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How Our Parents Affect Our Adult Relationships

by Harinder Ghatora Mental Wellbeing Personal Empowerment Emotional Wellbeing Healthy Relationships

Would you say that your current relationships are generally warm, nurturing and harmonious?

Do you believe that the world is a safe and secure place: a place in which you can lean on people, take emotional risks, and trust that people will be there for you in your time of need?

Do you believe that people are generally on your side, and will support you in the way that you need them to, when you need them to?

You may be surprised to hear that your parents have influenced your answers to these questions.

The quality of their relationship with you in your earliest years has laid down the foundation for every other relationship in your life.

Attachment, which is the term given to the relationship between you and your primary caregivers, is responsible for shaping:

• the success or failure of your future intimate relationships;

• your ability to maintain emotional balance;

• your ability to enjoy being yourself and to find satisfaction in being with others;

• and your ability to deal with and rebound from disappointment, discouragement, and misfortune.

If you struggle in your close relationships then knowing what your general attachment style is can be helpful. There are four different ones. Which one fits your experience of life?

Secure Attachment

Did you grow up in a supportive environment where an adult was consistently attentive, sensitive and responsive to your needs?

From the age of six months to two years we all try to form an emotional attachment to someone close to us, someone who is attuned to us, and someone who positively and successfully responds to our needs.

If this person remains a consistent, responsive caregiver throughout this period of our lives, then we become securely attached (emotionally). Then, from the age of two onwards we use this person as a secure base from which to explore the world and become more independent. If the wider world feels scary we are reassured by the knowledge that this person is there and has our back.

People who are lucky enough to have this kind of initial attachment experience grow up to develop secure personalities in adulthood. They have a strong sense of who they are and what they desire from their close associations with others. They have a positive view of themselves, their partners and their relationships. Their lives are balanced: they are both secure in their independence and in their close relationships. They are also generally consistent and reliable in their behaviours towards their significant others.

Avoidant Attachment

Was your primary caregiver unresponsive to, or even unaware of, your needs?

Were they emotionally unavailable and therefore insensitive or inattentive to your physical and emotional needs?

If you hurt yourself or became distressed would they ignore you or tell you to stop crying and grow up?

If the adults caring for you reacted in this way then you are likely to have developed an avoidant attachment style as a result.

Children who grow up with this kind of caregiver turn into ‘little adults’ and quickly learn to take care of themselves. They pull away from needing anything from anyone else and become self-contained and self-reliant. They withdraw emotionally as a way to avoid feelings of rejection.

As adults, people with an avoidant attachment style develop dismissive personalities where they become uncomfortable with emotional openness, and even hide from themselves their need for intimate relationships.

They place a high value on independence and autonomy and develop techniques to reduce feelings of overwhelm . They often defend themselves from any perceived threat to their “independence.” They can be loners who regard relationships and emotions as being relatively unimportant. Their typical response to conflict and stressful situations is to avoid them by distancing themselves. These people’s lives are not balanced: they are inward and isolated, and emotionally removed from themselves and others.

If they are in a relationship they often use avoidant techniques which are designed to keep them at a safe distance from their partner.

Ambivalent Attachment

Was your primary caregiver inconsistent in their responses to you?

Were they sometimes nurturing, caring and attentive, but at other times cold, rejecting or emotionally detached?

If you were on the receiving end of this type of care then it is likely you have developed an ambivalent/anxious attachment style.

Children subjected to this kind of parenting are left confused and insecure, because they don’t know what type of treatment to expect at any given moment. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent, but at the same time they act in ways that are clingy and desperate.

Children who have experienced an ambivalent/anxious attachment in their early years often grow up to have ambivalent/anxious attachment patterns and a preoccupied personality.

As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They constantly seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt.

In their relationships, a deep-seated feeling that they are going to be rejected makes them worried and distrustful. This drives them to become clingy and overly dependent on their partners.

These people’s lives are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in their relationships.

Disorganised Attachment

Was your primary caregiver abusive towards you and/or severely neglectful of you?

When a parent or caregiver is abusive towards a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behaviour as being life-threatening. This child is caught in a terrible dilemma: their survival instincts are telling them to flee to safety but the only safety they know comes from the very person who is terrifying them.

The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress.

In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and block what they are experiencing from their consciousness. Children in this conflicted state have disorganised attachments with their fearsome parental figures.

People who grow up with disorganised attachments often develop fearful-avoidant personalities. Because, as children, they detached from their feelings during times of trauma, they continue to be somewhat detached from themselves as adults.

In adulthood, they fear intimacy within their relationships on the one hand, but also fear not having close relationships in their lives on the other. They recognise the value of relationships and have a strong desire for them, but often have a difficult and chaotic time settling into deep relationships because they’re unable to fully trust others.

It is easy to see how our earliest experiences shape who we are in the present moment. The quality of those initial relationships forms the foundation of our attachment style in adulthood. These relationships determine how safe - or unsafe - we feel in our closest interactions, how emotionally balanced we feel, and how we view ourselves.

As with all theories, there are always exceptions to the rule. And there are a myriad of other factors that influence how we feel and behave in the world. However, any degree of self-knowledge automatically leads to greater empowerment.

When you are unaware of what is going on inside you then unknown (unconscious) forces control you. When you do know what is going on inside you, then whenever you notice yourself acting in ways that are harmful to you, and/or to those closest to you, you can consciously choose to behave in a different way. You regain your personal power.

If you would like to work through any relationship difficulties (either with significant others in your life or within yourself) then do check out my counselling service by clicking here: counselling services.

I’m here to help.


  • Donna Johnson:

    08 May 2016 21:39:54

    Wow that explains alot

  • 25 May 2016 08:50:39

    A very good article. Thank you!

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