We are naturally wired biologically to desire attachment to others. Learning how to attach to others begins from the day we are born. We begin learning from birth about attachment and how relationships work through the interactions and care we receive from our primary caregiver (usually mom or dad).
The attachment of an infant to parent (or caregiver) can have a lasting impact on an individual and their adult relationships. Our relationships in infancy can have a profound affect on our future relationships because of what we learned in our earliest relationships.
When insecure attachment takes place during infancy and childhood, this can wreak havoc on adult relationships. Problems such as abuse, clinging to abusers, low self esteem, control issues, jealousy, emotional dependency, and relationship paranoia can become prevalent when insecure attachment in infancy/childhood affects adult relationships.
Not to fear though; there are many individuals who have experienced insecure attachment in infancy and childhood and have healthy relationships in adulthood. The key is recognizing the behaviors that may stem from insecure attachment and learn how to handle them.
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What Causes Insecure Attachment?
As infants, we need a caregiver that is loving, attentive, and affectionate. The relationship between the caregiver (typically a parent) and baby creates a bond or attachment. A healthy and secure attachment occurs when the caregiver meets the babies needs and is loving. When there are problems with the care that is provided, insecure attachment occurs.
Healthy attachment is known as secure attachment. When secure attachment doesn’t occur, then by default an insecure attachment takes place. It is helpful to understand why insecure attachment may have occurred, so you can understand how your adult relationships have potentially been affected by your first relationships in life.
Insecure attachment can happen for a variety of reasons. There are also levels of insecure attachment based on the severity of the situation.
Physical Abuse and Neglect by Caregivers
For example, a baby that has endured physical abuse and neglect by their caregiver will likely be highly insecurely attached. They have a distrust of their caregiver because of the abuse. They will likely also have fear of this caregiver.
The infant desires love and care from the caregiver, but what they are given is harm and lack of care. This will affect their adult relationships, because they intrinsically learn that the one that they are supposed to trust the most harms them.
No Affectionate Interactions
Another way that insecure attachment occurs is when the physical needs for the baby are met, but there is no affectionate interactions. You can see extreme cases of this example in orphanages. The babies are provided with basic essential needs such as a crib to sleep and milk to drink. They are clothed and diapers are changed.
However, these babies do not receive affection and interaction from their caregiver. They are left alone in their crib for most of the hours of the day. They have learned that crying for affection and attention has not brought anyone to meet this need, so they have stopped crying for these emotional needs to be met.
Instead, they have a lack of emotional attachment or an insecure attachment because they do not have an interactive, affectionate relationship with a caregiver. This insecure attachment will likely affect their adult relationships.
A child can also grow up in a “normal home” and not have these emotional needs met. Their primary caregiver may attend to the physical needs, but fail to interact with them. The caregiver does not talk to the baby, play with the baby, or give the baby cuddles, hugs, and kisses. The caregiver, for whatever reason, does not provide the emotional interactions that are needed for the baby to bond and attach. Thus, insecure attachment occurs and adult relationships are affected in the future.
Inconsistency in Meeting the Baby’s Needs
Another example of why insecure attachment occurs is that of inconsistency in meeting the baby’s needs. In this situation, the baby’s needs are sometimes met when they cry and fuss. However, other times the baby is left to cry and cry without their needs being met.
There is an inconsistency in the care from their primary caregiver. This creates a distrust from the child to parent. The baby learns that they cannot fully count on their caregiver to provide for their needs or comfort them all of the time.
An insecurity within the child will develop because they do not know when they can count on their caregiver to provide for them. There is an uncertainty in having their needs met which creates anxiety as well as distrust.
This can obviously carry into adult intimate relationships and wreak havoc.
10 Signs of Insecure Attachment
There are some behaviors that are caused by insecure attachment. A variety of unhealthy behaviors can present in early childhood because of insecure attachment.
This article will focus on the behaviors that are evident in adulthood because of insecure attachment. Here are some behaviors that can result from insecure attachment in infancy which results in unhealthy and insecurely attached adult relationships:
1. Demand Time
For example, you do not want your spouse or partner to do things without you. Your desire is to spend all of your and their spare time together. You demand their time and attention, to the exclusion of other friendships and relationships.
