Why Do We Keep Ending Up in the Same Kinds of Relationships? The Answer Lies in Our Attachment Styles

As I observe my single friends and family members navigating the dating world and looking for love, I keep hearing the same question: Why do I always end up in the same kind of relationship? “I started out feeling optimistic about this relationship, but then things fell apart like they always do, and the relationship didn’t go anywhere.”  “I thought this time was different, but in the end, she was critical and rejecting just like my ex.”

So, is there a reason for this mysterious phenomenon? (Yes, there is.) Or are we simply programmed to make the relationship choices we make? (In a sense, yes, we are.)  Our choices aren’t so mysterious and beyond our control once we have an understanding of the theory of attachment and the impact attachment has on us as children and adults. There are two areas of attachment research. One studies the attachment patterns between infant and caregiver; the other studies the attachment style of partners in romantic relationships. They help us understand the attachment pattern we developed in childhood and the attachment style that operates in our romantic relationships today. 

Childhood Attachment Patterns

Researchers who study childhood attachment have observed the different ways in which children go about establishing both emotional and physical attachments to their principal caregivers. The pattern of attachment that a child leans toward is primarily dependent on the qualities of the caregiving adult. There are four main types of childhood attachment: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. All, but the secure attachment style, foster different coping mechanisms. As you read the following section, think about your childhood and the attachment patterns you may have developed.

A child develops secure attachment patterns when he has a parent or other significant adult who is, for the most part, sensitive and responsive during interactions with the child. This parent or other adult is attuned and available to the child in ways that make the child feel seen and safe. When the child is hurting, this adult treats him with compassion and offers comfort. Such an adult is a strong and consistent presence in the child’s life, supporting the child’s independence with a caring interest that is fortifying as the child goes forth into the world. The child with secure attachment patterns is well adjusted and develops fewer psychological defenses. He is comfortable within himself and at ease in relating to others.

A child develops avoidant attachment patterns when she has a parent or other significant adult who is primarily unavailable and emotionally distant. This type of caregiving adult is preoccupied with their own life, largely unaware of the child, and often oblivious to or insensitive to her needs. When the child is hurting or distressed, this adult has little or no response to her. They often discourage the child from crying. The child becomes seemingly independent at a very young age, a “little adult” who doesn’t need anything from anyone else, especially this adult. The child with avoidant attachment patterns develops the defense of being self-sufficient and wanting very little from others. She is self-contained, keeps to herself, and has minimal interactions with other people.

A child develops anxious attachment patterns when he has a parent or other significant adult whose behavior is inconsistent and contradictory. At times this adult is responsive and nurturing, but at other times they can, in some cases, be intrusive and emotionally hungry or, in other cases, be distant and emotionally unavailable. This leaves the child confused and insecure, never knowing what kind of treatment to expect from his caregiver. Typically, the child with anxious attachment patterns is clingy with his parent and acts desperate toward them. He tends to be distrustful and insecure. He is agitated and can’t calm down or feel at peace. His defensive reaction is to cling to his parent in an effort to get his needs met.

A child develops disorganized attachment patterns if she has a parent or other significant adult who is physically and/or emotionally abusive toward her. At such times, the child often responds to this adult’s frightening behavior by psychologically detaching from the experience. In a sense, she is no longer in her body, and afterward she has little or no memory of what occurred. The child with disorganized attachment patterns is torn between wanting and fearing her caregiver because her abuser and her source of comfort are in fact the same person. She runs up to her parent for safety, but as she gets close, she feels unsafe and pulls away. Her defensive solution is to escape this nightmarish dilemma by being emotionally disconnected.

Our early attachment patterns continue through our lives because they are deeply ingrained in our psyches. In a sense, we are programmed because the brain lays down strong memory traces of childhood experiences, a process that colors our perceptions of the world and influences how we relate to others.

Adult Attachment Styles

Attachment researchers who study adult romantic relationships have identified four primary styles of attachment in adult relationships: secure, dismissive avoidant, anxious preoccupied, and fearful avoidant. Our adult attachment styles—that is, the insecure styles—can be indicators of the childhood defenses that are continuing to affect us in our close relationships. As you read this section, think about your romantic relationships and what your attachment style may be.

Adults with a secure attachment style are more satisfied in their romantic relationships. Their relationships tend to be honest, open, and equal, with both partners being independent yet loving toward each other. There is little drama in these types of relationships. Adults with secure attachment patterns are less defended against intimacy and love.

Adults with a dismissive avoidant attachment style in their romantic relationships tend to seek isolation and feel pseudo-independent, their primary focus being self-sufficiency. They can’t acknowledge their own needs or those of others, and are therefore dismissing and disregarding of their partner’s needs. They are more comfortable with casual encounters and short-term relationships. In a more personal relationship, their defensive reaction is to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. They deny the importance of loved ones, and they detach from them easily.

