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How Childhood Attachment Impacts Your Marriage

How Childhood Attachment Impacts Your Marriage
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By: Cara Plett

We often think of attachment in terms of a loving parent soothing their upset baby. But the impact of this nurturing relationship, or lack thereof, with primary caregivers doesn’t end in infancy.

In fact, how well you bond in marriage is influenced by your childhood attachment with your parents. So while you’re leaving your father and mother to cleave to your spouse, you’re certainly not leaving behind what you’ve learned about how to connect to others.

Relatively recent research into attachment theory shows that some of your childhood and teenage experiences can leave injurious imprints on you and your ability to give and receive comfort.

A securely attached marriage is one free from guilt or fear. You rejoice together in happy times. When you experience pain, your spouse feels it too and seeks a means of relief to the now shared hurt. They’ve got your back – and you’ve got theirs. When you call out, they’ll come – and vice versa.

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But this isn’t the reality for every marriage. According to Milan and Kay Yerkovich, authors of How We Love, “our marriage relationships will shine the spotlight on our old attachment injuries.”

The good news is, you can heal from your past and learn the skills to have a solid bond in marriage. That restorative process begins with identifying and truly understanding your specific attachment style.

What is your attachment style?

“In a healthy relationship, a couple is bonded by their freely chosen commitment to love one another, meet their own needs and the legitimate needs of their spouse, work through differences, and make decisions that benefit them as a unit rather than just serve one individual,” explains Wendy Kittlitz, vice-president of Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling ministry.

This bonded couple is comprised of what the Yerkovichs call secure connectors. These are emotionally healthy individuals with a strong sense of self. They are not afraid to ask for help. They feel worthy of love and care, and can confidently express anger when appropriate.

Without proper training, however, Kittlitz says this divine relationship design becomes distorted when “unhealthy people look to get their needs met in unhealthy ways by manipulating one another” with such tactics as demands, guilt, selfishness, self-degradation or passivity.

The Yerkovichs identify four categories they call “love styles” (or attachment styles) that describe how people unhealthily relate to others based on their primary relationships with their caregivers.

As you try to identify where you fit in, keep in mind that you may have characteristics of a few different attachment styles, and your past may not match the childhood experiences that most commonly influence particular styles.

Pleaser:

“Some kids please in response to a parent’s anxiety, while others are managing a parent’s irritability,” write the Yerkovichs. “These children absorb a lot of tension and try to find relief for their own anxiety by making others happy.” Additionally, highly critical parents lead to pleaser children who learn to be careful to avoid criticism.

As an adult these individuals may feel anxiety when their spouse wants time alone or with friends. Their moods are highly reflective of the mood of their spouse. If others are happy, they are happy. If others are upset, they are upset. And if they sense that their spouse is distant or angry, they’ll pursue relentlessly.

Those with a pleaser attachment style may relate to these phrases:

  • “I just want things to stay the same.”
  • “I don’t know, you decide.”
  • “I just want to help.”

Avoider:

“When avoiders were children, their parents were unable to tune in to their feelings, and as a result, their emotional life is underdeveloped,” say the Yerkovichs. At some point in their childhood, they were forced to become prematurely independent. As adults, they are hyper-independent, self-sufficient, and disconnected from emotions, whether theirs or others’. Often they try to stay busy to distract themselves from their feelings. They may try to self-soothe in dangerous ways such as alcohol, drugs or sexual addiction.

Learning to label and deal with their feelings is foreign to avoiders. It takes a lot of practice and may be awkward until they become more comfortable with accepting emotions.

You may be an avoider if you relate to these phrases:

  • “I don’t want to talk about it.”
  • “I need my space.”
  • “If you’re sad, you’re weak.”

Vacillator:

In a vacillator’s childhood, connection was inconsistent and unpredictable. The primary caregivers acted based on their own moods and cared more for their own needs rather than those of the child.

“Vacillators want connection. They idealise new relationships in hopes of satisfying their longing for love and attention,” note the Yerkovichs. They like the chase for intimacy, but when their high expectations aren’t met, they respond with anger. As a result, these individuals vacillate between pushing others away and wanting them to come back. They commonly sabotage their relationship before their spouse has a chance to hurt them more.

