I am going to get technical on you for the first little bit of this. Hang with me. I know you can.
Attachment Theory is a theory about relationships that has been around since the late 1960’s. However, it is growing in popularity with clinicians as a way for understanding how our past relational experiences influence our behavior and relationship with others RIGHT NOW.
In very short form, if you were “insecurely attached” to your parents or parent or some other caregiver then you COULD be more likely to have insecure relationships NOW.
You want to try and see where you fall? Here is the original self-report measure of attachment developed by researchers Hazan and Shaver (1987). It is not meant to diagnose you in any way. Measures have come a long way in the last couple of decades, but this one is very easy to use and gets at the point rather quickly although it misses out on other information gained from a more in depth assessment. We are only using it for fun here. Choose one of the following.
Secure – I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
Avoidant – I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
Anxious/Ambivalent – I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
Which one did you choose? Was it a difficult choice? That information is just for you. Hold on to it as we keep going.
So, the idea put forth by attachment research is that if you circle “avoidant” it probably has a great deal to do with the kind of relationship you had with your caregivers growing up. In fact, you could, perhaps, insert your caregiver’s name from when you were a child in the places where it says “others” and “them”. It is also believed that these types of relationships and levels of security get passed down generation to generation to some degree. So, if you had an insecure relationship with a parent, then it is possible that they came from an insecure relationship, too, and so on.
It doesn’t have to have been a severely abusive relationship. For example, let’s say your caregiver was distant and not very affectionate. OR, perhaps he or she wasn’t a good listener or had a hard time spending time with you.
It can also work the other way. Your parents may have been OVER BEARING (hover mother, anyone?) and this, too, can lead to insecure attachment, or relationship style.
It could be that NOW you approach other people as though they will be distant and not very affectionate. Or, maybe they will not be very good listeners and find it difficult to spend time with you. Or, maybe you are afraid they will overwhelm you like mom did so you just stay away altogether. Or, you can really have any combination of responses. The point is that based on your initial insecure experiences with caregivers, you approach your relationships “insecurely”.
And, let’s be honest here. When it comes to security there is no “you are or you aren’t”. We can all find ourselves on the spectrum here with most of us experiencing a little bit of insecurity in certain ways.
So, after years of being conditioned to survive this caregiver type of relationship, you have developed certain “survival skills”. Instead of approaching a new friendship with a clean slate you approach it ready to protect yourself. Perhaps you have learned to do this by being more demanding. You learned that to get mom’s attention you had to cry and stomp your feet a little more so, in some ways, you do this with friends, colleagues, or your mate, too. Perhaps you have learned to survive by standing off until the other person assumes you just aren’t interested. Maybe you learned that it is just best to ignore dad and hopefully he will leave you alone so you try this tactic as an adult. In either case, you successfully “protect” yourself from being hurt by adopting old relationship styles and survival skills.
There is good news! In any of the above cases, you survive the relationship
…by it never having a chance to start and develop in the first place.
(sorry for the sarcasm there)
Here’s the problem: Your old, greatest survival skills have become your present, greatest liabilities.
Research supports these ideas. People with “insecure” attachments to caregivers have a more difficult time in peer, romantic, and even professional relationships. Their survival skills have become their liabilities.
If you are like me then you hear all of this and think that it sounds so fatalistic. I mean, who among us has had perfect parents? Who among us has had parents who have been perfectly attentive and been able to listen and take care of us just like we and our unique personality needed? Are we all doomed to insecurity?
Right here is a detail that many people miss out about Attachment Theory. Research also shows that there is room….there is a NEED…there is incredible potential…for a re-story.
In fact, in the end there is room in the research to say that it doesn’t matter if a person came out of an abusive family system or not. It depends on how the person grows to UNDERSTAND their story. How they tell the story now. How they re-story.
But, don’t we already know this?
Until we re-story our past…we are slaves to it. We are its servants. It IS fatalistic. Without the re-story we will continue to use those old survival skills, still act like a slave in Egypt.
And, in the mean time we wonder why all of our relationships end up the same way.
I think that is why I love what I do so much. I love to sit with someone through the grieving, the messy first telling of the story, and then walk with them as they re-story their past, as they bring new meaning out of what has happened to them. I love to watch people, to be at their side, as they go through the painful, vital, life giving process of giving birth…to a new way of being, to the re-story of their life. I enjoy my role as midwife.
I know how important this work is. Vital. How we understand our past, both recent past and far-gone, influences every single other relationship in our life.
This is the ultimate Romans 8:28 work. This is putting “knowing that in all things God work for the good of those who love him” in action. This is that word made flesh. Your flesh. Your re-story.
Whatever we have been through, no one knows more about re-storying your past, re-storying your family’s actions and relationship to you, than Joseph. After all of his father’s lack of wisdom in parenting, after everything his brothers did, Joseph was still able to say: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done…” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph was enormously successful. He did not approach life as one who was a victim, insecure because of how his brothers had treated him.
With God’s help, Joseph understood his past differently, and he approached relationships, peer, professional, and romantic, not out of his insecure story, but out of his redeemed re-story.
This is not about being dishonest and making things up. This is about seeing things in a new light.
It is also about grace and redemption.
Because when we re-story our past we will likely have to extend grace to ourselves and to others from our past who have done us wrong…very, very, very wrong.
We’ll likely do some re-storying for them, too…understanding them in context…in the midst of their own insecure attachments. It is about acknowledging the wrongness…and then letting it go…letting its hold on us drop away as we open our eyes to a new way of seeing our past…a new way of seeing everything including our future.
We all have a re-story to write, to co-create with our Creator God. It is a never-ending process because we will get hurt again and again and again because our world is filled with insecure people who will do hurtful things to us.
No matter how painful the past, no matter how secure or insecure your relationship was with a caregiver or anyone else, God promised us not to leave us as orphans (John 14:18). No matter which choice you circled in the attachment questionnaire, God is our great Attachment Figure and Caregiver. He can pick up where our parents left off. He can do the work of correcting insecure attachments. It is not fatalistic. It is not a job too big for Him.
Your re-story is worth living.