2. Suspicion or Jealousy
For example, you are suspicious of your partner or spouse’s behavior and the people they work with. You question their work relationships and who they interact with in the workplace.
You are suspicious of anyone that you feel they are getting to close to, as you fear they may leave you for another individual.
3. Lack of Emotional Intimacy
For example, your spouse or partner feels that they emotionally can’t get close to you. They describe you as someone who “puts up walls” or that you are generally hard to get close to emotionally.
4. Emotional Dependency
For instance, you depend on your spouse or partner for your emotional well-being. Your expectation is that your happiness comes from your relationship.
If you aren’t happy, it’s because you feel you aren’t being fulfilled by your partner or spouse.
For example, you desire closeness in your intimate relationships. However, your experience has been that if you get too close to your loved one, they will hurt you. This causes you to be a mix of emotions.
You draw your loved one near and then you push him or her away. Your fear of getting too close because you don’t want to get hurt causes relationship dysfunction.
6. Lack of Trust
You don’t trust your spouse or partner to do right by you. You fear they may cheat on you or you fear that they will leave you. You cannot seem to bring yourself to fully trusting him or her.
7. Emotionally Shut off
In heated arguments you shut down and turn off emotionally. You close yourself off emotionally because you don’t want to get hurt any further.
8. Fear of Abandonment
You fear that your spouse or partner will one day leave you. You don’t have any justified reason for having this belief. Instead, it is a fear you harbor deep inside and it prevents you for getting too close to him or her because deep down you believe they are someday going to leave you anyway.
This fear may stem from being left by your caregiver. Even if they came back to get you, the fear can still remain if you have an insecure attachment.
You dominate your intimate relationship and try to control your partner or spouse. Your underlying fear of rejection or of having the relationship not meet your needs drives your controlling behavior.
You may dictate how things are run in your household and how your spouse/partner is to act. You feel that if you have control over their behavior and the functioning of your household, then you have control over the potential for being hurt in the relationship.
Fear drives the controlling behaviors.
10. Affection Issues
You are not comfortable with hugs and other forms of public displays of affection that seem normal to others. You may not have any issues being intimate in private because you are having a need met, but your physical affection in public suffers.
Your discomfort may stem from not being held and provided with attention as an infant or child. Your relationship with your caregiver was cold in comparison to a securely attachment caregiver and child relationship.
Because of this lack of affection, you have not learned how to give and receive physical affection comfortably.
A Rocky Relationship
Typically what you can expect in an insecurely attached adult relationship is one of two directions: rocky with lots of ups and downs or ambivalence.
The rocky relationships develop because the individual has mixed feelings. They want a close relationship, but they have been harmed by the one who was supposed to care the most for them (their caregiver in infancy).
They draw near and then push away when things get tough. This causes them to also create defense mechanisms to protect themselves when problems arise in the relationship. Defense mechanisms can be unhealthy and cause more turmoil.
The ambivalence can stem from not having needs met as an infant, so they have learned to not care. They develop a wall because they cannot count on others to meet their needs (or so they think because of their past experience).
They will prevent themselves from getting too emotionally involved and attached to others because they have a distrust of others to meet their emotional and/or physical needs.
The Solution to Your Attachment Problem
The solution to your attachment problem is first recognizing that there is a problem. Next you must figure out which behaviors in your current relationship are unhealthy and stem from this problem, so that you can then work to correct the behaviors.
1. Recognizing the Problematic Behavior
You cannot fix something unless you recognize that it is broken. The first step to healing a relationship and resolving insecure attachment is identifying that there is a problem.
The problem manifests itself in our behaviors. The examples provided above are just some of the behaviors that can result from insecure attachment. There are many others.
The key is recognizing if there is something wrong in your intimate relationships which is revealed in a pattern of behavior that potentially stems from insecure attachment.
