How much control do we have over the way we relate to one another?

Kimberley D. Thompson, PhD examines how we learn our patterns of attachment and what we can learn from this to make conscious choices about parenting the next generation.

Importance of attachment

People need each other. That need is fundamental. People also need to be needed by others. At the most primal level, huddling together increases our chances for survival. Weather, famine, disease, wild animal attacks, and accidental injury were constant threats to early human ancestors and are still problems contemporary societies must manage (MacDonald & Jensen-Campbell, 2011).

Being left alone during infancy spells certain death. Our prolonged period of immaturity gives us the flexibility to adapt to many different environments. While instinctive behaviors in other animals allow them to survive and thrive in a specific environment, humans can live almost anywhere on earth (e.g., Julian, Wilson, & Moore, 2009).

We may not have instincts hardwired into our brains, but experience-expectant learning is crucial for healthy development to receive the expected experiences within the proper windows of time known as critical or sensitive periods (Hensch, 2004).

why-we-learn-how-to-form-relationships
Courtesy Lena Ostroff

Perhaps the most fundamental experience that we are hardwired to expect is that of a stable, nurturing relationship with a loving caregiver, known as an “attachment relationship” (Sakaluk, 2013). Most often, this is the mother, since the mother carries the child and is equipped to nurse her at her breast. Children can and do become strongly attached to fathers, grandparents, and others as well. When these important relationships are stable and nurturing, they can either supplement the mother-child bond or make up for what it lacks.

The absence of a stable and nurturing relationship during the critical period of infancy and toddlerhood leads to deficits in many areas of life, especially in the area of social learning and the ability to form meaningful relationships with others (McKenzie, Purvis, & Cross, 2014).

Most babies do have at least one person to whom they become attached, but the quality of these attachments varies. Every mother has her own personality, physiology, spirituality, culture, and family background. Babies are unique as well. As many as 14 different dimensions of infant temperament have been identified and measured (Costa & Figueiredo, 2011), meaning that even this early in life, the differences between people can be profound. However, there are some similarities observed across large groups of mothers and babies that help us understand how early attachment relationships are related to later experiences (Epkins & Heckler, 2011).

Studies of infants and their mothers have demonstrated that depression has a negative impact on the quality of the attachment relationship, on mother-baby interactions, on the child’s development for several years after birth, and on the likelihood that the child will experience depression later in life (e.g., Goodman et al., 2011; Lefkovics, Baji, & Rigó, 2014). Babies of new mothers who were already depressed during pregnancy often have biological markers after birth, such as:

  • decreased vagal tone
  • greater activation in the right-frontal cortex of the brain
  • skewed neurotransmitter profiles, that suggest that they are also depressed (Field, 2011).

These are some of the important ways that depressive belief systems can be primed in young children, so that depression can be passed down for generations in families if the cycle is not interrupted.

People form and maintain attachment bonds with others throughout life. The quality of the bonds we form with others later in life is strongly related to the quality of our first attachment relationships, in which we learned on a very visceral level how to relate to significant other people (Galinha, Oishi, Pereira, Wirtz, & Esteves, 2014).

Why We Learn How to Form Relationships
Ken Tackett

The parenting spectrum

With this fundamental understanding of the enormous impact that early relationships wield, taking a broad view of parenting styles will help to illuminate how these relationships either promote resilience or contribute to depression vulnerability. Recognizing and understanding the connections between childhood experiences and depression in adulthood, including postpartum depression, will support your recovery. It will also enable you as a new parent to make conscious choices about what parenting path to take with the next generation.

Emotionally healthy parenting

why we learn how to form relationships
Courtesy Christina Simantiri

It is a universal challenge for parents to find a healthy balance between protecting a child from the very real dangers of this world and preparing that child to deal with the world independently.

Parental protection lies on a continuum from extreme overprotection to extreme neglect, with desirable parenting occupying the middle ground, somewhere in between (Iwaniec, Larkin, & McSherry, 2007). The trick to preparing a child adequately for life without overwhelming him is to keep challenges within the level of difficulty that the child can master with their parent’s help (Edwards, 2002).

