Getting overly attached in relationships

If you feel needy or clingy in relationships - it's not your fault. Those  often insidious patterns were laid down early in infancy. Not to worry though - with the right help - this can all be different.

Short podcast on importance of our attachment patterns (by Shrinklady)

Feeling needy and clingy are related to unmet infant needs

You may have a recurring, self-sabatoging pattern in your relationships or you may have difficulty in staying connected with others. You may have trouble letting go of unsuitable relationships.

Unconsciously, you're replaying the dynamics that you experienced as an infant. Until you reconfigure these non-conscious emotional patterns you're pretty much doomed to repeat them in your future relationships.

. . . well, I'm probably not telling you anything new. You've seen for yourself how relationship after relationship, it ends up pretty much like the last. Please don't despair - there are ways to change this state of affairs.

The dance of attunement

Fact: over 40% of parents raise insecurely-attached children.

Healthy attachment comes from "attuned care" in infancy. It means your Mom and/or Dad "tuned into" your needs. This "dance" between figuring out what you need and you finally getting what you need, has been referred to as the 'dance of attunement'.

The dance of attunement is probably the most important discovery in the last several decades regarding a theory of human emotional and psychological change. The concept was discovered by researchers who spent years observing and taping interactions between infants and their mothers.

The evidence is overwhelming: The nature and quality of development of the nervous system (i.e. the brain) literally depend on the nature and quality of interactions between the primary caretaker and the infant!

A caregiver can severely limit the development of the infant's stress coping mechanisms by being insensitive to, or even ignoring, what the infant is trying to communicate about its needs. Without some kind of therapeutic intervention, these missed opportunities for developing emotionally adaptive skills will haunt the adult that the child ultimately becomes.

It's no wonder then, why issues around our connections with others (a.k.a unmet attachment needs) ultimately compel many people into counseling.

In fact, unmet attachment needs (laid down in infancy) play a large role in why many folks remain for years in relationships that are unsatisfying. You would think it should be the other way around.

You see, it feels safer to stay in relationship even if that person provides little comfort in terms of connection. In this individual's unconscious perception, it's as if a dissatisfying relationship is better than none at all.

It sounds irrational but actually this behavioural pattern was laid down in infancy and is an adaptation that was constructive and rational at the time.

Let me explain.

The quality of an infant's connection with parents/caretakers plays a profound role in shaping whether he or she feels secure in later relationships.

What is implicitly learned in these crucial years creates the emotional template for adult relational patterns. These patterns determine, for example, whether one tends to compromise one's own needs, or the degree to which one will be clinging or distant. They can also show up as a chronic fear of intimacy.

In order to understand how this template gets laid down in the nervous system it is important to appreciate the infants' immediate priorities. An emotional connection with our parents/caretakers is absolutely necessary for brain growth and development. It is in the moment-to-moment interactions with caregivers that our nervous system literally grows new neuropathways.

Without a secure connection to the mother the child feels its survival is threatened. Without a sense of safety it will not develop the skills that enable it to optimally adapt to its environment.

This is exactly why we struggle years later when similar patterns play out in our intimate relationships. I may for instance easily compromise my own needs in favour of my partner's in order to maintain a connection.

This emotional connection is so important that infants will compromise their own needs (even their desire for food) in order to maintain it. This shows how the imprinted template gets its tremendous strength and staying power - it's derived from the body's prime directive, the most powerful urge we can feel - to survive!

Why therapy helps

With respect to some brain functions, vision for example, it appears that, unless the brain receives the right amount of stimulus at the right time, the neuropathways supporting that function will not be optimally wired, if at all. We will not have "learned" to see. In these cases the individual will suffer from a developmental deficit that can never be made whole.

However, it also appears that other kinds of gaps in brain development can be rectified to a large extent even in adulthood. In particular, taking advantage of the brain's residual plasticity, your therapist can update your original brain programming by in effect replicating the attuned relationship you should have had with your mother.

That's right, psychotherapy can change your brain!

"How much of my life have I wasted by believing the thing I was taught, that thinking is what makes us better, that the brain is superior to heart."                                                                     Stephen Harrod Buhner

related topic

- This is an easy read on the health and happiness of children today attributed to 'attachment parenting.


Readers Comments

Therapy Guru Avatar

Karie

What happens in a baby's brain

I developed an attachment injury as a child and didn't know what was wrong for many years. My fear of abandonment, lack of a strong self, and inability to regulate my emotions caused me a lot of grief. I'm finding it's taking a lot of work (and tears) to heal from an attachment injury.