Vacillators tend to relate to these phrases:

  • “I believe in love at first sight.”
  • “You need to change, then I’ll be happy.”
  • “If you loved me, you’d know my needs.”

Controller-Victim (Chaotic):

People raised in a traumatic environment are impacted with a chaotic attachment style. They may have experienced parents with addictions, abusive tendencies, mental illness or parents who were absent altogether. These individuals believe that relationships are unsafe and destructive.

Strong-willed children from chaotic homes tend to grow into controller adults. “Provoking others into intense, angry, or seductive interchanges causes their adrenaline to flow, and life feels normal and familiar,” according to the Yerkovichs.

Controllers may say phrases such as these:

  • “Stay where I can see you.”
  • “My way or the highway.”
  • “It’s all your fault.”

Complacent children in these same homes tend to develop a victim attachment style. They learn to be quiet, and tolerate what they shouldn’t have to tolerate. As adults, they may gravitate toward controller attachment styles, mistaking the intensity for passion.

Victims may relate to these phrases:

  • “I’m at fault.”
  • “I don’t want to be alone.”
  • “I’d prefer not to feel anything.”
  • “It could be worse.”

Becoming a secure connector

Dredging up past hurts and reflecting on where your childhood may have lacked in emotional comfort is not an excuse to blame, attack or disown your family members. It is an awareness that can now lead to healing and effective bonding with your spouse.

As a Christian, Galatians 4:7 reminds that you’re no longer a slave to fear, sin, injury or your past. You are a child of God, and can relearn your attachment style with God as your Father and Jesus Christ as your example of a secure connector. That’s not to say that all believers automatically became emotionally healthy when they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, however. Becoming a secure connector doesn’t happen in a moment, nor does it happen in isolation. According to Kittlitz, “the best way to repair attachment wounds is in relationships. That may need to be with a therapist, a substitute parent, a spouse or with God.”

The spiritual, emotional and relational journey to becoming a secure connector is one that extends beyond the scope of this article. However, there are a few goals for each attachment style to begin working toward, and a variety of tools and resources that you can access to help you reach those goals.

For each style, the first goal is to acknowledge that you have an injury and that your attachment style is unhealthy. The Yerkovichs outline the other goals as follows1:

Pleaser:
Learn to tolerate being alone and experiencing tension or discord.
Learn to say no and to get angry when appropriate.
Speak truth and ask for needs to be met.
Try caring for yourself instead of caring only for everyone else.

Avoider:
Learn that it’s okay to feel and learn to identify your emotions. Referring to a list of “feeling words” may help.
Learn to listen so as to empathise.
Learn to ask for what you need.

Vacillator:
Try to see the good and bad in people and situations.
Grieve the hurts in your past without taking your blame and anger out on your spouse.
Learn to ask for what you want or need from your spouse. They cannot – and cannot be expected to – read your mind, no matter how much they love you.

Victim:
Learn what your opinions are and how to voice them.
Determine boundaries and learn to say no.
Seek safety if need be for yourself and your children.
Develop self-care habits.
Find a trusted friend or mentor to share your experiences with and to seek guidance from.

Controller:
Develop compassion for others – and yourself.
Acknowledge your pain, fear and anxiety.
Learn to accept when others have differing opinions.
Learn to listen and actually integrate advice or instruction from others.
Identifying your marriage’s core pattern
Now that you’ve identified your attachment style and your spouse’s, you can gain insight into how the two of you typically interact. This routine dance is called a core pattern, which the Yerkovichs explain “is simply a descriptor of how your histories collide.”

In essence: Your Attachment Style + Your Spouse’s Attachment Style = Your Core Pattern

To read more about the challenges you may face when your styles collide, check out the Yerkovich’s grid of potential core patterns.

Next steps

For more insights into attachment styles we recommend reading Milan and Kay Yerkovich’s book, How We Love. And as you journey to become a secure connector, you may wish to consult a local counsellor.

1 The original goals were outlined by Milan and Kay Yerkovich on their blog: Howwelove.com/blog.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Article supplied with thanks to Focus on the Family Australia.

About the Author: Cara is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada. Focus on the Family provides relevant, practical support to help families thrive in every stage of life.

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