“We do as we have been done by.” ~John Bowlby
John Bowlby was an influential psychologist and psychoanalyst who you may have heard of. If you haven’t heard of him directly, you’ve probably heard of his groundbreaking theory on human attachment. He pioneered our understanding of how, when and why some children grow to become securely attached adults, while others not as much.
For those children who grow to be securely attached, they are emotionally stable and comfortable crying or being happy around their caregivers. Because of a history of being consistently cared for, they know that their tears will be met with compassion and their laughter met with joy. These kids are secure knowing that they’re safe in having their emotional needs met.
On the flip-side, for those who don’t develop a secure emotional attachment with their caregivers, it is usually because the caregiver is negligent, emotionally unavailable or abusive, often setting the child up for a lifetime of not feeling good enough. Children reared in an inconsistent environment never know if their tears will be met with shame, love, or being unheard, which forms the foundation of an insecure attachment style.
Perhaps even more interesting about Bowlby’s theory on child attachment is that current research supports that the attachments we form in childhood don’t end there. Instead, the same attachment style continues throughout our lives in other significant relationships, especially those that require intimacy and closeness.
For the securely attached child, they become securely attached adults in their relationships. For the rest of us, we may be handed an insecure attachment in childhood that is carried with us into our adult lives.
If we’re insecure, we’re less likely to speak up about our feelings, our fears or any past relationships that may have caused us pain because these experiences require vulnerability and trust. So, we tend to shut out or shut down. Insecurely attached people may play it off that things are fine when in reality they’re always scanning their environment for the slightest reason to “confirm” their insecurities, or to find the quickest escape route out of a relationship.
And, if we’re looking hard enough to find something, we will.
With an avoidant attachment style, these people are often labeled as “narcissistic” because relationships may be based on transactions and self-protective investment. Here, they tend to shut down. Because the attachment style is to avoid, this includes things like intimacy, having those “tough talks” with their partner, vulnerability and closeness. As with all relationships, they either evolve…or they dissolve. And, for those struggling with an avoidant attachment style, it’s easier to dissolve one relationship and start the cycle over again with a new relationship than to face the origin of the pain.
With an anxious-ambivalent attachment, the push-pull is seen. “I hate you, don’t leave me” or “I love you, leave me alone.” Here, they tend to shut out. When a child is conditioned to have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, their adult relationships will play out in a similar vein by pulling others close to them, then pushing them away when they feel emotionally overwhelmed.
When inconsistency was the norm earlier in life, those with insecure attachments often experienced abandonment or conditional love, which set the foundation for their avoidance or ambivalence in adult relationships. Thus, these scars get carried with them, along with the fear of abandonment — as well as the fear of unconditional love — from one relationship to the next.
Both are horrible ways to live because any experience of authentic love is at the mercy of our attachment style. While we aren’t responsible for the hand we were dealt in childhood, it is our responsibility as adults to recognize our attachment style and to make adjustments accordingly, or our intimate adult relationships will be affected by our earliest experiences.
Signs of Emotional Insecurity
Some signs of emotional insecurity may not come across as insecure to a partner, but may be seen as arrogance, standoffish or avoidance. Because not all signs are obvious at first, they can be overlooked or misinterpreted.
Trust. We know the “big signs” of someone with trust issues — the push-pull, the accusations, the overall distrust with our partner or a constant need to ‘check’ their faithfulness (checking their phone, their emails, etc). For those with trust issues, they usually don’t start with their partner, but are carried into their adult relationships from earlier. Often times, trust was crushed earlier in life where a primary caregiver may have said one thing while doing another, or where promises were said but not carried out, leaving a child to distrust the world around them.
The micro behaviors of trust issues may be tougher to notice, or may be confused with being standoffish or moody. For example, a partner with trust issues may struggle with meeting their partner’s family because they don’t trust that they will be accepted (not being seen as “good enough”). Or they may come across as controlling or overbearing, when what is actually being “controlled” for is their own feelings of insecurity, not their partner or the relationship.
Hiding True Feelings. Many partners who struggle with an avoidant attachment style will put on a happy face, unfortunately at all costs. What the partner sees is a good time, or lots of fun in the relationship, often with high-intensity and excitement. However, when it’s time to buckle down and level up in the relationship, avoidant attachment styles tend to duck out because of the risk of exposing their true feelings, their fears and their vulnerabilities.
As a result, relationships with someone who has an avoidant attachment style are often a mix of excitement, shallow fun and incredibly good times, and usually a tragic ending marred with abandonment because of the struggles with vulnerability and emotional intimacy.
Constant Need for Reassurance. Insecurely attached partners can struggle with their own sense of identity, or their own self-worth. Many times they were not given the consistent love or attention they needed earlier in life to help form stable self-esteem. As a result, they may appear as arrogant or even conceited, constantly asking if they look OK, or seeking their partner’s approval.
At the core of this behavior is a deep feeling of inadequacy. They believe they’re unworthy and aren’t good enough for love, so they’re seeking constant approval to help ‘remind’ them that they’re loved. Unfortunately, they may come across as excessively needy, arrogant or self-absorbed when they’re really trying to calm their inner critic from telling them they’re unworthy.
Walking on Eggshells. This may come across as high-anxiety or being on edge. Some partners may dismiss it as having had a bad day at work instead of discussing their insecurities in feeling vulnerable or scared. Yet, when someone walks on eggshells around an otherwise stable relationship, this is often due to a history of having had their needs met inconsistently, or not at all. What they’ve learned is that they’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
They may not know whether their feelings will be met with unconditional regard, or avoidance and shame. This is what creates the “eggshells”. Instead, they may bury themselves in more work, more hobbies, or exit one relationship for another by thinking if they change their environment, the problem will stop. Unfortunately, this is only a band-aid.
Self-Sabotaging Behavior. Perhaps the ‘granddaddy’ of all insecure attachment styles is self-sabotaging behavior. When a child is conditioned to believe their thoughts, opinions, and feelings don’t matter, sooner or later they’re going to act out on these misbeliefs. What this does is set them up for a lifetime of sabotaging their happiness — either because they’re out of touch with their own emotions or because they don’t think they deserve it.
To the partner of the person feeling and experiencing this, it may look like they’re picking fights, or trying to find a way out of the relationship. And, if they leave, it “confirms” that they weren’t good enough for happiness, reinforcing their misbeliefs.
Because insecurity is something that is learned, shaped and carried with us since our earliest relationships, it can be tough to overcome. There may be collateral damage in the form of ruined relationships, self-sabotaging behavior or a history of avoidant behavior.
Building security with our partner starts by simply recognizing and accepting that we may have an unhealthy attachment style.
Easier said, than done.
I get it.
But, the fact is, if we love our partner we need to have those tough talks with them. This is one of those tough talks — explaining how we grew up and what events have shaped us into who we beautifully are. There’s no shame in having a tough childhood or in pushing others away to avoid being left behind.
However, when our baggage starts affecting those we love, we are presented two choices: either figure out a healthier way to face and overcome our pain, or potentially lose someone we love.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5–33.
Crowell, J. A. (1994). Bowlby’s Theory Grown Up: The Role of Attachment in Adult Love Relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 5(1), 31.
Fraley, C. (2018). Adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved from http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm