Skip to main content

man and woman sitting on bench beside body of water

Our current relationships are inevitably affected by our experiences in our past relationships. The families we grew up in, for better or worse, play a large role in who we are today and how we relate to others. While parents often do a good job raising us, they are not perfect, and often one or both parents failed to meet our needs in some way. Your parents might have been harsh, punitive, and negative. Or they may have been neglectful, distracted, and preoccupied. The result for children and adolescents is that they feel insecure, unloved, and unimportant. These feelings can carry over into our adult relationships and affect our attachments with others, especially our romantic partners. There are three common “attachment styles” that can result from problematic relationships with parents: Avoidant, Anxious, and Disorganized. Many people who experienced supportive, nurturing, and consistent parenting will develop a secure attachment style. However, even with a primarily secure attachment style, it is still possible to have some characteristics of the other styles. Most people are a blend of more than one attachment style in their adult relationships, but tend to have one predominant style. Additionally, other close relationships from early in life can influence the development of attachment styles. Such relationships may include those with older siblings, close friends, and early romantic partners.

Avoidant type. People with an avoidant attachment style often only had some of their childhood needs met, and their parents may have over-emphasized their independence. Consequently, they may find it important to feel independent and self-sufficient. They may believe that their needs will not be met by others, regardless of what they do. They often long to have someone interested in their inner needs and desires, but are afraid to take risks to have that need met, though they may not admit this. They may avoid and have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. In a relationship, this person may be emotionally distanced in response to their partner’s attempts for intimacy, which can leave the partner frustrated and feeling unwanted.

Anxious type. People with an anxious attachment style may have lived in unpredictable or chaotic households, and may have had many unmet needs as children. As a result, these people will often seem unpredictable in their needs. Sometimes it may seem that their needs can never be met. As soon as it appears that their needs are being met, their anxiety increases and new needs arise, or they begin to feel that their attempts to have their needs met are inadequate. These individuals likely desire to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but often believe that others are reluctant to be as intimate as they would like. In a relationship, this person may try to find the security he or she desperately desires by acting in counterproductive ways – such as being needy, clingy, or demanding – that actually push the partner away. It’s helpful for this type of person to reflect on unmet needs from childhood and move towards accepting the losses of living in an unpredictable or chaotic household.

Disorganized type. Children who experienced neglect, abuse, or inconsistent parental treatment may develop a disorganized attachment style.They may have lacked childhood experiences in which their parents mirrored their emotions or explained their needs to them. Consequently, they often have difficulty understanding their own interior needs. They may desire intimacy, but, at the same time, feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness. Because they fear and expect abandonment from the very person they go to for security and intimacy, their relationship may be dramatic and have many highs and lows. They may often have difficulty coping. This type of person may also have difficulty understanding that their partner, children, or others have an interior life and needs of their own. However, not everyone who had an abused or neglected childhood has a disorganized attachment style. Many people are quite resilient, and many parents provide some nurturance in addition to abuse or neglect. 

It is important for each partner in the relationship to reflect on his or her own childhood and to determine what attachment style may have developed and how it affects the current relationship. Spend time reflecting on how some patterns in your relationship may have emerged because of your attachment style.  Once you have spent adequate time reflecting on your past and your attachment styles, share with your partner ways in which your needs were not met as a child and how you believe that affects your current relationship. Discuss with your partner ways that you can accommodate each other’s past hurts and attachment styles. The worksheet titled “Exploring Hurts from Families of Origin ” will guide you in this exercise. This shift in understanding creates a space where you can better connect with each other, reduce defensiveness, and increase understanding.