I decided to write this post as I was reading A Tale of Long Ago and also talking to a friend about my past relationship. This is not a D/s related post as it is about insecure attachment but I hope it might help anyone who has, or is in a relationship with someone who has these sorts of issues. I was not in a D/s relationship at the time and that wouldn’t have saved me, but I do think that a better understanding of what I was dealing with might have done. It was not until I did some work-related training, many years after walking away from my own relationship confused as to why I had failed at something so fundamental, that I realised my ex had attachment disorder, and that probably my approach towards him had just compounded things rather than helping them.
So what is attachment all about?
During a child’s formative years (0 to 3 in particular), the way that their primary carer interacts with them will determine the type of attachment that is formed. Essentially this will then form a blue print for the type of relationships that they have throughout the rest of their life. For most of us, we will form a secure attachment based on the fact that our needs are met. If our parent is sensitive, attuned and consistent in meeting our needs then we form the default position that we will be loved and cared for. This will lead to being better able to regulate emotions, more confidence in exploring the environment and trying new things, and more ability to empathise and care.
If, however, the primary caregiver is not attuned to the needs of the child, the care is inconsistent or unpredictable or inappropriate, it can have the opposite effect. In this case, children form the default thought process that their needs will not be met and they develop strategies to try to manage this. This can include defensive actions to try to feel safe, trying to tone down or hide their feelings or emotions, and finding other ways to relieve frustration and pain. It is thought that about 40% of children form insecure attachments and for many this will lead to long-term difficulties with relationships into adulthood. There are three main types of insecure attachment: avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised.
Avoidant attachment occurs when the parent is emotionally unavailable most of the time. The child learns to hide their feelings and to self-sooth and will avoid seeking out others for comfort when they are distressed or in pain. They develop a pseudo-independence and will focus on tasks instead of relationships. While they will often want to be close to their carer, they will achieve this by being almost invisible and by not appearing to require anything from them. As adults, people with an avoidant attachment will often not look for emotional connections. They may see others as wanting too much from them and therefore withdraw, become detached or focussed on other things, such as work. They will often deny their vulnerability and use repression to manage their emotions. If they do look for support they may use indirect strategies such as hinting, complaining or sulking. People with this type of attachment style can be very focussed on themselves and what matters to them. Sharing their thoughts and feelings can be difficult and they will often be distant in a stressful situation. They can seem to have a very positive view of themselves and a negative attitude toward other people but the high self-esteem is defensive and underneath they are fragile, vulnerable and highly sensitive to rejection.
Ambivalent attachment comes from a childhood where love and care are not consistently given. The child is confused as to why something is there one day and not the next and feels that their needs are not understood. They want closeness but are also scared of it therefore they don’t feel safe. Although they want love and affection and may get it one day, they know it may not be there again the next day even though the circumstances seem to be the same. The only constant they can find is themselves, so they feel that they are not good enough or haven’t communicatied their needs strongly enough. As a result they can be very attention seeking and clingy and look for proof of love. Their behaviour can be difficult to manage and may lead to rejection of them which then confirms the view that they are not worthy. As an adult this can lead to a relationship which can seem obsessive and is characterised by extreme behaviours which can alienate the other person. People with ambivalent attachment can find it hard to trust and no amount of reassurance seems to be enough. They can appear needy and clingy whilst at the same time being very angry and unpredictable, pushing others away and then pulling them back in.
Disorganised attachment occurs when the caregiver mistreats or frightens the child. As a result they see the parent as a source of both protection and danger at the same time which leads to huge confusion for the child. The carer is frightening and emotionally unreachable so is the source of the childs distress, as well as being the only person there who can help them. They can become hyper vigilant, find it hard to relax and their incompatible views of the caregiver may also lead to confusion about themselves as to whether or not they are good or bad. Because they have not learnt any clear way to relate and regulate their emotion, children who have a disorganised attachment style will often be bizarre in the way they relate to others and display behaviour which can be chaotic, confusing and angry. As adults, relationships with others remain extremely difficult and behaviour can often be erratic, unpredictable and, sometimes, antisocial. They may lack empathy and remorse, can be selfish and controlling and may disregard rules and refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Their experience of severe attachment trauma makes them much more vulnerable to a variety of emotional, social and moral problems.
Understanding that attachment styles are established in the early years of life is important, as they set up the blueprint or default thought process for how that person will relate to others. Once set, it is difficult to reset it, although forming secure attachments later on and learning strategies to help to change the way that you think and behave will help. Reassurance and proof that someone is there for you and will consistently meet your needs will help to override the natural response and self-doubt, but the behaviour may make it hard to sustain a relationship where this can happen. A relationship where your needs are continually met and there is constant communication to reassure you that someone is there for you will help but as the default is set, the negative behaviours may actually push away the very thing that you hope to have.
It is worrying that so many people are trying to manage with an insecure attachment style and I feel that there needs to be more awareness of what it can actually mean. As with anything, the effect will vary from person to person and their experience of subsequent relationships will make a difference to how it impacts them long term. Research has shown that by the age of three the brain is pretty much hard-wired so the responses are set but during teenage years, it can become more plastic again and so some of these responses and connections can be altered. Early experience is clearly key in establishing how a child views the world and their place within it, but with increased understanding and knowledge about how to support others, we can surely limit the negative effects.