How Childhood Wounds May Be Influencing The People You Date
Most of us had a pretty good childhood. We had a primary caregiver, a friend, a pet, clothes on our backs, and food on the table. I had both parents, two sisters, several pets, a family vacation every year... the list of happy memories goes on and on. So when I started going to therapy and heard myself talking about the ways my parents hurt me, I felt guilty. Didn’t they give me everything they could?
My parents had me when they were young. My mom was 19 and my dad was 25. They didn’t go to college, working full-time blue-collar jobs to provide for me and my sisters. To put it simply, they were often busy and tired. While there was always dinner on the table for us to pray over as a family, there wasn’t always a listening ear.
Emotionally Unavailable Parents
When helping Mom cook dinner after school, I’d rush into the latest gossip or go over a new move I was trying in gymnastics. However, I began to realize that Mom didn’t really have much to say to me. Often, I’d have to look at her and say, “You know what I mean?” or “Isn’t that cool?” Fishing for a response from my mother has only gotten harder as the years have gone by.
As far as Dad goes, I never had a hard time getting feedback from him, but it was usually negative. In therapy, I moved from guilt to anger to understanding. My parents did the best they could. They had their own childhood wounds. Sure, I would have loved for parents that were more supportive and emotionally available, but my childhood was good, and I turned out all right. To focus on what I lacked in my childhood felt ungrateful. In therapy, I moved onto digesting other topics in my life. I thought I did, anyway.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to notice a pattern of being drawn to emotionally unavailable and closed-off people. Their aloofness and lack of communication struck me as mysterious. These men were puzzles I desperately wanted to unravel. When they began to open up, I felt honored that they felt safe enough to share their inner world with me. I thought (subconsciously) that if I got them to open up, we wouldn’t have problems anymore. But every time, I kept hitting a wall. Like a trapdoor, I sense a locked area somewhere deep inside them that was off-limits. There was a nagging distance. They were still closed off, inaccessible, uncommunicative. Like my parents.
The theory of attachment styles was developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the early 1900s, according to professor R. Chris Fraley. Bowlby developed this theory to explain “the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents.” In other words, attachment styles refer to the bond (or lack thereof) that develops between an infant and their primary caregiver. It was Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth, who conducted experiments on this attachment theory.
Based on her findings, there are three different types of attachment styles:
Secure: children whose parents are responsive to their needs
Anxious-Avoidant: children whose parents are unresponsive or inconsistent in meeting their needs, so they avoid their parents and don’t seem bothered when they’re not around.
Anxious-Resistant: children whose parents are unresponsive or inconsistent in meeting their needs, so they become overly clingy and upset when their parents are not around.
Even those these attachment styles develop in infancy, they follow us throughout our life, and translate into our behavior with a significant other. When I started reading about attachment styles, my dating history began to make sense. I developed an anxious-resistant attachment style as an infant. My family would often tell me stories about how I’d burst into sobs if my mother so much as went to check the mail. She was my primary caregiver, but my needs were not met in some way. So why, when reviewing my romantic past, did I actively seek out the same frustrating and unsatisfying characteristics in a romantic partner?
Because it feels safe. Because it’s what I’m used to and confirms my worldview that people will let me down. Because the little girl still inside me thinks that, somehow, if we reenact the situation from our childhood and get our needs met this time, we can finally heal.
There is no easy way to fix a wound stemming all the way from your childhood. The first step is awareness and speaking with a therapist about it. I’ve also explained to my partner (who is anxious-resistant) why it is so hard for me to trust him and accept that he loves me. However, it’s a two-way street. He also needs to work on healing his own wounds in order to show up and be there for me. I can’t force anyone else to change. I can only work on myself, and maybe in doing so, I can be there for myself in ways that no one else ever could be.