Attachment issues and the relationship difficulties they cause

I had a conversation with a young man recently about relationship difficulties he was experiencing. During our conversation he described his partner as having an insecure attachment to him. He described some of her behaviours that lead him to this conclusion which included checking his phone for messages and calls, ringing him several times a day to check on where he was and what he was doing. He also reported that she was uncomfortable with him going out without her and picked arguments with him for no apparent reason and berated him on a regular basis for not doing enough to care and demonstrate his love to her. He said that when he argued back or challenged her that she went into a rage where she struck out at him and damaged things in the house. This left him reporting that he felt exhausted, walking on eggshells around her and hesitant to go home on occasions.

What struck me more than the reported extreme behaviour and the impact this was having on his sense of mental wellbeing was that he named the source of the behaviour as an insecure attachment. The thing is that insecure attachment is a technical term to diagnose attachment aberration’s and I do think that most people who struggle in relationship with insecurity or not feeling secure have had experiences that may stem back to early childhood and such anxieties and difficult bevaviour may a reflection of a lack of feeling safe and cared for as infants.

A researcher called Mary Ainsworth in the 1970’s did a lot of studies on attachment and she devised that if children do not have a secure base or experience insensitive parenting may end up with a host of potential problematic experiences and response’s that unless managed or worked through will play out in adolescence and adulthood. There are many possible reasons for a parent to be incentive or inconsistent in their care thet may include parental depression, parental bereavement, parental abandonment, relationship abuse and stress, grief reactions, alcohol and drug use, mental health issues to name a few.


From the work of Mary Ainsworth, Mary Blehar, Everett Waters & Sally Wall Graphic copyright © 2000 Psychology Press Ltd

Regardless of the reasons for a rejecting or inconsistent parenting style the end result is a child who may struggle to feel safe and secure in themselves and as a result may have difficulty feeling worthy or safe. If this is the case and considering that 30% of adults will have had childhood attachment patterns that could be labelled as avoidant or resistant it is a concerning possibility that the young man’s partner I referred to earlier may be suffering from the aftermath of inconsistent or rejecting parenting style and now as adults they have no idea why they struggle in relationship as the reasons are totally out of the persons awareness. They may not even register that they are experiencing separation anxiety or have insecure attachment issues. They may be so immersed in a victim mentality where they see the world and everyone in it as being at fault or the cause of their pain. They just don’t get that the way that see others and process and make sense of things, like the need of their partner to have for space and privacy can ever be justified. They often see such needs as an attack on them and their entitlements. Often such needs for space and privacy are perceived to be threats to their emotional safety and the anger and control such people exhibit are tools used to keep their world secure and the attachment they have to other safe.

Attachment responces

The above chart is an adaptation of Ainsworth work with infants. It shows as adults what to expect as responses when someone returns to their partners who may have an insecure avoidant, insecure resistant and insecure disorganized attachment patterns. From the insecure insecure avoidant attachment pattern you may expect to be ignored and not greeted. From an insecure resistant attachment pattern you may expect to be ignored and anger from being left alone or for leaving or going out. From an insecure disorganized attachment pattern you may experience confussion in that partner may seek you out but avoids your approaches to connect.

Bottom line is that if you are experiencing dramatic and bizarre reactions from your partner and such response’s do not make sense and you can’t fix the problems around independence, privacy, power and control you may be dealing with attachment issues that are deep seated and entrenched. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you can recognise the patterns of insecure attachment you have already made steps to claim back some ground and get the professional help that may make a difference to your lived experience.

Chris Caruana
Couples Counsellor
271 Kepa Rd, Mission Bay,
Auckland 1071, New Zealand
027 3187593