I am impressed that you are knowledgeable about current attachment theory and the information and support I found here is valuable. I recently read an article co-authored by Judith & Allan Schore (2008), called Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment. It was published in the Clinical Social Work Journal. The article is great at explaining what happens in a baby's brain when early nurturing doesn't happen as needed and how that can affect the adult life of the individual.

I found the article fascinating and I used the paper by Schore & Schore (2008) on Modern Attachment Theory to link Childhood Attachment Injury to Adult Suicide.

Thanks for this great site. I'm just beginning to familiarize myself with all you have available here.

Karie (Chatham, Ontario, Canada)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

Thanks Karie for your feedback and taking the time to post that reference.

Best,

Shrinklady


Therapy Guru Avatar

Karli

mother has postnatal depression

I'm just wondering what happens when a child has an attachment to the mother but the mother has postnatal depression and can't immediately bond with the baby?

Does this affect the baby as an adult, or is the bond, that is developed later, enough?

Karli

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

​What we are coming to understand about brain plasticity leads us to believe that much can still be done. Even the attachment bond that develops later can be healing and reparative.

Every few months, the infant goes through emotional milestones that are part of, and reflected in, the infant's growing musculature. Fortunately, nature provides a means for these stages of development to be re-mastered once again during adolescence.

These are characteristics that we previously thought were genetic in origin but that we now understand can be modified (e.g. autonomy - being able to take initiative, securing support etc., and needs - being able to recognize and express them, etc.)

But, there are also time-sensitive milestones after which change can take a very long time, if at all. These are believed to be set by our genetic coding. You may recall for instance, that sight is time sensitive.

For instance, removing cataracts after puberty will not restore one's sight if these were present at birth. There are other milestones, but I'm afraid I'm less familiar with those that might affect the growing infant. I suspect there's more research to be done in this area.

The impact of the mother's emotional and physical state would depend on the severity and length of time she has been depressed. It's also my impression that a woman who suffers from post-natal depression doesn't necessarily recover the resiliency in her nervous system immediately following some symptom relief.

In fact, the lack of resiliency in a mom's nervous system may indeed account for the predisposition to develop post-natal depression. As you are likely aware, when a nervous system is more regulated, we are better able to manage stressful and traumatic events (e.g. a difficult birth).

So, it goes without saying that the sooner a depressed mom gets into therapy the better. And, the good news is that a healthy nervous system can promote resiliency in another's at any time. In my view, there's no better way to help a nervous system regulate than by going to therapy. (please excuse the obvious rant!)

Hope that gives you some food for thought Karli.

Regards,

Shrinklady


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NeedaShrink

As if I am dealing with 2 different people

My wife of 5 years' parents divorced when she was young. She hasn't seen him in years. Holidays are always tough and she has a hard time being around my close family. She has trouble with the fact she has my last name, as if she is hanging on to a piece of her father. "We didn't need to get married, we could have just lived together is what she now says."

Quite a bit different than she used to say and want (same goes for having kids). She now is saying she is not happy with "everything" and doesn't have the same feelings. It's as if I am dealing with 2 different people any given day. She is going to therapy to find out why she is not happy (believe me...it is abandonment issues, I've done my research!)

My question is..what is the best way for me to act around her....We care about each other alot ,and she is trying to almost block her feelings now and convince herself otherwise (saying she feels smothered, which is bogus--I give her all the space in the world)..I am not leaving her as I know what we really have underneath all the drama. She is my soulmate. I want to help our relationship grow.

NeedaShrink

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

​Hi Needashrink, a short answer to your detailed question about how you can best support your wife…be your loving self despite how challenging it may be at times for you to do so.

When we are scared (whether we know it consciously or not), we need a solid, firm base to bump up against, even it we protest against it. And, in this relationship, you appear to be your wife’s “secure base”. So, being lovingly steady is best for her and for you as she looks more deeply into her own issues.

You mentioned that your wife seems to be two different people on the same day. Sometimes when folks are going through tough times, they can find it difficult to pull themselves together.

Let me explain.

As you likely know from exploring the site, when we are overwhelmed, our emotional brain is running the show, so the logical brain tends to come along for the ride, doing its best to create the most relevant story or meaning about what’s going on.

This helps explain how we can say all types of things to our partner when we are having a melt down, and later on confess to ourselves (and hopefully them), “What was I thinking, I don’t really feel that way!!”. This may be what's going on for your wife.

