Is it Possible to Change Attachment Patterns we Learned as Children?

Is it Possible to Change Attachment Patterns we Learned as Children?

Last update: 15 May, 2018

You might define attachment as a bond between two people that makes them want to stay together, physically and over time. Humans create this union in the first months of our lives with our primary caregiver. The type of relationship we have (attachment pattern) emotionally guides us in later relationships.

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby dedicated his life to studying attachment. He believed that the process begins very soon after birth. However, it isn’t until babies reach approximately 8 months that the first bond forms between the babies and the caregivers.

Later, psychologist Mary Ainsworth identified and classified attachment into three types:

  • Secure Attachment: the child feels comfortable in the relationship. He knows if he cries, his parents will respond. He can explore his surroundings, knowing that he has a safe place to return to. If he feels anxious, he looks for the primary caregiver.
  • Insecure-Avoidant Attachment: the baby learns that her power to cause reactions in the people around her is limited. As a result, she is not particularly expressive.
  • Insecure-Ambivalent/Resistant Attachment: sometimes when the child cries someone comes to comfort him, but other times no one comes. He isn’t sure who his primary caregiver is. Sometimes he knows, sometimes he doesn’t. That makes him feel insecure when it’s time to face the world. He feels that he has the ability to produce some effect in others, but he also “understands” that the effect is unpredictable.

“We believe that it is essential for the mental health of the baby and young child to experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with the primary caregiver with whom they find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

-John Bowlby-

Attachment gives us our first idea of what is around us, and it is an idea we deeply internalize. Unless we learn other patterns later, this will basically be the way that we relate to those we love.

Can you change your attachment pattern?

As we mentioned before, once the bond is formed, we will try to reproduce that pattern unless we learn something different. However, as powerful as this model is, it doesn’t mean that you are destined or doomed to repeat it forever. Nor does it mean that you can’t learn something else.

The first attachments are very important because they allow the formation of safe bonds and foster the physical, social, and emotional health of the baby. Sometimes, babies aren’t able to form the proper attachments. That means that they will have to do it in the future, with their peers or first significant others. Then, the image they have of relationships and bonds will take on a new meaning.

That’s why it is possible to change attachment patterns. To do this, you have to look for new relationships that show you that the bond, trust, or relationship with the other person is different from what you expected or anticipated.

The importance of attachment throughout life

Internalizing an attachment pattern that reinforces our relationships and makes us feel safe, will help us feel secure in our relationships. We will have people close to use that we can open up to, whom we can trust. They can help us on a deeper level because we will have better communication.

It’s much easier to establish healthy attachments from the beginning. If your first attachment isn’t positive, it can be hard to change later.  In fact, if you want to help someone else change their pattern, you have to be extremely patient. If you want to change your own, you have to dedicate time and resources to get the tools that you need.

Once attachment patterns are established, they become self-fulfilling prophecies.   In other words, if you feel like you live in an insecure world, you will always filter out the things that confirm your hypothesis. You need less proof to reaffirm what you already believe. In addition, if you don’t trust other people, that makes it harder for people to trust you. It can also make it easier for ill-intentioned people to identify you as an easy target.

The parents or primary caregivers have the responsibility to create these first bonds. As much as possible, they need to try and follow the model of secure attachment. Later in life, we are all responsible for the relationships that we have. We have to analyze them and make the changes that we need to make. Change is possible, as impossible as it might seem at first. 

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.