We are born to relate. Our brains require relationship in order to make connections and grow, being raised without human contact we literally would have different brain structures.
So why can relationships be so very difficult then? This is a question I often muse in my work, given one way or another what clients bring mostly revolves around the way they relate to others and how others relate to them.
Our patterns of relationship are informed by our early life, and particularly by our relationships with our care-givers. While the vast majority of parents do their very best for their children, parenthood is tough. Parents are not only parents, they are also children, siblings, workers, friends and partners, and their own relational webs inform their availability to their children both practically and emotionally. Add to this the relational disruptions of deaths, relationship break ups, adoptions and foster care, and you begin to see the complexity of what we are all navigating, from the very beginning of our lives.
Attachment styles, our default ways of relating tend to be characterised as either secure, avoidant, anxious or disorganised. I don't want to go into depth about these terms here, but what they refer to is our level of comfort with intimacy and continually changing levels of contact and support.
In brief, they describe:
- How safe and secure we feel in ourselves regardless of whether we are in relationship or whether our loved on is close by (Secure)
- How much we shy away from closeness and feel more comfortable keeping our distance (Avoidant insecure)
- The degree to which we crave support and physical closeness, fearing abandonment if our loved on is not continually available (Anxious insecure)
- How much we tend to swing from wanting to be close to wanting to distance, craving the very closeness that feels so unsafe because of past relational difficulties (Disorganised insecure)
Different attachment styles will show up in different contexts, with the most acute difficulties being felt in the most intimate relationships. Hence, you may function well at work and have good friendships and collegiate relationships, but struggle more in romantic relationships and perhaps in family relationships.
When your attachment is insecure, you may find yourself in a situation of needing your partner to be a certain way. You may feel safe if they keep the kind of distance that feels OK for you, but get less comfortable if they move too close or too far away. You may want control of how close they are and want to vary it as suits you, and find it hard if they are not willing to change as you wish moment to moment.
This symbiosis can be difficult for both people in the relationship. True intimacy comes from being able to be yourself, without being edited, in all of your glory. This works psychologically as well as physically. Secure attachment is about not pinning our well being or self worth on the health of a particular relationship, but instead looking to the health of our relationship with ourself, and providing the renewal and nurture that we need inside, as well as benefitting from the love and support of those we are close to.
When we can look honestly at our whole self, and hold safe what we see, then we are free to want our partner and those we are intimate with. We can meet our own psychological needs, and ask for the help we need to stay well without fear or agenda, knowing that regardless of whether the other can help right then all is fundamentally well.
Fortunately, attachment styles are not fixed, either across contexts or over time. If you have repeating relationship patterns that trouble you that you want to work with, reach out and find a psychotherapist who can help you build experiences of secure attachment within your work together.