Trouble with Relationships? You May Have Attachment Issues

When a relationship ends, it is normal to feel sad, frustrated and even angry. You may even want to retreat into your own world for a bit and ignore your family and friends. But if the end of a relationship causes you to no longer be able to function or want to live, you may be dealing with deep-rooted attachment issues.

Attachment issues stem from the early attachment you have with the parental figures in your life. You may not even consciously remember that experience, but it can have a lasting effect on your ability to enter into and maintain healthy romantic relationships.

Healthy, and Not-so-Healthy, Attachments

Healthy attachments are born out of nurturing connections with your parents. In a healthy attachment, maternal and paternal bonds with your parents naturally exist. That means they are attuned to your needs, take care of you and listen to you. You feel an innate sense of being safe in the world.

People who have experienced healthy attachments with their parents generally are able to have successful relationships with others, because they know what it feels like to have their needs met and to feel safe with another person. They tend to also feel more secure about themselves and what it takes to be in a relationship.

Unhealthy attachments exist when there is a disruption in your ability to feel safe and secure with your parents because they are neither accessible nor attentive. Reasons for these unhealthy attachments could be that a parent is depressed and unable to express joy when interacting with you, or because one parent in a two-parent household is always absent and unable to form a bond with you. It may also be due to having a parent who is overwhelmed or disengaged.

If you experienced unhealthy attachments as a child, you may find it harder to commit to a relationship, sustain a relationship or deal with the ending of a relationship. A breach in your attachment to your initial caregiver affects future relationships, causing you to fear rejection and abandonment, and be hypersensitive to criticism. You may also be prone to anxiety or shutting down in relationships because you don’t expect that your needs will be met.

Signs You May have Attachment Issues

For most people, attachment issues are not recognizable without seeking the help of a professional. While it is easier to know if you have been physically or verbally abused by a parent, it is less likely that you will be aware of any emotional neglect you experienced as a child.

If you are experiencing any of the following, you may have attachment issues:

• You have difficulty trusting your partner, and when they get angry or go out, you worry they are not coming back.
• You become anxious if you feel judged or criticized.
• You shut down and become unable to function when you are stressed.
• Your life becomes consumed by your relationship so much so that, when it ends, you feel like your life is over.
• You seek out love and sex in order to feel nurtured.
• You feel smothered in relationships and tend to run away from them when things are going well.
• You have difficulty expressing your feelings and needs for fear you’ll be rejected or abandoned.
• You avoid healthy confrontation and discussion.

Attachment issues are often the underlying root of other disorders, such as eating disorders, self-mutilation, depression and substance abuse.

Attachment Styles

The therapeutic community has only recently come to recognize the importance of early attachment on how we develop, and to appreciate the impact it has on our success in adult relationships.

Most therapists recognize four common types of attachment patterns:

1. Secure attachment. Children with secure attachments have parents who respond appropriately, promptly and consistently to their needs. These children will show a clear preference for their parents and be explorers of their world.

2. Avoidant attachment. Children with avoidant attachments have parents who provide little or no reaction to them when they are distressed, who discourage crying and who encourage independence. These children show little or no distress when their parents leave and little or no visible response to their return, and will even turn away if their parents attempt to pick them up. Parents and strangers are treated similarly.

3. Ambivalent/Resistant attachment. Children with this type of attachment have parents who are inconsistent when it comes to their appropriate and neglectful responses. These children don’t view their parents as a secure base and are ambivalent, angry and reluctant to warm to their caregivers when they return. These children are not easily calmed by strangers.

4. Disorganized attachment. Children with disorganized attachment have parents who exhibit frightened or frightening behavior, withdrawal, negativity, intrusiveness and role confusion. These children will freeze up or approach with their backs turned when their parents return.

Seeking Treatment

If you think attachment issues are affecting your ability to have a healthy relationship or are causing other problems, you may want to consider seeking professional treatment. This treatment should be provided by a therapist, either in private practice or at a residential treatment center, who deals specifically with issues related to early child neglect and abuse.

The most important component of treating attachment issues is finding a therapist that you trust. An effective therapist can help you learn to build trust and attachments over time, and learn to develop and model that connection for the rest of your relationships. Through a therapist, you can learn to set boundaries, better handle your emotions and realize that you are valuable, loveable and worthwhile.

To find a good therapist, interview several until you find one who can provide you the treatment you need while making you feel safe. Don’t ignore your gut when it comes to selecting one, and don’t stick with a therapist just because you think you should.

Attachment issues appear in many patients who seek treatment at Sierra Tucson, a residential treatment center in Arizona. The treatment center helps patients work through those issues and any co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse, depression and eating disorders using therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing. Both EMDR and Somatic Experiencing allow patients to reprogram what is stored in the nervous system so they can re-examine and work through their attachment issues.

Recognizing and working on your attachment issues can lead you to find partners who are better suited to you so that you can have more successful and fulfilling relationships.