What is attachment and how does it affect our adult relationships?

Relationships are a massive part of our lives and integral in our functioning as human beings.

This week I will briefly discuss relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to cover everything there is possibly to know about relationships. Rather, it for us to reflect on our role in relationships and to try shed some light on one psychological theory that helps us understand why we may have difficulty therein. My intention with this blog as a whole was to raise awareness of mental health and as relationships are a common point of stress and difficulty, it always helps to be more aware of our own role in relationships. For some, this topic could be very intuitive and this awareness may already come naturally to many, and for others not. However, we all find ourselves in many different relationships in our lives; be it with friends, parents, colleagues, strangers, family members etc. Relationships are a massive part of our lives and integral in our functioning as human beings.

One of my favourite theories to understand relationships is Attachment theory. I like this theory because it covers not only “successful” attachment, but also failures in attachments and the effects on our relationships over our lifespan. This will not be a perfect rendition of the theory, but rather a conversational understanding of it.

Attachment theory is an old theory but what I draw from it is to understand the foundational attachment dynamics we form with our early relationships (i.e. with our primary caregiver or whoever was closest to you in infancy and early childhood). These relationships are so key to our learning about future relationships. I often have people say to me, “but when they’re babies they don’t understand and before they can talk they don’t know what is going on.”Quite the contrary, we are learning so much about ourselves, about others and about the world from the very beginning of our lives.

According to the theory, we learn that our primary caregivers are responsible for our needs and we rely on them to meet this. Which is understandable because we cannot feed ourselves or care for ourselves as babies. Our caregivers can either be there, or not, or be intermittent in their “being there”. Through early experiences, we learn about the availability and responsiveness of our primary caregiver. For example, if a baby cries and mom arrives, baby starts to learn “I can depend on mom to be available and responsive to my needs”. Of course it is not that simple but just to illustrate that we start to learn about our world and about ourselves through our primary caregiver. We start to learn about how to be in the world, and what to expect from it too. Remember, for some of us, our parents may have been a source of strength, resilience, comfort, love, encouragement but they could also have been a source of criticism, abuse, trauma, fear or pain. Our caregivers can provide us with these experiences and we certainly carry this through into other relationships, both positively and negatively. Through our development, we form our own attachment dynamics and personality traits which play into our way of engaging in the world and other relationships.

To make this more clear, I will use a more extreme example simply to illustrate the importance of our primary caregiver/s. Imagine a baby who has been neglected by their caregiver. This baby, whose needs are not attended to, learns that the world is not safe and that they cannot rely on the world and their caregiver to be there and respond. This baby can develop different types of internal beliefs like, “I am not important enough” or “I don’t matter”. Later on we often find that children who are neglected build up a negative self-esteem and have learnt that their caregiver is not available and responsive to meet their needs. Two common behavioural strategies; which are actually defences that children and babies use to protect themselves from these experiences, can look like this:

  • The child could become more needy and draining of the caregiver or of others in an attempt to secure that their needs are met. Remember, a defenceless child often has no other way but to scream the loudest, to quite literally survive in the world. That baby may start to learn that I need to continue to cry louder to have my needs met or to have my loved one near me and may find their security only in others and not in themselves.
  • Another common behavioural strategy this same baby could employ is if they start to defend against this unsafe world and to view the world (including other people) as threats and face the world without wanting to depend on anyone. They can be become fiercely independent, angry or fearful of the world and rather become overly self reliant in an attempt to defend against the neglect.

As I said, these attachment dynamics are not only about our expectations of others, but of the world and of our view of ourselves too. With this example of neglect, this is more likely an insecure attachment and there are also secure attachments that can build up with availability and responsiveness of caregivers.

The point here is that our current experience of relationships is often greatly influenced by the multiple experiences we have had in our early relationships. As adults, we may find ourselves in patterns of relationships or may always find ourselves feeling the same type of feelings, regardless of the person. A reminder from this view of relationships is to notice – we all have attachment needs. The other party, in whichever relationship we find ourselves in, has their own multiple experiences that form their attachment needs. Another way to look at this is to ask yourself, do I carry around assumptions have I grown up with that are the lenses through which I assess this relationship? Am I assuming I can or cannot trust you? Am I expecting to be respected or to be criticised? Am I expecting to be hurt by you or to be loved?

The reason I am raising this is often people may not be aware of the many things they carry from their early years and perhaps come to face it in their first relationship, or in their work place and with other life stressors – these underlying dynamics can come to the fore and can destabilize our mental health. As such, I feel it is important to reflect on our relationships – past and present and to take stock of the massive role relationships play in our lives. Relationships are fascinating reflections of ourselves and the interactions of our own lives and experiences interacting with another. Our relationships can also be a reflection of our growth.

If you are struggling with patterns of relationships or with answering these questions – these are things that can be assisted within psychology – and no it doesn’t mean you’re crazy! (There is no such word!) It means we are human, it means we are social beings and relationships are a big part of our functional lives and we can all work on it and we can all relate to it. Support is always available.

Disclaimer: We can only work on ourselves, we can only be in control of ourselves and we can only change ourselves – so if you find yourself in an unhealthy pattern – it is not to blame yourselves but rather to acknowledge the place at which you are in control.


Amy Glover is a practicing Clinical Psychologist based in Cape Town. She has her masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling (cum laude) from the University of Stellenbosch. She divides her time between a private practice in Vredehoek, Cape Town and developing practitioner-led resources to equip professionals to navigate online platforms for mental health services. She is passionate about preventative mental health and works with individuals and couples. Amy Glover is available to see clients online for therapy. Email: amygloverpsychologist@gmail.com or contact here.

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