On the other hand, many people enter marriage for reasons they don't fully understand. As they mature and become more emotionally aware, the life they've chosen may come up for reevaluation.

For example, when some folks marry they “become” the role as defined in their families and by the culture…quite unconsciously for the most part. So, a woman can “become the wife” (just as the man "becomes the husband") and at some point begin to question the "constraints" that came along with that role, particularly if her parent’s marriage was difficult.

Towards the end of your message, you mentioned that you wife has felt "smothered" despite the "space" you give her. Let me say a few words about this. It's possible that at her core, she is experiencing a deep fear of living out the patterns witnessed and lived through as a child. As a result, there can be a see-saw between a yearning to connect and a fear of being engulfed by the intensity of emotions that emerge.

Oftentimes, a pattern like this becomes more apparent as a marriage matures. Either partner becomes aware that painful, deeply laid-down attachment patterns have to change for the marriage to grow.

I’m so glad to hear that your wife is in therapy. One of the great gifts that we can give ourselves and our partners is the ability to pull off our projections and become more congruent within ourselves.

Therapy can help you too – something to think about should you feel the need for more understanding and support. Couples therapy may be worth considering, too.

Dr. Carole and Shrinklady


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Lorraine

I don't know if I can change

I was recently involved with a guy, I tried over and over to walk away but could not. I felt that I needed him to be around because I was afraid to be alone. I have considered therapy for a long time to talk about abandonment issues from my mother not being in my life but showing up when i was 8 trying to take me from my dad. I lived with foster parents until I was one so I don't know if there are any attachment issues there.

I really don't know what going to therapy will change. I feel like I am who I am...I don't know if I can change. Also I feel like if I can talk about my mother and tell someone about the pain such as a good friend who listens why am I not moving on? What does it take to "blow out the torch"?

Lorraine (Harrisburg, United States)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

Hi Lorraine, yes, the fear of being alone can drive our behaviour in ways that don't always work for us, as you described, staying with someone when we really want to be leaving. That's what I would describe as an attachment issue.

Your early abandonment, losing your foster parents (an infant would grieve the loss of foster parents too) would undoubtedly have had a major impact on your emotional development. A whole year is a pretty long time in an infant's life. You would have had a strong attachment built up by then. And, I could imagine these abandonment fears would have been ignited again when you were 8 years old.

I loved your question about therapy, Lorraine. It's the kind of question that inspired me to do this site. I know many folks don't understand how talking with a friend can be any different than talking with a therapist but they are worlds apart.

I probably won't be able to do justice to the answer because it really takes a whole site to explain it (or a whole book).

First off, to change how you are, you need to change the brain. It's not so much in the "talking" that therapy changes the brain although this might help you feel better for a while. You can get this from both a friend and a therapist. But it's how you are with the therapist and how the therapist is with you as you talk about it.

What we know about emotions is that they are not easily changed by telling ourselves to change. The feeling that "this is who I am" comes from the implicit memory system. This is our emotional template that we develop in the first few years of life. To change these emotional patterns, we need similar conditions to that time. The brain needs to experience something new but in much the same way that the emotions developed in the first place.

Therapy has these same conditions. For one, you develop a relationship with your therapist, just as you did with your first caretaker or parent. Over the course of your therapy sessions, your brain begins to learn that it's a safe place. This allows you to have access to deeper emotions than you would normally have with a friend. The boundaries in therapy create safety and containment in a way that a friend who has his or her own issues, could rarely do.

We also know that in changing the brain it is essential that the experience be happening in the moment. Any emotional experience creates a neural net (a pattern of neuropathways) in the brain. This needs to be activated in the brain for the change to occur because with the right conditions, new connections can be made. This allows you to experience the emotion differently in the future.

It's in moments where the therapist draws attention to you current state that change is possible. Because the therapist helps create an experience that the brain can learn from.

There are many ways that this occurs but to give you a couple examples...if you are talking about your boyfriend and how you're having a hard time leaving, your therapist might pause and ask what you are feeling in the moment. She or he might draw attention to your current state. It'd be pretty hard for most friends to do this for you, let alone help you contain the emotions that arise.

The therapist might also draw attention to what's happening between the two of you. In this way, he or she is bringing into the present feelings that might have arisen in any miscommunication that occured. It's in the repair of these misattunements where healing occurs.

Yeah, that's a really simplified version of how therapy differs from a friend and I've left out a bunch but hopefully, you've got enough to decide to give therapy a chance.

All the best,

Shrinklady