Friends and clients often bring the same problems to me:
- “He’s not emotionally available. Why do I keep dating guys like that? I just want someone who shows up.”
- “At first, he was super sweet and loving, but now I’m realizing he’s a narcissist. I’m not sure how I fell for it."
- “I keep getting triggered by stuff she says. I tell her, but she doesn’t change."
- “I want to make plans with her, but she says she has all this other stuff to do. I want to be the person she prioritizes."
Why do we attract partners who are fundamentally incompatible with us?
And once we realize this, why do we stay in these relationships?
The answer has multiple factors: we are attracting people who have something to teach us because we haven’t worked through unhealed hurts from our past. We are wired to become addicted to inconsistent reward (think gambling). But the number one reason has to do with patterns that are created early on in our formative years. The emotional bond that we create with our caregivers as babies later has an effect on the way we relate with others. If we have a secure attachment as children, our adult lives are easier.
why does it matter if we have secure attachment as adults?
Well, we’re more confident and comfortable in all our relationships (not just romantic ones). We stay calm when people pull away or come close, and have better emotional regulation. We enjoy our alone time and we enjoy connection. We handle stress better and recover more easily from difficult circumstances. It's easier to build loving, lasting relationships. A secure partner can offer us a safe haven when troubles arise, playfulness, predictability, and easier conflict resolution.
How do our attachment styles form?
Imagine a baby who is crying. The mom comes in, is present and attuned to the child, and comforts her. She is protective, present, yet respectful of boundaries, creating a safe base that the child can return to after exploring on her own. When this happens consistently, secure attachment can form. The child is confident that the object of her attachment (in this case, mom) will be there when she's needed.
But what if loving attention/availability isn't consistent, or mom is intrusive? This is when Ambivalent or Anxious attachment can form. If mom is sometimes available and sometimes not, or isn't well attuned to her baby, the baby learns that she has to work extra hard to make sure mom is around. “If I cry louder when she comes back, she’ll know it was important and she’ll come quicker next time.” As adults, there is a tendency to hang on to the love we have, to chase after someone when they are pulling away, to make sure they are here for us. There is a tendency to cling, and a tendency to be resentful that we have to work this hard. Because love wasn’t always a constant, and we all need it.
In another type of attachment called Avoidant attachment, the parent is disconnected, emotionally unavailable or even hostile. There’s no nurturing gaze. It’s like going to a bad restaurant over and over. Eventually the child learns to cook at home, so to speak. Fast forward to adulthood: we become independent, perhaps placing a priority on career over intimate sustained relationships. In relationships, we can distance physically and emotionally, and sometimes become unresponsive to others' needs. We may not trust others to be there for us and need our space.
Yet another style — Disorganized Attachment —- can happen when childhood experiences frequently feel dangerous or unpredictable. A parent tells the child to clean their room, then yells at them for doing it wrong, even though it wasn't explained in the first place how to do it "right". Behavior is unpredictable. Many times, if the parent doesn't recognize a need for emotional closeness, the child can become disorganized or aggressive. Or maybe there's physical or emotional abuse; the parent is both the source of attachment and of fear. These instances can create a lot of anxiety and fear as adults. We may experience difficulty regulating emotions, reading social cues, showing love and affection, and creating long-term relationships.
What do we do about it?
The good news is we all have a blueprint for secure attachment, so it’s not that we’re *learning* secure attachment so much as returning to a secure state. Early childhood experiences are pulling us out of this natural state. Adults too may start off being secure and get into a relationship with a partner who pulls them out of secure attachment. With help, they can return to being secure. Similarly, someone who did not have this foundation of security in childhood can shift as an adult. One way we can do this is to learn to embody secure attachment, since many people haven’t had a chance to experience this as much as we all need. You know that feeling you get when you're with someone who's supportive, loving, and who you can trust to be there for you, someone you can pick up the phone after having not talked to them in a while and it's like you talked to them yesterday? How does this show up as a body sensation? What we embody, the psyche will follow, and you can learn practices that will help you access this state more frequently. It is also helpful to work on the old hurts we’ve been carrying with us over the years. If we have trauma, our relational capacity is reduced, and we can't provide secure attachment for children or loved ones because we don't have the embodied experience of secure attachment in our nervous system.
If you’d like to become more secure in the way you relate to others, I offer a free strategy session:
During this FREE call, you'll discover
- The repeating patterns underlying *your* relationships and choice of partners
- Your biggest challenges when it comes to relationships
- How to remove the blocks keeping you from having a deep fulfilling relationship
- One tool you can use immediately to improve your relationships