attachmentFor most of us there is nothing more important than the quality of our closest relationships. In sometimes frustrating ways, many of us notice that our close relationships seem to follow familiar patterns.

Attachment theory derives from the work of John Bowlby, who observed that separated infants would go to remarkable lengths (crying, clinging, frantically searching) to prevent separation from their parents.

Later it became apparent that the process of connecting with a romantic partner was often related to early life experiences of attachment.

The attachment process in babies is outlined in the diagram below. It illustrates the difference between the state of secure attachment and insecure attachment.

This process is universal in infants.12-28-2012 7-26-02 AM

Later in life, these same processes come into play in romantic relationships in a modified form.

Childhood experiences set the stage for a tendency to form secure attachment relationships with romantic partners, or a tendency to form insecure relationships.

Bowlby believed that each of us developed a set of expectations, beliefs, or “rules” for how to behave in attachment relationships that were based on his or her caregiving experiences.

Someone who was a secure child (because his or her caregiver was there in a consistent way) tends to believe that others will be caring. That person will tend to seek out relationships that fit those expectations and will tend to perceive others in a way that is affected by those beliefs.

In addition to whether or not one believes that one can trust others to be available and reliable in relationships (secure or insecure attachment) there is one other dimension that defines relationships – low or high avoidance. The next chart illustrates this.

Two dimensions of attachmentAvoidance may reflect an inherited trait. Those with low avoidance pay close attention to relationships, their behavior reflects that they value relationships highly. Those with high avoidance tend not to act in ways that suggest that relationships matter (this may or not mean that they matter, in other words people can manifest high avoidance but still be deeply affected by their relationships, but they may not be aware of the importance of relationships).

Although all of this might seem pretty depressing (you mean that my romantic relationships are determined by my childhood?) in fact research shows that these patterns can definitely change in adulthood. In this case, awareness may be a good part of the solution.

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.

A woman we have been working with called these sites to our attention. The first one is a link to an article on attachment theory, it is a bit “academic” but nevertheless offers a reasonable overview of the key concepts. The second is a quiz that you can use to assess your relationships.