The gift of opening my heart

How an insecure childhood attachment affects a marriage…and what you can do about that

This summer, my husband and I will celebrate 15 years together. It has been a wild, sweet, frustrating at times, unforgettable ride through the years. I thought it would’ve grown easier over time. In some ways, it has. In other ways, it hasn’t.

I’m learning that is exactly how marriage is. It’s a relationship, and all relationships — as we know from our parent-child relationships — take work. Marriage isn’t something you can just get to a plateau and let it slide from there. If you’re not working on your marriage relationship — just as if you’re not working to continually strengthen your parent-child attachment relationship — it immediately begins to fall away. You always have to make it a priority and problem-solve to keep it a priority, despite whatever our lives throw our way.

However, there is a key difference between a marriage attachment bond and a parent-child attachment bond. With children, they are hard-wired to seek attachment with us and so learn to adapt how they seek that attachment from how we teach them — intentionally or inadvertently — to do so. This is why children who are overtly abused continue to feel love toward their abusive parents — the children are adapting out of their need for survival, and attachment to parents is as much a component of survival as air and food.

With our spouses, the attachment bond is different. One spouse doesn’t need the other for survival as strongly as we need air and food — we each have grown into an adult who is able to self-assure our survival — so each spouse isn’t subconsciously adapting to the other’s cues for what is acceptable or not in that relationship.

This means our adapting to one another’s attachment-seeking and keeping style has to be much more intentional. If we are not mindful about how to consciously adapt to one another’s style of relating, our subconscious attachment styles developed in childhood will reign in the relationship. Much of the time, this may not be a problem. Especially if you developed a secure attachment style as a child, relating to your spouse may be relatively easy.

But, especially if you developed an insecure attachment style as a child, you may have difficulty in relating to your spouse — and vice versa — particularly during conflict, while distressed, or when stressed-out. This is when the very common anxious and avoidance traits of insecure attachment are most prominent, and can be hardest to overcome.

When our ingrained attachment needs are triggered, such as during a conflict with our spouse, it can be difficult to rise above our knee-jerk, subconscious reflexes to shut down/run away or worry/cling — relating tendencies that insecurely attached children learn to be able to maintain attachment with their parents, but these same tendencies don’t work so well in other relationships like marriage.

Spouses, especially those who grew up with insecure attachments with their own parents, have to learn how to rise above those ingrained attachment reflexes to be able to adapt healthily to their spouse. The more we practice it, the more it rewires our brain in new, healthy ways to seek and strengthen attachment with our spouse without resorting to the insecure attachment tendencies from our youth.

This takes hard, hard work. But it’s so worth it.

As we observe Marriage Week, February 7-14 in the United States, Attachment Parenting International (API) reminds you of the incredible importance of seeking out like-minded support not only for parenting but also for your marriage. API offers many resources for couples, including these favorites:

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Weekly Reflection: Voicing your opinion goes a long way

This week’s API Reads Weekly Reflection focuses on the importance of parents voicing their opinions to their partner in a competent way. As you read the quote, take time to reflect on what it means to you, how you can incorporate its meaning into your family, and how it encourages you:

“Children who watch both parents competently voice their opinions realize that both men and women have something important to contribute. Research studies show that when parents are able to disagree without becoming angry, the children are rarely affected in adverse ways. In fact, children from these homes do better in school and have higher self-esteem than do children whose parents’ negotiations of differences escalate into bickering and hostile fights. Children who watch their parents communicate effectively and respectfully are able to more successfully negotiate with peers and have an important headstart in knowing how to resolve differences productively in the intimate relationships they will develop when they grow older.” (Page 136 of 210 in eBook edition)

What Children Learn From Their Parents’ Marriage: It May Be Your Marriage, but It’s Your Child’s Blueprint for Intimacy” by Judith P. Siegel PhD


API Reads Monthly Top 5 for January

“API Reads Monthly Top 5,” is a new series from the API Reads program, where Attachment Parenting International will post our top 5 quotes from a compilation of resources currently being reviewed by the team.