Families who tend to have the best child outcomes are those who exert firm, consistent control over their children’s behavior, and also consistently nurture a warm and loving relationship with their children. These families are aware of what can be reasonably expected according to the age, developmental level, intelligence, and abilities of each child (Overbeek, ten Have, Volleburgh, & de Graaf, 2006). These parents keep their expectations consistent and appropriate for each child.

Healthy parenting protects children from challenges they are not mature enough to face, and exposes children to developmentally appropriate opportunities to gain skill and competence (Edwards, 2002; Overbeek, ten Have, Volleburgh, & de Graff, 2006). Healthy parenting is thoughtful about when to lend a helping hand, and when to allow a child to fail. Note that most parents fail at this particular challenge from time to time! Truly wise parents, realizing their mistakes, then have the opportunity to model learning from failure.

Disengaged parenting

A neglectful parent is disengaged from the relationship and exposes the child to challenges, situations, and risks that the child is not prepared to face alone. These children are vulnerable to harm from a whole host of ills, including accidents, poor nutrition, sporadic school attendance, and human predators. If neglected children survive the very real dangers of inadequate parental supervision and protection, they may grow up feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of life, anxious that they are not equal to life’s tasks, and overly vigilant to any hint of danger or risk. A neglected child may come to believe that she cannot win because the world is just too hard (Overbeek, ten Have, Volleburgh, & de Graff, 2006). If you were a neglected child, you may still carry a sense that the world is harsh and that you are not equal to its challenges (Wei & Kendall, 2014).

Why We Learn How to Form Relationships
Ken Tackett

In less extreme cases, children may be taken care of physically but still experience emotional or psychological neglect. If your parents did not have a good sense of what children can handle emotionally at different stages, or if they were too fragile or caught up in their own problems, you may have been left to deal with hard emotional situations on your own.

When a child’s successes, joys, problems, or concerns are met with indifference, lack of concern, ridicule, or other forms of insensitivity, the environment is invalidating (Yap, Allen, & Ladouceur, 2008). Invalidating environments dismiss or even punish a child when she tries to get emotional support for things that are important to her. Invalidating environments don’t have to involve physical neglect or abuse. When to all appearances, it seems that your needs were taken care of, it can be challenging to acknowledge or understand that your emotional needs were invalidated. However, being raised in an emotionally invalidating environment leaves children with difficulty regulating, or coping effectively with their own emotions (Shenk & Fruzzetti, 2013). Depression can be understood as a type of problem with emotional regulation (Yap, Allen, & Ladouceur, 2008).

Overinvolved parenting

If neglect is really bad, then overprotection must be really good, right? Not so. Although, overprotected children may be safer than neglected children from physical dangers, the psychological damage done to overprotected children can be severe (Epkins & Heckler, 2011). Trying too zealously to shield a child from failure or from all manner of risk can lead to a fragile child who wilts when faced with a challenge.

Why we learn how to form relationshipsParental overprotection sends the message that the world is an overwhelmingly scary and dangerous place that the child cannot survive without the parent’s constant vigilance. Of course, this is true—in infancy. The truth of that statement, however, gradually decreases as the child grows toward adulthood. Overprotective parents are not keeping their child’s challenges within an appropriate range any more than the neglectful ones. The message that overprotected children receive is that they are not competent, that they are helpless, that there is no escaping the parent’s rigid control, and even if there was an escape option, it is far too scary to contemplate.

This, like the neglected child’s belief that he or she cannot be successful because the world is too hard, is a kind of learned helplessness. Like the dogs exposed to a mild but uncontrollable shock, an overprotected child may come to believe that she cannot help herself and cannot function without the parent’s guidance (Otani et al., 2013; Overbeek, ten Have, Volleburgh, & de Graff, 2006). This goes against the goal of emotionally healthy parenting, which is to gradually prepare the child to live a full and mature adult life.

