Attachment: 5 Common But Unhealthy Relational Patterns


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What were your thoughts when you read this article title? You might believe that attachment has nothing to do with mental health but it most certain does. In fact, some people believe that topics about attachment only have something to do with newborn babies or toddlers. But the reality is that attachment is a natural phenomenon that occurs in every human relationship and begins during the first few years of life. Some people believe that attachment begins as early as in the womb between baby and mother. Our early life relationships often set the stage for how we will function within future relationships and will affect the boundaries we employ in each relationship. Research has suggested that healthy boundaries often include the ability to attach and detach when appropriate, foresee relational dangers, and employ appropriate boundaries. Unhealthy (or poor) attachment includes the inability to be independent when necessary, high levels of fear and anxiety when separated from a relationship, and very poor boundaries. This article will discuss how poor attachment correlates to unhealthy relationships in the long-run. This article will also highlight 5 unhealthy boundaries, often found in individuals with personality disorders or trauma histories, that we all should be aware of.

One of the most beautiful realities of being human is that we were all pre-programmed to bond with others. From the beginning of our lives to the end of our lives, bonding is a natural phenomenon. It is something that is desired throughout the generations and something that we cannot live without. For those people who are “people-persons,” bonding is a wonderful piece of life. For those people who are, like myself, loners and introverts, bonding is still something we desire, although at a different level. Even pets desire to bond. What is life if we don’t connect to each other? I am only aware of only two groups of people who truly could live without bonding and that would be sociopaths and narcissists. But for the most part, life exists so that we may bond together. In fact, bonding is a necessity for infants to grow, learn, and develop the appropriate developmental skills to survive as a growing human being.

As a therapist, I have had the opportunity of working with a wide range of clients and presenting concerns. One of the main issues, aside from borderline personality disorder and trauma, that I receive on my desk includes individuals who are struggling with appropriate boundaries and having their needs appropriately met in their current relationships (primarily family relationships). When a client feels that his or her needs are not being met, the individual will likely engage in behaviors that will result in their needs being met. For example, an adolescent girl who feels like the “blacksheep” in the family will most likely begin behaviors such as cutting or attempting suicide, sexually inappropriate behaviors, substance abuse, or some other risky behavior that will alarm adults which will result in receiving attention. Once that adolescent feels they are receiving the attention they “deserve,” their negative behaviors become a pattern because the behavior has been reinforced by the attention received. A trip to the emergency room can easily become a repeated “tactic” that some individuals use to obtain attention from others. Just making statements such as “I would be better off dead” or “I might just kill myself” are easy ways for emotionally needy individuals to receive attention. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should ignore such statements, but we should consider the motivation behind these statements.

It is important that I also mention that behaviors we might believe are attention seeking isn’t always attention seeking. Some individuals thrive on drama and will often engage in risky behaviors to receive a “high.” For drama-seekers, that “high” is like a drug and what gives them a “high” might include self-injurious behaviors or getting others concerned about their safety. Some individuals lack so much insight into their own attention-seeking behaviors that they don’t believe they are purposely behaving as they are. There is often no accountability. In many cases, families must come together in a therapeutic setting to bring awareness to the severity of a client’s poor boundaries and relational patterns. Sadly, an individual suffering from borderline personality disorder, other personality disorders, or psychotic disorders often develop inappropriate relational patterns that not only affects their future, but everyone else’s.

As a result, it’s important that we are able to identify the negative relational patterns that often characterize individuals with poor boundaries, poor personal insight, and poor judgment. There are 5 poor relational patterns or boundaries that I have noticed as being most common to individuals with poor attachment:

  1. Becoming too close too soon: Many of my previous clients with BPD traits, often teenagers, struggle with maintaining appropriate boundaries. A relationship that may have started out rough or may have started out too friendly, too fast are often relationships that end in smoke (and flames). I’ve had many teens/young adults say to me “we didn’t like each other at first but now we are really, really cool…I can tell her anything” or “I know I have only known him for 2 hours but we are meant to be together forever. I love him.” Relational patterns that are too close too fast should send up red flags. It’s okay to connect with people and enjoy connecting with new people. But red flags are raised when someone is too emotional or connected too fast with nothing but shallow engagement.
  2. Being clingy, not loving: This is somewhat similar to my statement above, but it’s a tad different because a clingy person can come across as loving and concerned. I have known adolescents who accuse their parent (mother or father) of dating many people and claim, after 10 weeks together, that they cannot live without this person. Their emotions are ten times what they normally would be and the person believes that their connection with the other person is somewhat “divine.” While I (and many others) believe people are preordained to be with certain people in their lives, this kind of person is shallowly engaged in the relationship. There is a delusional element to their emotions which often appears disproportionate to reality. While love can be very strong between two people, healthy love is developed over time and is not “blinded” by shallow attractions (physical appearance, prestige, style, etc). A person who is extremely clingy is a needy person who is trying to meet their needs with a relationship that will never be sufficient. Think back to the beginning of this article when we discussed attachment. A child who has been deprived of his or her mother’s love can certainly grow into an adult who is desperately seeking for love in all the wrong places. Unfortunately, many people are labeled “irresponsible” because of their choice of many partners, living style, or emotional chaos. But the reality is most likely that they are starving for a connection they were never able to experience.
  3. Overidentifying with strangers: Do you know someone like this? Perhaps it’s your family member, a friend, or colleague. Or…perhaps…it’s you. These individuals often find themselves attached to people who show them the slightest amount of attention (a smile, a caring gesture, offering their help, etc.) and may eventually come to believe that all of their encounters are closer than they really are. Individuals such as this are starving for a powerful emotional connection that will put them in the position of a “child” and the other person in the position of “a parent.” I have had clients who have desired a close relationship with a parent so much that they began to view all of my therapeutic interactions with them as parental and all of their interactions with me as child-like. The reality was that I was being sucked into their emotional neediness. It is important that therapists maintain appropriate boundaries so that the individual will not feel let down or “abandoned” when therapy is terminated or when the therapist cannot be present. I’ve known therapists who have had clients who have gotten upset with them for taking a vacation, getting married, or coming to work with a baby-bump. Client’s truly attach to their therapist (if the therapist is good to them) and may over-identify with them and ultimately get hurt. Individuals like this are seeking love in all the wrong places and may eventually find a person who lacks boundaries themselves and will be emotionally hurt in the long run.
  4. Going to great lengths to be close to anyone perceived as positive: Have you seen individuals who just seem overly connected to people with perceived power? These kind of individuals feel connected to people who hold some kind of power such as police officers, mental health therapists or psychiatrists, other doctors, actors, musicians, famous designers, professors, supervisors, etc. That “power,” which is often perceived and not real, causes the individual to either become romantically attracted to the person or believe that they can receive some kind of love or affection from this person. Individuals with this skewed relational view often become stalkers.
  5. Getting sucked into the status quo: Individuals who tend to lack an identify, level of self-confidence, or a belief in their own abilities often seek for people they can mimic or emulate. Many of the adolescents with poor self-image often identify with singers, actresses, teachers they admire, or peers they respect. These individuals, which often include adults as well, get sucked in by the latest fashion trends and feel stressed or overwhelmed when they cannot look the way they ultimately want to look. Such individuals might pursue surgery to fix “flaws,” spend a lot of money on fashion or make-up, pursue friends or love interest that are attractive, drive modern cars, or make a “lifestyle” out of pursuing things that will keep them looking good and up-to-date with everyone. Individuals like this are often seeking some sort of relational validation and is compensating with shallow things.

As you can see, individuals with poor attachment can often grow into needy, emotionally hungry adults. However, it is important for me to also mention that individuals, who have a poor attachment history or traumatic history including abuse or neglect, don’t alway become needy, emotionally starved adults. Some children or teens are very resilient and are able to bounce back as adults. Early therapeutic intervention, adoption or foster care with healthy adults, or great levels of personal insight often provides a layer of protection for individuals who are at risk for developing unhealthy relational patterns.

What’s your experience with unhealthy relational patterns? Know someone like this?

As always, I wish you well