In much of the literature on attachment theory and relationships, there is made mention of “attachment disturbances” in childhood development, which lead to insecure attachment styles (anxious, avoidant and disorganized). But what qualifies as an attachment “disturbance?”
Generally speaking, when a child receives such messages as “you make me proud,” “you make me angry,” or “don’t hurt your sister’s feelings,” he realizes the power he wields over others–including his more capable adult caretakers–and this is anxiety inducing. Equally, he realizes the opposite must be true: if he can make others feel something and act accordingly, then they can make him feel something and act accordingly as well.
In this way, the child falls into blame games that quickly spiral into complicated relationships, fraught with tension and unresolved issues. He then carries those loose ends into other aspects of life, compounding his “unfinished business”. Inevitably, the early drama will be played out again and again in relationships, like the same script read with new actors, each time.
In pursuit of attachment we are paradoxically driven towards a state of independence. Having blissfully enjoyed a sense of intimate “oneness” with our mothers (for about the first twelve to sixteen months of life), the advent of crawling and walking propel us towards a state of independence, a process Margaret Mahler called “separation individuation.”
A child’s ability to hold a state of feeling both distinct from while still connected to its mother has a profound impact on all later relationships. If a child is fortunate, he will be able to make clear distinctions between himself and other people, maintaining flexible boundaries that he can open or close at will (Hendrix, 1988)–which is the definition of interdependency, commonly considered the ideal situation for adult relationships.
Mahler suggested a child suffers greatly if this individuation process is not handled with care, leading to profound confusion about who one is: What is self and what is other? What is me and what is not me?
We find ourselves asking questions like:
- Do I really like this or am I just doing this because my partner likes it?
- I can’t figure out how my partner wants me to behave. I can’t figure out what they want me to do. What should I do?
- How should I feel right now? What is the rule? What is appropriate? Do I have a right to feel this way at this point in a relationship?
- If I can’t figure it out I don’t deserve it and I should just end it right now. Or, I better fake it ’til I make it or they’ll probably leave me.
Early arrestments in this time of life can make for a complicated and intensely painful relationships in adulthood, particularly for those that fall into the “anxious-avoidant trap.” We end up oscillating between these violently painful while at the same time intoxicatingly blissful extremes of all in or all out.
Neufeld and Mate, in their book HOLD ONTO YOUR CHILDREN, identify six “ways of attaching,” ascending from the more simplified to complex:
1. Senses. The emphasis is placed on physical proximity. A child needs to feel attached through smell, sight, sound, or touch.
2. Sameness. Usually in evidence by toddlerhood, the child seeks to be like those he or she feels closest to.
3. Belonging and Loyalty. To be close to someone is to feel possessive of him or her, and to be obedient and faithful to that person.
4. Significance. Needing to matter to the person we are closest to, and seeking to please him or her and win his or her approval.
5. Feeling. Marked by a seeking to be emotionally open and vulnerable with an attachment figure; a willingness to share one’s feeling states.
6. Being known. Usually observable by the time a child enters school, this is when a child seeks to share his or her secrets and insecurities in the hopes of being completely seen, heard and embraced, in spite of them.
Essentially, Neufeld and Mate describe the dynamics of intimacy: the integration of both good and bad feelings—loving someone, even though they have disappointed you, and continuing to love yourself, when you have disappointed someone else—which allows for the vulnerable experience of more complex emotions, and enhance one’s capacity to think and learn.
If you like what you’ve read here and are interested in learning more, I invite you to check out the FREE video below on THE SIX SIGNS YOU’RE IN A SECURE RELATIONSHIP.
Hope to see you there!