Attachment Theory: How Unhealthy Childhood Attachments Trick You Into Self-Sabotage

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A few years ago, an article in the Daily Mail reported on how common it is, in relationships, for people to "settle". This article — and the data contained inside — has really stuck with me over the years. The article cited research which found that that, of 2,000 adults polled, 73 percent have "made do" with their partner because their "true love" slipped through their fingers.

In essence, the survey respondents are settling for less than they dreamed of — less than true love — in their romantic relationships. Sometimes these people get stuck in unhealthy relationships, bonded with people they may not even like all that much. In addition, I have seen many couples stuck in the all-too-frequent relationship pattern of breaking up and getting back together many times. Why is the percentage of people who refuse to hold out for true love so high, and what can we do about it?

These are all difficult questions to answer, and have often been explored in the social sciences along with a myriad of other relationship issues. The answer to these relationship conundrums may ultimately lie in the psychology's attachment theory.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory is defined as, "a psychological model attempting to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans." It's not just about romantic love, but about all sorts of human bonds.

Attachment theory was initially developed by Mary Ainsworth (1913 - 1999) and John Bowlby (1907 - 1990), two psychoanalysts who were attempting to comprehend the anguish often experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. These researchers observed that infants would go to surprising lengths to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish contact with a missing parent. Some of these behaviors included crying, clinging or frantically looking for their caregiver.

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They also postulated that such actions are common to a wide variety of other animals, and consequently believed that these behaviors may serve an evolutionary function. From that data, they argued that these attachment behaviors were adaptive responses to separation with a primary attachment figure — someone who provides support, protection, and care. Because human infants, like other mammals, cannot feed, clothe or protect themselves, they are dependent upon the care and protection of adults.

As a result, babies who are able to successfully and consistently get their needs met from a parent or caregiver are more likely to thrive.

Our attachment system essentially asks the following question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive?

If a child perceives the answer to this question to be "yes," they feel loved, secure, and confident. Behaviorally, they are likely to explore their environment, play with others, be sociable, and feel secure in doing so. The freedom to explore is enhanced by knowing that one has a home base to go to whenever needed.

If, however, a child perceives the answer to this question to be "no," the child feels anxious and will constantly seek security from the caretaker (usually the mother) until they obtains a desirable level of physical and/or psychological contact.

If this fails to happen, the child may give up, which will lead to emotional distress. This can take the eventual form of avoidance of the attachment figure as the child learns they cannot count on this person. This emotional distress usually happens if the child experiences long separations, loss or neglectful treatment by caretaker.

Attachment theory isn't just about babies and their parents — it affects us as adults, too, in non-romantic and romantic relationships alike.

And it explains why we settle for bad relationships — or even mediocre relationships —​ when what we want is to find true love.

RELATED: How To Know The Difference Between Healthy And Unhealthy Relationships

Although Ainsworth and Bowlby were chiefly focused on understanding the nature of the infant-caregiver relationship, they believed that attachment characterized human experience from "the cradle to the grave." Other researchers (like Mikulincer and Shaver, in 2007) began to explore their ideas in the context of romantic relationships. This is where this subject gets really fascinating...

What was discovered is that the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners is part of the same early attachment system.

The relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners in satisfying relationships often share the following features:

  • Both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  • Both engage in intimate bodily contact
  • Both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  • Both share discoveries with one another
  • Both play with one another's facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
  • Both engage in "baby talk"

Adult romantic relationships are attachments, and romantic love triggers that same early patterned way of relating to someone we love.

While attachments help create stability, there is a downside. Attachments are less concerned that you are happy with your partner and more concerned that you stay together. This may be one reason why so many people settle for partners and relationships that don't fulfill their dreams, or even their basic expectations.

In fact, many people form an attachment to someone whom they do not like as a person.

Yes, you read that right. Talk about settling for less than true love!

That's because it is possible to form a deep bond to someone who is less than an ideal romantic partner — hence, we stay when it is just OK.

This is why we settle for less than we desire when it comes to romantic relationships.

RELATED: 6 Signs You Have An Anxious Attachment Style & How It Affects Your Love Relationships

Romantic attachments are designed to keep people together because over the course of human evolution, people who stayed together had an easier time raising offspring than people who only came together for the purposes of sex.

From attachment theory, we also know that there is a significant amount of interplay between the attachment system and the sexual system.

This should be a warning sign to be careful with whom you have repeated intimate contact, as you are likely to form an attachment to that person. It can be very difficult to break things off after having sex with someone once an attachment is formed.

It is highly advised that in order to prevent this sort of situation from happening repeatedly (or after finally extricating yourself from a bad or mediocre relationship), it is advised to explore your insecurity and attachment tendencies in therapy. After all, despite how dire it sounds to have an insecure attachment, this is something you can address and heal from — and this is key if you want to find true love and make it last.

People who have the most “secure” attachment style report more relationship satisfaction overall, stay in unsatisfactory relationships the least amount of time and are less likely to divorce.

Those who have an “anxious” attachment style tend to breakup, then get back together with the same person multiple times or stay in a chronically unhappy situation. Those with an “avoidant” attachment style are most likely to run at the first sign of relationship distress and are least likely to seek out loving relationships to begin with.

If you are already married, couples therapy can address such concerns as feelings of dissatisfaction, frequent negative patterns of interaction, and a lost emotional connection.

If you are in a good relationship and simply wish to create a more loving connection, a good understanding of attachment theory and what your attachment style is can help you achieve this.

Emotionally Focused Therapy, developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, is particularly helpful as it is well researched and based on attachment theory. It focuses on creating a strong bond between the couple so that they can be that “secure home base” for each other.

If you are still dating and searching for your perfect match, understanding your attachment needs will help you with the number one rule of relationships: Choose wisely! You deserve a happy, healthy relationship ... and true love.

RELATED: How People Who Form Insecure Attachments Can Form Healthy Relationship Bonds

Dr. Marni Feuerman is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in South Florida, as well as the author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships. Visit her website to learn more and sign up for her newsletter.