All Grown Up: Looking For The Love We Know
In last month’s explorations of childhood attachment styles, I shared how the reliability of our primary caretaker impacts our young perception of safety and security. Now fully grown and looking for love, we may be unaware how that primary bond continues to affect our responses and choices as we move from First Love to Grown Up Love.
Infants lock eyes and bond with the person who most sees them, feeds them, and holds them. This is our First Love. When distressed, infants seek comfort from their First Love: how or whether they're soothed is their template for Love and types of bonding:
Secure Bond: The caregiver is reliably available to soothe distress and a sense of security is created.
Anxious Bond: The caregiver is unpredictably available to soothe, and the bond is laced with anxiety.
Avoidant Bond: The adult is dramatic or frightening, so the bond is worrisome, and a child learns to not stir up anything scary.
So what happens when children grow up and away from their “attachment figures” and enter into the world of romantic love?
It's a fair guess that a secure child will grow up to be secure in adult romantic relationships, the anxious kid will be anxious, and the avoidant child will avoid them. What we learn about love is, in fact, less about our hearts and more about our brains.
When our little brains are forming as kids, all kinds of links between neurons are made, creating important pathways and intersections (which is why alcohol and weed are discouraged until after 25!). For example, in learning to read, the repeated recognition of a letter becomes a well-worn path in the brain. Every time that letter appears, the brain fires in a particular way. The same is true with brain pattern responses to distress and being comforted: in childhood our brains lay down the paths for how to get our needs met and how to create, or avoid, intimacy.
This is the Love Path we look for.
Perhaps your beloved single mother, who you know loves you dearly, spent your early years really stressed out about how to support you and your siblings. She worked a lot and was exhausted, she was worried all the time and was depressed or distracted by the realities of her role as a provider. There’s a chance that as a distressed infant, you didn't get the comfort you needed because she just didn't always have it to give. Her undeniable Love and her unavailability are paired, and this is what Love looks like.
Fast-forward to adulthood and all these really nice and available women are wanting to be romantic with you, but somehow there’s just “no chemistry” there. But wait! There’s this other woman, who is kind of aloof and in her own head and somewhat unpredictable in her availability. Perfect! SHE is what you want!
Of course nothing in our psychology is black and white or clean-cut, and the definitions of adult attachment styles are more nuanced, but you get the gist: our well-worn paths lead to the same version of Love. And it's not simply choice, it's chemical, written as pathways in our brains. This helps explains the often tragic cycle of abused children ending up with abusive partners.
So do we ALWAYS pair with someone like our first Love?
The well-worn path is an easy choice over bushwhacking, so most often we DO pair with partners who mirror how we were responded to as children with needs. This is all fine and good if both partners are skilled and secure in getting their needs met and providing for the other, but as we all know, that is often not the case.
Ask yourself about your current or past relationships these questions:
- Do I feel safe and secure in partnership? or
- Do I feel distressed and preoccupied about my relationship? or
- Do I worry that my partner will mess with my freedom and independence?
In an anxious relationship there is a craving for an elusive intimacy, a preoccupation with the relationship itself, and a worry about the quality or durability of the partner’s love.
In an avoidant relationship there is a fear of being smothered, of losing independence, a need to protect one’s autonomy.
How to choose or move toward healthy adult attachment
- Know your attachment style. Use therapy to uncover any unsupportive attachment patterns (aka well-worn paths).
- Be aware that choosing someone with a secure attachment style, who has a comfort with intimacy, and a warm and loving quality, may be unfamiliar, but is a leg up in relationship satisfaction.
- If you are in a relationship, commit to moving TOWARD a shared goal of intimacy, warmth, comfort and safety. Sidestep well-worn pathways and reimagine what love looks like.