Wired for survival: why relationship attachment styles matter

gay couple fighting and having conflicting attachment styles

Since John Bowlby introduced it in the 1950s, Attachment Theory has arguably become the most utilised tool in the Relationship Counsellor’s toolkit.

Understanding your own ‘attachment style’ is a vital step towards building healthy, happy relationships.

From the moment we are born, we are hardwired for a relationship.

We attach to our primary caregiver and study their every movement and sound, from their heartbeat to their facial expressions and tone of voice. 

When our first attachment figures – most often our parents – demonstrate emotional accessibility and responsiveness, we feel safe and secure.

This creates a secure base from which to explore our world with confidence. 

But if our caregiver is inaccessible, inconsistent or unavailable, our internal working model or ‘relationship map’ teaches us that intimate relationships are not safe, nurturing places.

Attachment and you

Clients will often say to me “This only happens with my partner”.

It’s true that our attachment trauma is most often triggered in our close and intimate relationships.

The Attachment Styles below may help explain some of the conflict patterns that you find yourself engaged in, in your intimate relationships.

This leaves our partners (and sometimes ourselves) confused and off-balance.

Consider the kind of caregiving you received as a child.

Relationship counsellor and life coach Chris Pye
Chris Pye

Attachment styles

Secure Attachment:

This is the result of caregiving, which is emotionally accessible, responsive, and consistent.

A securely attached child is equipped to develop and maintain healthy relationships, able to trust and be emotionally available to their partners.

Avoidant Attachment:

This develops when caregiving is distant or withdrawn.

An Avoidant child will learn to get by without the love and affection that was not there.

In adult intimate relationships they may appear cold and detached.

Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment:

This results from inconsistent caregiving.

An Anxious-Ambivalent child will oscillate between clinging to an attachment figure and rejecting them.

Without having experienced safe, consistent attachment from a primary caregiver, intimate relationships can feel confusing and unsafe.

Disorganised-Disoriented Attachment:

This is when a caregiver is abusive or abused themselves. The trauma of an abusive caregiver is particularly disruptive to the development of emotional security.

This makes it very difficult for the child to develop the ability to regulate their emotions. This can result in high volatility and regular conflict in their relationships.

It’s about survival

Our infant brains are amazing. They make about one million new neural connections per second, which is more than at any other time in life.

They absorb and process all this information for one essential reason: to survive. 

In short, our baby brains are ingenious survival machines.

We strive to build attachments from day one, because it gives us the best chance of survival. 

We can’t exactly ‘fix’ an avoidant, anxious or disorganised attachment style that forms in this critical period of growth and learning.

The maps that we write in our brains before the age of six or seven are very resistant to change. 

They were written for the terrain in which we found ourselves.

The problem is that the patterns and behaviours which might once have kept us safe have not adapted to our new relationship context and may now threaten its survival.

So, what can we do?

What we can do is take the journey – alone or with a partner – to understand our own relationship map and how it forms.

With help from the right counsellor, we can equip ourselves to recognise unhelpful or destructive behaviours when they threaten to sabotage our adult relationships.

It’s a bit like learning a new language in a foreign country.

We will never completely lose our mother tongue (and it will usually burst through at times of heightened emotion). 

However, we can learn the new language, functional to our new context, and the more we use it, the more proficient we become.

Chris Pye is a Relationship Counsellor and Life Coach who works with individuals, couples, and teams, creating safe and supportive spaces for difficult conversations. To book a free ‘first-step conversation’, go to: www.asinglestep.com.au

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