Adults with an anxious preoccupied attachment style in their romantic relationships tend to be insecure and unsure of their partner’s feelings and feel unsafe in their close relationships. Their defensive reaction is to be clingy, demanding, or possessive toward their partner. They are frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them.

Adults with a fearful avoidant attachment style in their romantic relationships live in an ambivalent state, afraid of being too close to others but also afraid of being too distant. They are trapped in a defensive reaction to love: they go toward love, but when they get close to someone, they pull away for fear that they will be hurt. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, and then they may feel trapped when the partner gets close. They are often unpredictable in their moods. They try to keep a lid on their feelings but are often over-whelmed by their emotions. Their close relationships tend to be rocky or dramatic, with many highs and lows. Adults with a fearful avoidant attachment style are often in turbulent relationships.

Real Life Examples

Let’s look at the woman who lamented that even when she started out feeling optimistic about a relationship, her relationships never “went anywhere.” This woman realized that as a child, she developed avoidant attachment patterns as a result of having been neglected, which led to her being inward and self-sufficient. She also recognized that in her romantic relationships, she had the traits of a dismissive avoidant style. With these insights, she was able to see that she chose partners who, like herself, were self-contained and emotional unavailable, thus recreating the dynamics of her childhood environment. She understood that to have the deeper, long-term relationship that she desired, she should look for a partner who was outgoing and expressive. This would feel unfamiliar and make her uncomfortable at first, but if she challenged herself to sweat through this readjustment period, she would adapt to emotional intimacy and develop a secure attachment style.

Now take the man who wanted a loving partner, but always ended up with someone who was critical and rejecting. He recognized that he developed anxious attachment patterns as a child. His mother was inconsistent: at times caring and nurturing, but mostly critical and punishing. This left him confused and desperate toward her. He also became aware that in his romantic relationships, he had an anxious preoccupied attachment style. He understood how he had subconsciously been recreating the relationship dynamic with his mother by choosing women who were aloof and critical of him, which then made him insecure and desperate toward them. He then made a different choice and date a woman who was kind and sweet, but he didn’t find her as exciting as his usual girlfriends. The lack of criticism on her part and the absence of desperation on his part made the relationship seem boring to him. But over time, he became accustomed to being treated with love and respect and he developed a new, secure style of attachment in a romantic relationship.

Conclusion

This may seem like a lot of information to process, but it holds the key to unlocking the answers to why we keep repeating the same destructive relationship patterns, regardless of our best intentions. When we understand our childhood attachment patterns and our adult attachment styles, we can interrupt our programming by taking actions, such as making new and healthier choices of relationship partners. These actions will actually weaken the brain’s old memory traces and lay down and strengthen new ones. We will gradually change our attachment style and develop satisfying romantic relationships based on a new and secure style of attachment.

