How one’s relationship with caregivers early in life impacts later behavior
By Kristine Keller
Downtown dating is like the root canal process—painful while you’re going through it but the end result leaves your sensory nerves feelin’ good. And sadly, there’s no quickie fix for that painful pearly white procedure. There is, on the other hand, a fast way to land suitors in the date-o-sphere, which is why a bevy of singletons have discovered the allure of speed dating. Like most first conversations, speed daters might ask “so, what do you value most in a relationship?” to which a secure person might respond “honesty and loyalty.” There are those who take a different approach in their answer: “I value a partner who calls and texts 20 times a day, Instagrams a picture of me and my dog in the morning, faxes me at night, and pins my face all over his Pinterest in the afternoon.” Reeling from that, the person sitting across might then snap fast and yell “NEXT!”
During a recent speed dating exercise, psychologists noted that a process known as attachment could explain interactions of this sort. Attachment theory maintains that a relationship with one’s caregiver early on in life largely determines one’s social and developmental upbringing. Those raised in reliably nurturing environments with caregivers who responded to their every need grow up “securely attached.” When these infants were hungry, they were fed; when they cried, they were shown consistent care and attention. As a byproduct, these infants grew into secure and trusting adults. The kind of adult you want sitting across from you during a lighting fire round of “How many times do you expect your boyfriend or girlfriend to call you in a day?”
Those raised under the roof of unpredictable caregivers who exhibited inconsistent care might become “anxious-ambivalent attached” adults. These children came from caregivers who were at times interested and warm, but then unavailable and distant. We have these unpredictable caregivers to blame for the stage-five clinger. Anxious-ambivalent adults are excessively needy, clingy, and constantly need validation and approval from others. They also demand constant communication with their honey for fear of abandonment—and aren’t afraid to be upfront about it during first rounds of speed dating.
Lastly, there’s the “avoidant attached” person, whose caregiver rarely responded to their distressed calls and ignored their needs entirely as infants. It’s the avoidant adult who eschews intimacy entirely due to failing to form an emotional bond with one’s caregiver early in life. It’s also the avoidant-attached person who is at risk for developing severe interpersonal problems, like lack of empathy, callous, unemotional responses and other psychopathic symptoms. A caregiver’s sensitive and responsive nature towards children serves as a model for empathy in a healthy reciprocal relationship. Without this model, children who didn’t form a secure attachment with their caregiver fail to develop the skills for a healthy functioning relationship. This person might be cold and aloof at a speed-dating jaunt having only shown up at the coercive prodding of pushy friends.
When it comes to these speed-dating soirees, NYC daters are quite savvy and intuitive when making judgment calls. Those deemed “securely” attached adults by psychologists were more favorably rated by potential suitors. Unsurprisingly, those categorized as insecurely attached were given poorer marks. The good news is that these styles of attachment can change depending on our interpersonal experiences in life. Just as a bad breakup might make a securely attached dater turn anxious-ambivalent, a positive experience could turn an avoidant-adult into a diehard romantic. And lucky for us—it’s easier to change an insecure style into one that’s secure than vice-versa. So daters of every attached-type, take heart—we’re never done evolving and changing. And eventually one of these quickie-dating episodes will blossom into a longer-term affair and if anything, that’s something everyone can feel security from.
Kristine received her master’s in psychology from NYU. She currently works at Vanity Fair. E-mail her at StreetShrinkNYC@gmail.com for questions.
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