Does a stable romantic relationship give you a sense of security, or is it a source of anxiety? Do you have a partner who gets anxious at any potential separation between the two of you? Adult romantic relationships often reenact behaviors learned in infancy called attachment behavior.
Attachment behavior theory looks at how infants develop relationships with their primary caregivers between birth and one year of age. Studies have found that infants seek to attach themselves to a caregiver that offers support, protection and care. If parents and other adults in the child’s life provide the care that makes them feel secure, they are able to recover quickly from any short separation from familiar adults. However, children who have not received the kind of caring support that they require develop anxiety and “clinginess”, are reluctant to be separated, and need a long time to be comforted after being reunited with their parents.
More recent research has looked into how these behaviors are replicated and echoed in adult romantic relationships. People who felt secure in being cared for as children will expect security in their adult relationships and will not readily become anxious over temporary distance or separation from the partner. However, those who, as infants and small children learned they could not depend on a secure, stable caring relationship with the adults in their lives will transfer this anxiety to significant others in adult relationships.
Some researchers believe that the attachment behavior system developed in childhood continues to govern behavior throughout life, while others find that the system can be “overwritten” depending on later life experience. In short, more study needs to be done. At best, we can say that childhood attachment behavior and that of adults are only moderately related.
Another dimension of attachment is provided by the strategies children develop to overcome anxiety. After a short separation, secure children will return to the parent and allow themselves to be comforted. Insecure children, however, break into two types: some show a pattern of anxiety-resistance, continuing to cry and fight against being comforted; while others show a pattern called “avoidant” where they withdraw and minimize crying or other attachment related behavior. Adults also show differences in this area and their behavior can be analyzed according to a four-cornered matrix, where secure adults are low in both anxiety and avoidance.
While it is clear that childhood experiences set the stage for a tendency towards security or insecurity in romantic relationships, it is also clear that we can learn and modify behavior once we become aware of such issues. If you find that you tend to have high anxiety in your romantic relationships it can be useful to ask yourself from time to time to what extent your reactions to your partner’s slights is realistic as opposed to it being based on your past experiences and scripts. Being aware that how you tend to see things is to some extent dependent on experiences outside the current relationship can help you to not over-react.
For more information, here’s a website with some detailed information about the current state of research in this area, and the source of the above diagrams: Adult Attachment Theory and Research.