping mechanisms, and begin taking the steps necessary to change them. In order to begin healing from within, therapeutic recovery may be necessary. If you are struggling with co-occurring disorders (such as substance abuse or mental illness), an inpatient treatment program will likely be extremely beneficial. Intensive therapy allows for healing to be done all at once, so that you can go on to live the fulfilled and emotionally rewarding life you have always deserved.