Attachment is an irresistible, enduring force that cannot be avoided. Whether we are aware of our personal style or not, it is always in operation. Behind the curtain. Alternatively, behind the scenes. The doors are always available for business. It influences our personalities, relationships, and worldviews.
Every single human being walking this earth has developed some type of attachment during infancy to their primary caregivers and that attachment effected all subsequent relationships throughout schoolage, adolescence, early and late adulthood.
The way our primary caregivers related to us during the first few years of life have a profound effect on whether we develop secure, anxious/ambivalent, or avoidant attachment styles; secure being ideal. Unfortunately, traumatic events during this earlier part of life puts the person at risk to develop anxious/ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles which are not healthy and secure. Traumatic experiences in the form of abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, etc) and/or neglect. Other examples are frequent relocations, abandonment, and anything that produces instability and unpredictability in the child’s earlier years. The diathesis-stress model and vulnerability stress models can scratch the surface of explaining how some people are more vulnerable to develop psychological issues later in life; a complex mix of genetics, biology, psychology, environment, and personality. And there seems to be no way to measure how much of each aspect is at play. For some, plenty of positive compensatory experiences later in life can”fix” or “reverse” some of the damage and distrust the trauma caused and people can become better adjusted. But for many others, that shows very difficult and the effects plague them intensely throughout their entire lives.
This brings me to a concept I ponder about often and which holds personal meaning to me; the parent/primary caregiver as the “idealized image”. Children have an inherent need and longing for a positive and secure attachment with primary caregivers. They want to connect, attach, be heard, have their needs met, feel like they belong, and feel safe and loved. This is extremely important for a child to receive during infancy and childhood in order to develop secure attachment in remaining relationships throughout their lives. This breeds an expectation from the parents/primary caregivers to provide the aforementioned. But what if they can’t? What if they don’t? What if instead, they impose abuse and/or neglect, producing converse feelings of fear, lack of love, pain, and distrust?
Parents/primary caregivers are after all, only human.
Parents/primary caregivers are after all, only human. Becoming biological parents does not automatically make them better people suddenly best equipped for the role. It does not take away their own earlier traumas or demons, any symptoms or illnesses they carry, and certainly does not automatically change their personality. If anything, the added stressor and pressure of parenthood can be an exacerbating stressor. Based on this postulation, they then do not fulfill their inherent role of “ideal” image. They can actually be a “decent” image which is probably what most parents are. But with imposed abuse and neglect, they are neither. They are supposed to represent and model the first experience of all that is good and safe in the world and show the meaning of love. If not a primary caregiver, then who?
This creates a great deal of discord and perplexity for the child, as their concept of affection and safety is formed in accordance with their everyday experience. It is abusive and/or neglectful to be adored and protected. To be adored is to experience suffering and mistrust. It is not surprising that many people maintain toxic relationship patterns throughout their lives, often without realizing it, as it is their norm and they subconsciously seek out similar experiences with others. Awareness, education, and rehabilitation would be required to alter these ingrained beliefs. To redefine what is a healthy attachment, and what it means to feel safe, loved, and to trust. Such corrective experiences are amazing but not a guarantee as responses in the adults will still vary because we must factor in the human themselves and what emotional resilience they bring.
As these newborns, kids, teens, and eventually adults become older, a lovely process takes place. I refer to it as disenchantment. Each person’s timetable and speed will be different. Parents or primary caregivers, if still in the person’s life, can be recognized for who they truly are after the cognitive ability is attained and after numerous experiences in the relationships via an adult lens. Their true character and issues are shown like a ray of light. a new perspective.A breakthrough. Most individuals have both good and bad attributes, thus they are sometimes wonderful, sometimes sad, and frequently a mixed bag. What occurs next, though?
Some continue to idealize regardless. Others keep a greater distance and set strict boundaries. Some are able to forgive and even impart pity as a result of their disillusionment while others harbor anger and resentment regardless; no excuses. It is important to know that either scenario is okay.
Unhealthy relationship patterns are reflective of insecure attachments developed earlier in life.
Another lovely process I’ve witnessed develop in person therapy rooms is clients digesting broken prior attachments and attempting to make sense of it all while battling with current relationships.
Despite traumatic experiences with abuse or neglect, those who uphold the “idealized image” are desperate to comprehend what happened and why, as if to justify the actions taken, to offer justifications so that they can feel good about forgiving them, so they can uphold the position of the “idealized image,” to be able to trust their own thoughts and feelings. Because if the parts of the puzzle don’t come together this way, what can people believe?
People often reflect and recount positive experiences and character traits of the troubled caregivers, feeding the idealized image. At the core, people want to hold their primary caregivers on a pedestal and keep perceiving them as ideal. It is probably a psychological need to feel stable and founded. One thing is certain; it is a whole new world once children grow up and see their parents/primary caregivers for who they truly are.
Author: Aleksandra Gold, LCSW