How our Childhood Experiences affect our Adult Relationships

Published on July 24, 2013

Our childhood teaches us how to relate to others.

Adult romantic relationships rely on using the patterns of relating we learn in infancy. Counsellors are trained to help us to deal with complex psychological issues which are damaging to our close relationships. Therapeutic approaches like relationship counselling, draw on psychological attachment theories. These theories relate directly to the key dynamics of relating.

The Function of Attachment

Infants of 12 months and younger are much more likely to socialise with other children, when their caregiver is also present. If an infant is separated from the caregiver anxiety is often experienced. This is reflected by the infant’s behaviour. The infant begins looking for the parent and distress tends to build until the two individuals are re-united. These behaviours are thought to be adaptive as they seek to re-unite the vulnerable child with the parent.

Different Patterns of Relating

Mary Ainsworth investigated how styles of attachment learned during infancy, affect individuals throughout adulthood. During her work with infants and mothers, she devised a way of way of studying these relationship patterns. Ainsworth studied 12 month old infants with their mothers. Her observations led her to discover the following attachment styles:

1.     Secure

2.     Anxious-resistant

3.     Avoidant

When infants were securely attached, they became distressed when separated from their mothers. As soon as they were reunited with the parent, they were comforted and the distress passed shortly. Anxious-resistant children seemed to suffer more distress from the separation. When reunited with their mothers, they took longer to comfort. The avoidant group didn’t appear to be distressed at all by the separation. When the mother was reintroduced, the infant avoided them. These children turned their attention to objects lying around the room, such as toys.

Attachment during Adult Life

Styles of attachment, like those identified in the Ainsworth study, continue into adult life. When this attachment theory is applied to adults, the relationship styles look more like the following:

1.     Secure -Securely attached adults tend to be secure in the knowledge that their partner is there for them, when support is needed. These individuals are dependable, while at the same time they are comfortable relying on others.

2.     Anxious-resistant -Adults who fit this mode tend to suffer with feelings of insecurity. They can worry that their partner doesn’t love them enough, or alternatively they feel their partner is unable to love them the right way.

3.     Avoidant –These individuals often avoid depending on others. They can seem distant or aloof at times.


Psychological data shows that, for 70-80% of people, attachment styles learned in childhood do not change during adult life. A study by Walters, Weinfield and Hamilton presented in their paper The Stability of Attachment Security from Infancy to Adolescence and Early Adulthood carried out assessments to discover how negative experiences with a “caregiver” in childhood might affect attachment styles during adulthood. They found that in some case, relationship styles can change in adulthood. Typically, changes to attachment style are affected through a combination of positive relationship experiences and therapeutic interventions. Examining your attachment styles in a relationship can enrich the understanding you share. Increasing knowledge will enhance your time together.

Relationship Counselling Issues

The success of adult romantic relationships depends on the level of satisfaction experienced by each partner. Statistically, people with secure attachment styles tend to express a greater level of satisfaction in their relationships. Securely attached people find it easier to foster good communication with their partner. However, being securely attached doesn’t mean your relationship will be problem free.

Couples visit a relationship counsellor to work through any of the following common relationship issues. These are:

·       Communication problems.

·       Feeling that they need more support from their partner.

·       Finding there are few hours left in the day to spare for spending quality time together.

·       Difficulty solving problems together.

·       Disagreement over roles within the home.

Relationship counsellors offer a space to work on vital relationship skills, fostering good communication and empathy between partners. Therapies aim to reduce any distress felt by either or both partners during this process, while any issues are resolved. Personal issues are addressed while a stronger relationship is built for the future.

If you live in Sydney, contact us on 8205 0566 to book an appointment with a relationship counsellor in your area.

Category(s):Communication Disorders Problems, Couple Counseling, Emotional Intelligence, Family of Origin Issues / Codependency, Family Problems, Marital Counseling, Parenting, Personality problems, Relationships & Marriage, Self-Love

Written by:

Joanna Fishman

Joanna Fishman is the director of Associated Counsellors

Joanna Fishman belongs to Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney CBD in Australia