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Attachment & Relationships Across the Lifespan

Posted on September 11, 2014

Our experiences in the formative childhood years have a powerful impact on the people we become, but even after these early years, relationships continue to play a crucial role in our growth and development. Indeed, close relationships support us across the lifespan, and science reveals that developing a greater understanding of how you have responded to relational experiences in the past, can allow you to open your life now to more productive and healthy ways of relating to others, and even yourself.

Connections with others, our relationships, come in many forms. The important connections we develop in infancy with our parents or primary caregivers are called “attachment relationships”. We carry these selective few attachment relationships forward inside us in what are called “internal working models”, which refer to the broad ways we summarise across experiences a model that lets us anticipate what is happening next, how we should behave, what emotions we will have, and how we filter our perceptions. These models are very useful in learning and knowing how to behave, and often influence our ways of seeing and being in the world without our awareness. Because they represent our brains way of remembering the attachment relationships we have had, and how we have adapted to those experiences, they play a very influential role in how we think, feel, behave and relate later on in our life too. Indeed, our attachment models get activated in specific situations that may resemble a particular kind of attachment relationship we had in the past, and then they shape how we interact in the present moment. Models become engaged automatically, without our awareness or intention, so understanding what kinds of attachment models we constructed in our early childhood can greatly help us understand how our lives are unfolding now, and how we might create a new way of living that frees us from any kind of limitations such models may be making in our lives.

There are two broad types of models, one secure and the other non-secure. Secure models support us living with flexibility, self-understanding, and ease of connection with others. Non-secure models come in several forms, and each of these in some ways challenges the ability to be flexible, understand ourselves, and connect with others. Because we can have many models and their activation is dependent on the situation we find ourselves in, we can seem quite different in different settings with different people.

Dr Dan Siegel, a prominent attachment researcher, neatly summarises attachment as involving four S’s: “We need to be seen, safe and soothed in order to feel secure. Being seen means that our inner mental life is sensed beneath our behaviour. Being safe means that we are both protected from harm and not terrified by our caregiver. To be soothed means that when we are distressed, our caregiver’s response makes us feel better. And all of this – being seen, safe, and soothed in a reliable way – gives us an overall sense of security in the relationship.” These ways our attachment figures treat us give us a sense of a safe haven in which we can feel secure.

Attachment relationships also can be thought of as a secure base from which we can launch off and explore the world. When we have a secure attachment model, we have the security to venture out into all that lies ahead in the world beyond. And when we are tired, or distressed, or just need to touch base, we return to the safe haven of our relationships with our attachment figures. As we grow from infancy, this sense of security is internalised in our brains as a “state of mind” that is secure. We feel good about ourselves, good about connecting with others, and feel that our needs will be met.

Certainly, many other factors shape our development besides attachment, but since attachment influences so much, and because attachment models are changeable, knowing about your attachment models can help you move them toward security if, like about one half to one third of us, you’ve had attachment relationships that were not secure. These insecure attachments don’t necessarily mean that we are insecure on the whole as people, it simply means that we did not receive those S’s of being seen, safe, soothed, and so did not feel secure in our primary relationships.

One way we can move from non-secure models of attachment is to make sense of what has happened in our lives. We can then use this understanding to create a more coherent and integrated sense of self in the here and now, so that non-ideal patterns we’ve adopted from our own pasts can be transformed. For many people, this work is best done in therapy with a supportive Psychologist who can help you sift through your past experiences and how they may be impacting upon your life now. Brisbane Psychologist Felicity Farmer has helped many adolescents, adults and couples make sense of their relationships in this way, and is experienced in working with others towards creating more flexible, connected and resilient patterns of relating no matter what background they’ve come from. If you would like more information on how Felicity may be able to help you understand your relationships, or to arrange an appointment, please contact us via email or phone 1300 484 711.

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- Viktor Frankl

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