More and more people are starting to agree: Attachment theory might explain how we create our relationships.
The short version
How your parents bring you up defines the way you make your own relationships.
The slightly-less-short version
By the end of your first couple of years, the way you are treated by parents/caregivers is stamped on your brain as a template for all relationships.
Specifically, how reliably you learned you depend on them for comfort.
Understanding your early relationship to your parents—your "attachment style"—is the key to understanding the way you do all your relationships.
And, as the thinking goes, hopefully towards not screwing them up.
What is attachment theory, anyway?
British John Bowlby psyochoanalyst started looking at parent-child attachments around 50 years ago, but people only started looking at his work in a romantic context in the '80s. And, as The New York Times pointed out this week, attachment theory is having a moment in the sun.
The basics: If baby-you learns to be confident of always finding support, grown-up you is able to self-supply.
- "Secure" attachments = good. "you have the expectation that if you are distressed you will be able to turn to someone for help and feel you can be there for others,” co-director Center for Attachment Research Miriam Steele told the Times.
- Less-secure attachments = less good. If your caregiver is "distracted, overbearing, dismissive, unreliable, absent or perhaps threatening" during formative years, you get the idea security needs to be "earned"—often in self-sabotaging ways.
These two broad types tend to define the relationships you seek out, too. "It’s kind of like searching in Google," psychiatrist Dr. Amir Levine told the Times, "where it fills in based on what you searched before.”
Or to put it another way: Ever heard of daddy issues?
(And yes, there's a quiz to help you work out your attachment style. But it comes with the obvious warning that it's usefulness is limited to your own self-awareness.)
How attachment theory can help you
When you're able to identify your emotional triggers, you're far better equipped to make sure they don't undermine you in love. And to check yourself if you tend to choose people who are, for want of a more eloquent way to put this, really bad for you.
If you're a parent, it's a useful way of putting trying times in context—by reliably being there, you're giving your child steady emotional foundations. As Bethany Saltman brilliantly wrote for The Cut, this could be a huge source of pressure. What about all those times you're too exhausted, or preoccupied, or downright mad to give "proper" security?
Her personal exploration of this question and attachment theory in general is well worth reading in full. But the short answer comes in her quote of an essay, also by Steele: "Even sensitive caregivers get it right only about 50 percent of the time…the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that the ruptures are managed and repaired."
Basically, keeping in touch, and how and why you respond to the people you love—parents, children, partners—is always a good idea. And you could argue that's true no matter what behavioral theory is trending.
H/t: The New York Times