Editor’s Note: Even though these quotes have stood out to the reviewers, the resource is still under review. Please use your discretion when reading these resources on your own. We cannot guarantee that there are no conflicts with API’s philosophy, mission, or principles until the resource has been completely reviewed. Be sure to check APedia (soon to be launched) at a later date to see the final summary from the reviewer.

Each of this month’s Top 5 quotes from from the ebook, What Children Learn From Their Parent’s Marriage: It May Be Your Marriage, But It’s Your Child’s Blueprint for Intimacy by Judith P. Siegel PhD.

1) Page 2 —

“The truth is, most children are aware of many ‘private’ exchanges their parents assume are beyond their comprehension — a small gesture of comfort, a hostile glance. While your children may not be talking to you about what they are learning, they are drawing conclusions about ‘what happens’ to people who are married.”

2) Page 7 —

“Even when a person is exposed to a different environment in adulthood, he or she continues to hold on to the beliefs, values, and expectations acquired in the childhood home.”

3) Page 36 —

“Sleep deprivation usually adds to the mother’s experience of being exhausted and overwhelmed. Because the baby’s demands are real and urgent, it is normal for her to put her own needs second. But learning how to prioritize and balance her husband’s need for her is complicated and stressful. Although most new fathers are thrilled with the addition to the family, they are not prepared to lose their intimacy with their partner. If the couple is not able to find time to be alone together, the relationship suffers in important ways.”

4) Page 42 —

“Children and teens who are overly involved with a parent have a harder time growing up. Problems persist into adulthood, and the grown children often repeat their parent’s reliance on self-interests, extended family, or work to bring them happiness.”

5) Page 42 —

“Establishing the priority of the marriage does not mean that all other commitments and loyalties are tossed aside, but it does mean that the partner’s needs are constantly kept in sight. Even when there are competing demands, the partner and the marriage are respected. If parents want their children to find happiness in life from a wife or a husband, they must look at the message they are sending by the example of their own marriage. A marriage that can be protected from the demands of other obligations is not taking away from the children; it is giving to them the expectation and hope that one day they, too, will have a loving partner.”

Attachment matters, but how exactly?

Attachment parenting is often — to those unfamiliar with the term — viewed as simply a fad, but in truth, every parent is involved in a form of parenting that is associated with attachment, whether healthy or not.

Read more about how insecure attachment affects us from childhood through adulthood, and how it may be affecting your relationships today, and what to do about that — both for yourself and for your children — in the new ebook, Attachment Matters, available only through Attachment Parenting International (API).

With your donation of $25 or greater, you’ll receive this ebook.

Attachment parenting, as a collective of parenting behaviors, is a research-backed approach to childrearing that promotes a secure attachment between parents and their child.

“Attachment” is the scientific term for the emotional bond in a relationship, born out of Attachment Theory developed by the late psychologist-psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby. The attachment quality — or the quality of the emotional bond — that forms between parents and children, learned from the relational patterns with caregivers from birth on, correlates with how a child perceives — and ultimately is able to experience — relationships.

While the basis of Attachment Theory is rooted in infants and toddlers, the effects of attachment quality is an important feature of lifelong human development, affecting a child’s relationships within and beyond the immediate family through childhood and through adulthood.

Attachment Quality Affects Child’s Happiness

Attachment quality has profound effects for each child over the lifetime, often much more of an impact than is realized outside scientific and clinical circles. A person with a secure, or healthy, attachment is generally able to respond to stress in healthy ways and establish more meaningful and emotionally close relationships.

A person with an insecure attachment is more susceptible to stress and less healthy relationships, and is more at risk for serious mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, addictions, and eating disorders.

However, the effects of insecure attachments don’t wait until adulthood to show. Every relationship is influenced by a child’s attachment pattern, from the earliest peer interactions to that with school teachers. Secure children tend to earn higher grades, be more cooperative, and are more goal-oriented.

