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How early relationship patterns affect your romantic relationships

I often talk with clients about relationship patterns and how they evolve from our early experiences with caregivers. These first relationships provide templates for how to be with others. These templates get stored outside of our awareness but go on to impact our relationships as adults. Someone who had a secure attachment with a parent - meaning they felt safe enough as a child to explore with a balance between closeness and independence and with parents who were reliable for soothing in times of distress - tend to bring the same dynamic to adulthood. They manage the closeness-distance continuum well, feeling connected and able to express themselves, whilst also allowing space and independence with an ability to flex between the two depending on the needs of the moment.

Those with insecure attachment tend to either be clingy and insecure (anxious attachment), or to withdraw from intimacy (avoidant attachment). They have difficulty managing appropriate closeness and distance, and are usually preoccupied with one or the other. You may notice a tendency in yourself, to either be highly sensitised to possible rejection leading to clinging, or instead you might have a tendency to freak out when someone gets too close, fearing loss of autonomy and getting too close. You may experience both of these, in different situations!

Part of this is also just a feature of relationship dynamics. If our partner doesn't call for a week when we're used to hearing from them daily, it is natural to feel insecure. Equally if our partner smothers us with their love and wont leave our sides, most people find it too much. We all need both closeness and distance. I see it being more of an attachment issue when our threshold for feeling too close/too far is low. When that's the case, you'll be very sensitive to any sign of rejection and look for evidence of it. Or you might feel trapped before there's even any talk of commitment.

When you know your attachment style you can be more aware of how this is impacting on your relationships and make conscious choices to do something different.

Is insecure attachment always a problem? Not necessarily. It's very normal. Around 40% of people have insecure attachment. Attachment strategies such as clinging or distancing tend to arise when we perceive threat, so in a relationship with someone who gives us enough security or space - depending on our style - things work. Avoiders and clingers can have stable relationships with each other, if they can learn to flex enough on both sides, to give enough space and enough closeness to meet the others needs, and to tolerate some discomfort of their own.

When you might feel your attachment style is a problem is when you find you have recurring patterns in your relationships and you want something to change. Perhaps you recognise that you push people away by being insecure and needy, or you always freak out when things get heavy and end the relationship even though you consciously want a partner.

All patterns say something about us. Maybe you are repeatedly drawn to relationships with avoiders. If this is the case, it may be that you are not so keen on commitment as you think you are, and that such a relationship serves your own need for distance! All of these patterns can be explored and made sense of in online counselling and online psychotherapy. Therapy is about developing flexibility, so we are not trapped by our childhood experiences or our past relationships, but can move forward with awareness.

Research shows attachment style can change. Even if we have an insecure attachment, through being in relationship (be it partner, friend or therapist) who provides a secure, reliable experience for us, we can have a different relational experience and change the neurology that is laid down in early life. If we know our tendencies, we can anticipate them and know that are feelings are a feature of our history and not about the here and now. We can develop ways of emotionally regulating ourselves more effectively when we become anxious or want to withdraw and get the relationships we want.

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