Psych Corner: How Past Relationships Impact Current Relationships


Our childhood experiences teach us a lot about what a relationship should or shouldn’t look like. When we are young, without even realizing it, we observe our parents and primary caregivers to see what they are like in relationships. And most importantly, how they interact and bond with us influences our expectations when it comes to our relationships as adults. How our parents or primary caregivers interact with us and how we interact with them is called your attachment style.

There are four main types of attachment styles identified by researchers that most people fall into and there are different names for these four types for children and for adults. The four main types for children with adult equivalent in parentheses are Secure (Autonomous), Insecure/Ambivalent (Entangled), Insecure/Avoidant (Dismissive), and Insecure/Disorganized or Disoriented (Unresolved or Disorganized). Researchers estimate that about  62% of children are secure, 23% are avoidant, and 15% are anxious/ambivalent. These percentages are about the same for adults as well. Each style describes a particular way that a child has of interacting with their parent which is influenced by the way the parent behaves towards them. Here are brief descriptions of each attachment style:

Secure: Individuals with this attachment style feel safe and connected in their relationships because their primary caregiver met their needs and provided them with a secure base from which they could go out and explore the world. They are often comfortable with their independence and the independence of those they are in relationships with.

Insecure/Ambivalent: Individuals with this type of attachment style are very sensitive to any changes in attachment style because their primary caregiver was inconsistent with meeting their needs. Because they experienced this inconsistency early on in life, they are fearful that those they are in relationship with might leave at any moment and abandon them. They can often be described as “clingy”.

Insecure/Avoidant: Individuals with this type of attachment style felt rejected by their primary caregiver and their needs were not met by their caregiver. Because of this, these individuals tend to ignore and avoid acknowledging conflict in their relationships because they’ve learned to believe that their needs will never be met in a relationship anyway. They tend to isolate themselves and be dismissive of others.

Insecure/Disorganized: This type of attachment style is less common than the others and is often the result of parental abuse or an early experience with death. A person with a disorganized attachment style of reacts in an unpredictable manner and in fear. This is the least common attachment style out there in the population.

While your particular attachment style describes the type of bond you have with your primary caregiver, it also can influence how you approach relationships as an adult. For example, a person with a secure attachment style is going to be very confident in themselves and in the strength of the relationship that they are in. They feel comfortable trusting their significant other and are able to be vulnerable with them. On the other hand, someone with an ambivalent attachment style might always be questioning the other person’s motives and fear that their significant other can leave them at any time without warning. Someone with an avoidant attachment style values independence over being in a relationship and can easily leave a relationship at the first sign of trouble.

Your relationship can become even more complex when you and your partner have two different insecure attachment styles. For example, a study by researchers Mikulincer and Shaver (2007) found that someone with an avoidant style might feel more comfortable keeping the other person at a distance while the ambivalent might desire a greater level of closeness. This can become a source of frustration for both partners if it goes unaddressed. These researchers also found that when both people in the relationship have an ambivalent attachment style, they tend to feel misunderstood and rejected by their partner. They also tend to feel insecure in their relationship.

If you are reading these descriptions and find yourself afraid that you are doomed forever when it comes to relationships, do not be alarmed. Having an attachment style other than a secure one does not mean that you can never be in a healthy relationship. You might have spend some time identifying the ways that your attachment style is holding you back from the relationship you want but you can certainly develop the qualities you need to feel secure and comfortable in a healthy relationship. And, there are some ways out there to help you grow in confidence and security in your relationships including therapy.

Recognizing your attachment style can be an incredibly important first step to identifying how it is affecting your relationships. For example, if you find it difficult to trust your partner and be vulnerable and prefer to keep them at a distance, you may have an avoidant attachment style. Knowing your attachment style will shed light on the reasons behind you act the way you do in a relationship whether they are positive or negative actions.

Once you know your attachment style, you can identify ways it is impacting your relationship and take steps to change it. Sometimes, it’s hard to recognize patterns in your own life so asking a trusted friend for their observations and perspective might be helpful. In therapy, a counselor could help you figure out these patterns and, even better, support you as you make some changes in the way you relate to your significant other to improve your relationship. For example, a therapist might help someone with an an ambivalent attachment style work on giving their partner some space while also challenging their own assumptions that their partner could leave at any moment without warning. Keep in mind that these changes often take time so be patient with yourself. It’s worth the time and effort!

Resource: Adolescence by John W. Santrock 12th edition, 2008, McGraw Hill Higher Education, New York, New York

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