No parent or caregiver is perfect, because there are no perfect people. We are all flawed beings, so don’t be quick to blame your parents for your current relationships. They may not have done everything perfect, but you are responsible for your own actions as an adult.
You can learn to have securely attached adult relationships, even if you had the most broken and insecurely attached relationships in infancy and childhood.
2. Develop Relationships with Those who can Securely Attach
A relationship between two individuals who suffer from insecure attachment will never result in a securely attached relationship without help. It is hard enough to have a relationship between two healthy individuals who experienced securely attached relationships in childhood.
When one individual has attachment issues, there will be problems in the relationship because their behavior will manifest the problem. If both individuals have attachment issues, it is more likely that the relationship will have a great deal of problems, drama, and extreme behaviors.
The goal is to have a healthy relationship between two individuals who can have healthy and secure attachments in their adult relationships. If one or both recognize that there are behaviors that stem from insecure attachment, then help should be sought.
If you are wondering whether you are able to securely attach in a relationship, there is a free test that you can take here: Attachment Styles and Close Relationships. This test can help you better understand the way you think, behave, and your subsequent ability to securely attach in a relationship.
Therapy is the best way to overcome behaviors that stem from insecure attachment.
When seeking out a therapist or counselor in helping you overcome your insecure attachment, ask the right questions. Ask if they have helped others with this problem. Then ask if their client was able to overcome the insecure attachment and in turn able to develop a healthy attached relationship.
If you are currently in a relationship, also ask if they will work with both you and your spouse/partner if necessary. In some cases, couple’s therapy is helpful as it can help the other person better understand your problems, so you can work together on the solutions.
4. Deal with your Defense Mechanisms
Defense mechanisms develop as a way for us to protect ourselves. When we have anxieties and fears that we don’t know how to handle with good coping skills, we then develop defense mechanisms.
For example, we may have fear of abandonment issues because of real abandonment that happened in childhood. We carry that issue into our intimate relationships in adulthood because we haven’t learn to deal with this fear properly.
In turn, we displace (the defense mechanism) the fear from childhood onto our current partner and act out of this fear. We question their motives and then act clingy when we fear the relationship is rocky. This is obviously not a healthy way to act in a relationship.
Understanding defense mechanisms and recognizing the ones you may be using to squelch your fears and anxieties can help you. Read up on defense mechanisms and look at yourself introspectively to determine if you utilize any unhealthy defense mechanisms.
If you do, then knowing is half the battle. Find new, healthy ways of handling your fears and anxieties. Counseling can help with this as well. Here is a helpful article on the subject: How Not to Let Your Defense Mechanisms Control You
5. Work on Change
The way to change is to recognize the problematic behavior and work to correct it. Once you know that the problem causing the behavior is your insecure attachment from earlier in life, then you can work to change.
For example, you have always avoided talk about marriage and a future together with your significant other. You have a fear of abandonment, so you don’t want to even broach the topic of marriage, because if you got married and they left you it would hurt even more. Your fears are over-riding your decision making.
Once you realize where the fear is coming from, then you can make the decision to take your fears head on by having the discussion about a future and potentially marriage.
If you feel that you can’t do it, then seek out a counselor for help. They can help you work through your fears. Some fears and anxieties are so deeply imbedded that we need help drawing them out and taking them on.
Another example of making change is trusting your spouse/partner. Recognizing that they haven’t had any reason to deserve your distrust is the first step.
Next, work on changing the behaviors that stem from your lack of trust. Perhaps you secretly check their phone daily. Stop doing it.
Make yourself change the behaviors that stem from your past insecure attachments. If you are unable to stop the behavior on your own, then seek a therapist to help you.
Final Thoughts: Don’t Give Up!
Don’t give up on having healthy relationships. Chalking up your behavior to “that’s just who I am”, will not help you have healthy, securely attached relationships.
Identify that you do have a problem, then work to correct the behaviors and you will be on your way to healthier and happier intimate relationships.
You do not have to remain stuck in an insecure relationship status. You have the ability to work to change yourself, starting today.
Featured photo credit: Pablo Merchán Montes via unsplash.com