Emotional invalidation can also be a part of overprotecting families. The desire to individuate (or separate your identity) from your parents, and to gradually gain a measure of personal independence, is natural, healthy, and developmentally appropriate (Edwards, 2002). Families that discourage a child’s appropriate expressions of individuality and personal agency are effectively invalidating important aspects of their child’s emotional life (Barber, Xia, Olsen, McNeely, & Bose, 2012). Similar to the neglectful family environment, an overprotective environment in which the child’s own perspective, opinions, and desires are routinely dismissed breeds depression vulnerability (Meites, Ingram, & Siegle, 2011).

Critical parents

Why we learn how to form relationshipsThose who are anxious about being accepted and approved of by other people are usually very, very sensitive to any signs of being rejected by others (McDonald et al., 2010). This doesn’t appear out of nowhere. While some people may naturally be extra sensitive to negative feedback and may naturally react quickly and strongly to it (Gill & Warburton, 2014), there is usually some basis in real-world experience that creates this acute sensitivity to criticism and uncertainty about being accepted by others. Excessive criticism from parents, which is often part of depressed women’s experience, can have this effect (Epkins & Heckler, 2011). Like other parts of your implicit belief system, once your alarm system begins to go offͿ at the merest hint of criticism, it becomes resistant to change.

Underinvolvement with a child may lead a parent to callousness and lack of empathy. Overinvolvement with a child may lead to micromanaging the child. Either of these extreme parental positions may lead to excessive parental criticism. The neglectful parent criticizes because she is unable to empathize; the overprotective parent criticizes because she wants to shield the child from the consequences of making mistakes (Mills et al., 2007).

Why we learn how to form relationshipsWe cannot give what we do not possess. Parents who do not possess confidence and emotional maturity themselves will have a much harder time nurturing these qualities in their children. A parent who is critical and harsh may be preoccupied with personal problems or ignorant of what can be expected of a child at this developmental stage. She may be unable to imagine anyone else’s perspective but her own, and may take childish mistakes or ignorance as a personal insult. These are some of the common roots of excessive parental criticism, and they originate inside the parent. Unfortunately, children do take it personally because they are not yet sophisticated enough to see beneath the surface (Lawson, 2000; Mills et al., 2007).

Some parents may be unable to distinguish between the child and themselves emotionally. Whatever this type of parent dislikes about herself is punished in the child. She criticizes the child for not perfectly emulating the things about herself that she does like. She experiences her child’s problems with the same distress that she experiences her own. The child is expected to perfectly reflect her own desires and goals. Misconduct, especially in front of others, is a personal insult. The parent does not have an adequate understanding that the child is not just an extension of herself. She believes her daughter either proves or disproves her own worthiness. When her daughter goes off-script, this type of parent experiences anxiety. This anxiety then produces accelerated controlling behavior, including harsh criticism (Lawson, 2000; Mills et al., 2007).

Attachment quality

We have examined parenting styles and the effects they have on children. Now it is time to take a look at parent-child attachment relationships, the way the quality of these relationships impact development, and how they may be passed from generation to generation. The quality of attachment relationships is a primary component of family life, and influences the other aspects of parenting. This exploration will help you understand how a parent’s inner experience is transferred and transformed into the child’s experience, and begin to point the way to healing.

Why We Learn How to Form Relationships
Ken Tackett

Secure attachment

Healthy attachments tend to promote adaptation and resilience even in the face of hardship. When these healthy attachments are absent or spotty, this adaptation and resilience becomes harder to come by (e.g., Perry, Sigal, Boucher, & Paré, 2006). Experience with attachment figures becomes embedded in our psyche early in life in the form of internal working models, which are well developed systems of belief about ourselves in relationships with others (e.g., Johnson, Dweck, & Chen, 2007). Our underlying patterns of thought, feeling, and action flow from these internal working models, informing everything we do (e.g., Dimaggio et al., 2003).

The quality of the attachment relationship between baby and mother can be classified as either secure or insecure.