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3 Comments

Tara Mallick

Ms Tamsen Firestone .. You are dead wrong when u kept stating that a victim of narrcisstic partners were ignored in their childhood by their parent !!! I was very much loved and my mother was the best mother and person anyone coulperson anyone could ask for and more !! My father passed away when she was just 28 leaving her with 4 children , me being the youngest and only girl ! Id sleep with her as she held me all the time ! I was very attached to her and she did everything in such a loving caring manner !! She even took in children deserted by their parents for days without asking anything in return !! She was very attentive of my needs and wants! She even married her 2nd husband for her children so he can provide for us and make sure out needs were taken care of .I have never met a person who even comes close to my mom! She is a very compassionate and kind person who has taken in people in need and their children feeding them , clothing them and helping in aiding them with their needs whatever it was she did it !! Nobodys needs went unattended no matter how bad her health was !! So as a adult i wanted the same qualities in my partners but always got lured in with ” fake love and admiration only to get abused and neglected and hurt then left by them for other women who were of lesser value then me no matter how good and loyal & loving and beautiful & sensual i was! I amalways getting into these types of relationships since i was 17 i am now 52 and been with a narrcisstic for 6 years with a guy who lured me with love bombing! I had not been in a relationship for 7 years until i met him unexpectedly thru his friend who i met on a online dating / chat site and was scared to come toe alone so brought my narc bf stephen along! I looked at stephen and instantly felt a connection he was going to leave as i was only expecting 1 guy but i told him he could stay ! Wow i had no idea what i was getting into!! I was living in a nice hotel working as a massuese and had over s120,000 saved but didnt tell what amt of funds i had ! I was needing him badly because i was very lonely and i really liked him because he was so attentive & loving caring towards me ! I needed to move out of that overpriced hotel so he helped me move out and into another lesser priced hotel as my job was on only cash basis.. I had no proof of income so i had alot of cash!! We started living together quickly and things seemed fine but i saw a change in him when he got a job! He was not the guy i met but the job didnt last and i just passed that behavior off as him being upset about the job! He showed hatefulness for the first time and went to his mothers house after he got off work instead of coming to me ! His mother didnt like the way his atttude was and wanted him to be with me and even offered me to move in her house with him to which i declined. I then moved into a hotel with a pool. But after 7 months there a man had called police on me for a fraud investigation so i was asled to move out and then had no choice but move into his mothers! When i walked in i had a very uncomfirtable feeling that she wasnt happy about it even tho she didnt know anything about the bogus fraud thing! She made sure she told a person visiting that she doesn’t like people living in her house very long making sure i heard it! I was very much in love with stephen but also miserable living at her house because i felt unwanted and slept alot due to depression while stephen was aloof , She only talked to me when i handed her rent money.. I also cleaned the house bought groceries , food but i knew she didnt want me there! I even went to rent apartments with her name on it but was rejected due to her bad credit.i continued to get her liking me as a person but that was not there!! She was very cold and distant but i just shrugged that off as long as steve loved me and he continued to b attentive and unemployed but u didnt care because i fine as long as i had him ! I became vety attached quickly and things seemed fine to me between us , One dat she confronted me in a very angry tone that she heard i had alot of money
I told her it was my savings and i also send money home to my mother towards her rent or whatever else as my mother mother was alone & in bad health & on disabilty well she completely blew that off so nothing more was talked about it ! Months passed by and i asked her if she woukd rent us a car to visit my mother she did it twice and i even took her out of her — $600.balance of her bank account but dhe refused to rent a car again after thsecond second time ! So i went car shopping and traveled 2 hours to buy the same type of car she first rented for me so i can visit my mother in missouri and me being in indiana . i paid 14,000 cash for this car but it didnt drive like the rental but.the problem was that all my dicuments were stolen and i was born out ot country so i had no choice but ti put the car title on his mothers name ! Steve droe the car often & started thinking thats ” his car ” but i didnt really mind cuz i loved him! 6 months later he hit a deer with it and but i felt like that wasnt his fault so i didnt get mad at him. One night he went to a drug dealers place while i was leep and went to buy some. I woke up to him coming back running looking for the spare. He said he got jumped on by these black guys when my car keys came up missing so i was very angered at this but was thankful the car was still there when we got there. He was very upset at being jumped but i didnt see any marks on him! I was not happy about is situation but stayed on his side consoling him he asked me to make a annomeous call to the police about the drug dealing guy and i did . Next day a cop came to the house asking about him but he was gone with his friend i didnt know what the problem was but had a idea . I left that night because i was called to give a massage then when i came back i saw all these cop cars and got dropped off in this ally because i didnt want anything to do with that! I hid there for at least 2 hrs and started walking towards the house as i didnt see cop cars anymore . But as i got closer i saw there was 2 cops still there one was a detective and i just kept walking and got stopped by the detective and cornered and interrogated if i jad anything to do with steve wanting to blow the drug guys house up and o told them that he was jumped and was very mad and people say alot of things when they are mad and this shouldnt be taken seriously at all as steve was a gentle guy and wouldnt hurt a fly! The dick was really intidamating and was being very cocky!! So a week went by and i had been set up by someone calling and wanting a massage i thought nothing of it but he was actually a undercover! Hed asked me if i gave ” happy endings ” and i said yes so when we reached the hotel i got surrounded by cops and taken to jail ! I was so devastated my mom even told me to be careful and secure my money in the bank ! But i didnt listen so while i was locked up steve had taken 10.000 out of my locked suitcase!! The next day i got out and saw the suitcase was burned open and steve made upthis story that someine came in thru the window and took that money .. I was so blinded that i had no idea he did it !! He happened to have alot of money in his pocket but said he had gotten selling dope and his friend was making it . i believed that story but put my money in another hiding spot . well i didnt think he would find it but when i picked up the bag and counted the money it was only 35 000 left and last count waa 66,000! He told me he had nothing to do with that and i was enraged & knew he did it but he kept denying it ! had nowhere to go so i stayed there hiding the money in the garage thinking he surely wouldnt find it there ! Well a few months went by the money was still there but then hed dumped 73 gabaphatin pills in my purse one night befire we left the house while his mother called the police to stop the vehicle!! Well they did and i had no clue those pills were in my purse!! He had 24 driving while suspended charges and cops were making small talk with him and joking about his charges whole i was handcuffed in the back of cop car, he was free to go!! I waa in shock but thought id b able to bond out at least but i had a warrant in missouri for failure to appear and i ended up not eing able to bond out!! He took total advantage of that as obviously that was the plan to get the rest of my money

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Jenny

Please find a new and more solid life for yourself, honey. A low life existence is going to make you run into people like stephen over and over..and get yourself caught in unhappy and terrible, even dangerous situations. Get a job, a real one, get a place to live and go meet people who do productive things. Your life will improve greatly

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