Insecure infants and toddlers are less curious and more inhibited and withdrawn than secure children, who are better able to master their environment and perform related motor actions. Insecure preschoolers have poorer social skills, adjust to school slower, and tend to have problems paying attention, focusing, and learning in school.

Overall, insecure children tend to have low self-esteem. Secure children have high self-esteem, prefer to be challenged in class, and are motivated to learn because they enjoy learning.

While attachment is one of many contributing factors of child and adult well-being, it cannot be overestimated how important attachment quality is to the health of a child’s future relationships, both with peers and with eventual romantic partners.

Parenting Determines Attachment Quality

Parents develop a secure attachment by fulfilling that child’s need for trust, empathy, and affection by providing consistent, loving, and responsive care. By demonstrating healthy and positive relationship skills, the parent provides critical emotional scaffolding for the child to learn essential self-regulatory abilities.

The attachment bond that a person had with his or her primary attachment figure — usually the mother — as a child is that person’s model for how any relationship should work for the rest of that person’s life. For people who developed a secure attachment as a child, adult relationships are relatively easy, loving, and nurturing.

For people who developed an insecure attachment as a child, there may be great difficulty with adult relationships, especially related to trust.

What Kind of Parenting Creates an Insecure Attachment?

Insecure attachment develops when there are inconsistencies in the sensitive responsiveness of a child’s primary attachment model — or no responsiveness at all.

Because humans are social beings, having emotionally close relationships is essential. Without healthy relationships, humans are at a definite risk for social and learning disabilities, mental illness, and unhealthy, risky behaviors used to fill the void left by the unmet needs in the first attachment relationship — that with each child’s primary caregiver.

The success of this first attachment bond is what shapes the neural pathways in each child’s brain, influencing the way that child learns to cope with stress, perceive him-or herself, create expectations of others, and navigate relationships all through not only childhood but as adults.

Children who experience confusing, frightening, or broken emotional communication — verbal and nonverbal — may grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the emotions of others. This creates serious relationship deficits.

Whether secure or insecure, the parent-child attachment quality determines that child’s ability to maintain emotional balance, enjoy being his- or herself, enjoy being with others, and rebound from disappointment, discouragement, and other life stress.

The relationship skills required by both people in a healthy adult relationship include the ability to manage stress, to stay tuned in with emotions, to communicate nonverbally, to be playful in a mutually engaging manner, and to readily forgive without holding grudges. Each of these skills is most easily learned when modeled by a person’s first primary attachment as a child and that attachment quality is secure.

While overtly abusive or neglectful parenting may unsurprisingly influence attachment quality, insecure attachment also develops out of parenting approaches that promote isolation and loneliness.

An insecure attachment produces an adult who has difficulty with maintaining healthy relationships, as indicated by the 3 insecure attachment patterns:

  1. Anxious-Preoccupied — These people hunger for attachment, but because they don’t understand real trust, they are seek a partner who will rescue or “complete” them. They tend to be clingy, desperate, demanding, and possessive.
  2. Dismissive-Avoidant — These people are emotionally distant, self-centered, and insensitive. They seek not only independence but isolation, and in conflicts, they tend to shut down emotionally and easily detach from others.
  3. Fearful-Avoidant — These people are disorganized in their relationships, being afraid of becoming too emotionally close and too distant, at the same time. They are both anxious and emotionally distant. As a result, they are moody and unpredictable, often overwhelmed by their reactions, experiencing frequent emotional storms. While they understand that they need to have emotionally close relationships to have their emotional needs met, they have a strong, underlying fear of getting hurt or being abandoned when they get emotionally close to others, so they struggle with being emotionally intimate. Their relationships tend to be rocky, and there is a greater tendency toward abusive relationships.

Very simply, a child’s primary attachment bond is what determines success in all future relationships — romantic, family, work, friendship, and so on — through childhood and adulthood, unless and until an adult with an insecure attachment quality is able to work with a professional therapist to overcome attachment challenges and learn healthy relationship skills.

*Excerpt published with permission.