Why we learn how to form relationshipsAs they grow and become more mobile, securely attached babies are emotionally free to explore their environment, discovering everything that babies are supposed to discover about the world. Secure babies check back with mother when they become distressed, but in general, they expect that the mother is present to keep them safe and will be there whenever she is needed. She is a comforting presence and a safe harbor as the baby explores the world. Fortunately, most babies appear to have secure attachment to at least one person (Bokhurst et al., 2003).

Insecure attachment

Insecure babies don’t have the same level of confidence that they have a safe harbor. An insecure-avoidant baby is disturbed about separation, but does not check in with her mother appropriately and shuts down emotionally in times of stress. Mothers of insecure-avoidant babies tend to be uncomfortable with the child’s emotional neediness. These young children learn that the best way to keep the mother physically close is to suppress an indication of distress or need.

Why we learn how to form relationshipsChildren with insecure-avoidant attachment styles tend to develop patterns that keep others at a distance. These children begin coping at an early age with their mother’s discomfort with closeness by keeping their natural needs for closeness turned offͿ. Insecure-avoidant individuals continue to keep this system turned offͿ by distraction, which manifests as inattention and hyperactive behavior in early childhood and as defiance and conduct problems later (Chen & Li, 2009; Sroufe, 2013). These behavior problems keep others at arm’s length, which is the level of closeness within these individuals’ comfort zone.

Insecure-anxious babies, by contrast, are clingy and anxious about any separation. They spend a lot of time and effort seeking contact with the mother and not enough time exploring and learning. Mothers of insecure-anxious babies tend to be unpredictable and only sporadically responsive to the child’s needs. Sometimes such a mother is appropriately nurturing and sometimes not. The child learns to exaggerate signs of emotional neediness to get the mother’s attention. Anxiously attached children will later tend towards internalizing problems, such as anxiety and depression. This is because they are excessively preoccupied with monitoring and controlling the mother’s responses, which also requires a preoccupation with controlling and monitoring themselves. To control an attachment relationship requires you to stay one step ahead of the other person.

There are also some insecure babies that never develop reliable strategies to ensure their own safety. Known as insecure-disorganized, these babies become confused and chaotic when stressed. These children usually have a mother who is either abusive or who has unresolved wounds from being abused herself. She may have periods in which she dissociates, becomes enraged and violent, or otherwise behaves in an extremely frightening manner. Later in childhood, these insecure, disorganized babies may gravitate to either an anxious or an avoidant coping style, or may fluctuate depending on many factors (Lecompte & Moss, 2014).

Gender differences in attachment quality

Neither anxious nor avoidant attachment is truly specific to either gender. In infancy and toddlerhood, there have been no observed gender differences in the occurrence of either type of attachment insecurity. However, gender differences in attachment patterns do begin to emerge in middle childhood, with insecurely attached girls gravitating to the anxious type and boys to the avoidant type (Del Giudice & Belsky, 2010). It is relatively easy to see how these attachment patterns can be carried into adult life, causing relationship difficulties, such as the stereotypical “she wants more closeness, he wants more distance” pattern in troubled marriages. This emergence of gender differences during middle childhood suggests that the secure-insecure distinction is the primary way to understand attachment quality. Strategies for navigating close relationships may change according to factors, such as age, gender roles, and the emergence of new attachment figures, but it appears that the underlying security or insecurity usually remains stable (Del Giudice, 2008).

