Issues with attachment are often associated with children, particularly children who have lost a significant caretaker or children in adoption situations who didn’t receive proper loving care as babies and, as a result, exhibit negative behaviors or emotional difficulties throughout childhood. Attachment issues, however, can impact adult relationships without the awareness of the individuals involved. Attachment is, essentially, the way we connect with others.
The greatest influence on our ability to form healthy relationships throughout life come from the relationship with the primary caretaker we had as an infant, most often a parent but not always. “The reason this early connection is so important and impactful is because, as infants, we are completely dependent on our caregivers,” explained Linda McKinzie, LCSW, therapist with Maria Droste Counseling Center. “Those early relationships help create expectations of relationships in our later lives, for example, whether or not we believe we can depend on someone.”
One of the ways this plays out for adults is in the relationships they create with significant people in their lives, which may be through marriage, friendship or in the workplace. How we were cared for at the start of our lives informs our ability to trust, love and feel secure with others. This manifests not only in the way we communicate, but also in how we feel.
“With a best friend — someone you have a healthy attachment to — you tend to have certain feelings about being open, trusting and vulnerable. On the other hand, when meeting someone for the first time, you open up more slowly,” Linda said. “It is totally appropriate to find out first if someone can be trusted before revealing too much.” Someone who has difficulty trusting anyone, even after getting to know the person, or who opens up too quickly to strangers or acquaintances, may have issues related to attachment.
When adults seek therapy for relationship problems, the therapist may be curious about relationships they’ve had in the past and what they have learned to expect from relationships in general, according to Linda. By understanding complicated past interactions, clients get a clearer picture of why they have a predetermined notion of what’s going to happen in any current or future relationship. A therapist who is in tune with the client and understands that history can help identify situations in which the client is drawing predetermined conclusions rather than experiencing the relationship in the present.
Most people are not aware of this when they enter a relationship. As children, we develop our sense of self and form our expectations based on our experiences. As adults, when something doesn’t work out, we have two basic options. Either we make adjustments in order to find meaningful relationships or we don’t adjust and wonder why our relationships are unsatisfactory.
Because this is a subconscious process, individuals are not likely to recognize it on their own. A therapist who asks the right questions can make the connections that clarify why certain patterns exist.
The first step necessary for change to occur is to bring what is subconscious into consciousness — in other words to become aware. This is hard for us to do on our own. Next, we have choices of how to respond, rather than simply responding out of habit or reflex. When a couple is involved, the dynamic is further complicated, because instead of one person dealing with memories and relationship tendencies, there are two people doing so. What one person sees as a thoughtful gesture, the other might see as dismissive or controlling. What one does to protect personal space might be seen as distancing to the other.
“People come in to therapy wondering why they are always at odds and having disagreements or fights. They say they need help with communication skills, but that is only one step. Understanding attachment styles and the preconceived notions they bring into a relationship is the key,” Linda said.
Individual therapy can be quite helpful for those who continually experience distance, dissatisfaction or frequent arguing within a specific relationship, or for those who experience a lack of satisfaction in relationships in general. Therapy can help them understand how they make sense of the world and what blind spots they have. For couples seeking assistance, couples therapy may be an option. A therapist can see the dynamic between the two and bring that subconscious process into consciousness for both parties. Linda recommends talking to your therapist to assess your particular situation and together determine the best way to proceed.
If you are having ongoing relationship difficulties or would like to speak to a therapist about any issues, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Linda McKinzie, LCSW, for contributions to this blog.***