Anxiously attached girls

why we learn how to form relationshipsA pattern of intermittent or sporadic responding is one of the most powerful ways known to perpetuate a behavior. Effectively, if you are rewarded some, but not all, of the time, you will tend to try harder and harder until you do receive a response (Hogarth & Villeval, 2010). Anxiously attached girls are in relationship with others who intermittently respond to them, and so their preoccupation with getting other people’s love and attention is sporadically rewarded with success. This keeps hope alive and the preoccupation with relationships going. The ways that anxiously attached girls try harder and harder over the years to ensure that others are responsive to them becomes complex and deeply rooted in their ways of being in relationships. An anxiously attached girl begins to habitually view herself from the perspective of important others, overdeveloping her abilities to monitor herself and to conform to what she thinks others expect (Cutting & Dunn, 2002; Vliegen & Luyten, 2008). To stay one step ahead of others, she tries to anticipate what they are thinking and feeling, and to tailor her behavior to get what she needs and wants from them. Her own perspective becomes much less important than what others think or feel about her (Tan & Carfagnini, 2008). She may concentrate on seeking absolute merger with others to the exclusion of all other aspects of life, an impossible quest that leads to depression as hope of its success fails (Aubé, 2007).

Self as an object

Ken Tackett

Women with insecure attachment styles often develop a habitual way of stepping outside of themselves and, in the imagination, critically examining themselves from the perspectives of others. No life experience is completely entered into with abandon. Impression management becomes automatic, an overlearned response like riding a bicycle or signing her name. This way of self-perception from an external viewpoint develops very early and becomes a very fundamental part of the self. It is associated with the development of poor coping behaviors within intimate relationships. It is also associated with depression (Thompson & Bendell, 2014).

We live in a society where treating women and girls as objects is very common. When a woman or girl is objectified, she is not viewed by the other person as a human being with opinions, a mind, feelings, a soul, or even human rights. She is an object to be used. This can be seen in the phenomena of pornography, sex trafficking, and sexually based entertainment, such as strip clubs and topless bars. It can also be seen in the obsession our society has with a woman’s external appearance and youthfulness, almost to the exclusion of any of her other attributes (Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2010).

We tend to accept treatment from others that is congruent with our beliefs about ourselves. Therefore, it may be that self-objectification sets women up to accept objectification from others. While there certainly may be many women who find themselves in the position of being objectified without having done it to themselves first, if self-objectification is her deeply ingrained way of being, it will seem more natural for her to accept others treating her as an object (Riva, Gaudio, & Dakanalis, 2015). We attract and accept treatment that we believe we deserve (Evraire, Ludmer, & Dozois, 2014).

Responsibility

No one can completely control the responses of others, including intimate relationship partners and close family members. Other people have their own experiences that drive the ways they respond. Relationships always involve at least two people and so are never completely within one person’s control. When you feel completely responsible for a relationship that is only partially under your control, you will naturally have anxiety about it. You may become confused about what is and what is not your responsibility. Being stretched between two incompatible beliefs—I must and I can’t—is a double-bind, and it is like being on a medieval torture rack. If you have an overdeveloped tendency to scrutinize yourself in an attempt to get what you need or want in a relationship, you are on this torture rack. Unless something happens to interrupt it, this intensive self-monitoring and self-criticism can be just effͿective enough to keep you doing it, over and over again, year after year, decade after decade, and relationship after relationship.

Conclusion

Everyone reading this had human parents, and that means that nobody had parents who were encouraging and supportive all the time. This is part of the human condition and what it means to be part of a human family. Your unique personal make-up, as well your experience besides your parents, contributes to how sensitive you are to criticism, how resilient to failure, and how much importance you put on positive or negative feedback. Even your experience with your parents might have a lot of variation. One of your parents may have been absent, critical, or perfectionistic, while the other may have been present, warm, and emotionally available. Life circumstances, such as divorce, bereavement, job loss, or the development of illnesses, may have put great stress on the family. In such cases, your experiences of the same parent may have differed over time. If you had good experiences with your grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and even pets, and if you had the opportunity to forge bonds with friends, the effects of an inconsistent or frustrating parent may have been cushioned (e.g., Silverstein & Ruiz, 2006).

In store

This chapter began with the importance of human relationships and has circled back to those nasty double-binds that are so associated with depression. If you have recognized some of your own experience in this discussion, you are likely becoming more aware of your habitual patterns of experiencing relationships. Now it is time to move on into how these patterns can manifest themselves in your adult relationships.

This article is adapted from Perfect Mothers Get Depressed

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