A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: Why you keep dating the wrong person

Understanding through self-reflection, and sometimes some professional help, can make a world of difference to how we see life and our partner's behaviour. Photo / iStock
Understanding through self-reflection, and sometimes some professional help, can make a world of difference to how we see life and our partner's behaviour. Photo / iStock

Often clients tell me they always seem to choose the same type of partner with similar and disastrous results. Of the many things that can wreak havoc in a relationship, considering the way we attach to those we love can create a focus and get rid of a lot of confusion.

Attachment is the glue that keeps us together, as John Bowlby, eminent British psychologist, substantiated in his work last century. His influence on psychology changed the way that child development is viewed and it is well known that, as day follows night, our adult relationships are influenced to a great extent by our childhoods.

It's all about survival. Nature has ensured our brain chemistry is highly sensitive to patterns of attachment laid down in the first two years of our lives. So before we blame our partners for every problem we seem to keep encountering in our relationships, it's useful to have a look at what else might be going on in the mix.

It seems we all fall into broad categories of attachment style. According to American researchers Hazan and Shaver at the University of Denver, six out of 10 of us are secure, two out of 10 are avoidant, and another two out of 10 are anxious in our attachment styles.

If you are the beneficiary of a secure attachment style, in other words, if you grew up with at least one parent who was sensitive and responsive to you, meaning they were highly attuned to your emotional life, then security and safety will have laid down territory for a healthy and straightforward attachment style.

On the other hand, anxious attachers, in all their desperation to form a bond, will look - with a somewhat complex wish list - for the person who will rescue them, or complete them. Of course nothing is black and white, and honesty dictates that we fully recognise that everyone has some anxiety informing his or her relationships. But anxiety translated into clingy behaviour creates an almost self-fulfilling prophecy.

So many times I have seen this behaviour in one partner resulting in inadvertently pushing the other partner away. And thereby creating the very result that was dreaded. The resultant moving away from the clinginess then becomes the "proof" to the anxious attacher that the anxiety was justified.

Meanwhile, the dismissive and avoidant attacher is often seen in people who live a very inward life, who seem to detach easily and who deny the importance of loved ones. These people are quite often described by their partner, or themselves, as "unable to commit". And that lack of commitment can be very painful to both partners. It can be attributed to many reasons - but again a look at early life influences is likely to hold key clues.

Then we have those who are very ambivalent in their attachment styles. With a lot of unpredictability, they swing from closeness and a drive to get their needs met, back to a corresponding but opposite fear that if they get too close they will be hurt. This is very confusing for their partner.

And just to make it all more intense, often those with the pronounced attachment styles, such as avoidant or anxious, will seem to seek out the very partners who trigger this behaviour. The avoidant woman and the intensely anxious man I saw in my practice recently were trapped in an endless dance of advance and retreat with a lot of fear and frustration.

Dr Bruce Perry is a recognised world authority on impaired brain development in children who suffered trauma in their first three years.

Unsurprisingly these children struggle with cognitive developmental delay as a result of missing a window of opportunity in their psychological development. It is a truth proven by biology that we need to be securely attached first before we can become smart.

How true this is for us as adults too. If something doesn't "feel" right in a significant relationship, it becomes very difficult to concentrate and feel rational. Magnify that a hundredfold if you are talking about relating to the anxious or avoidant attachment style.

The good news though, is that our brain is designed to promote securely attached relationships - and our ability to self reflect works in tandem with this design. Because we can self reflect, we don't have to stay stuck in patterns.

Take Molly, who lived in dread that her husband Matt was cheating on her, and abandoning her. Matt loved Molly deeply but felt he could not any longer bear the interrogations and scrutiny that occurred every week. Molly was able to examine her childhood patterns of attachment and realise that anxiety, like a big, black uninvited crow, had settled on her marriage.

With courage, mutual support, and professional input, Molly and Matt worked through the problem and understood it as separate from the rational reality of the love they felt for each other. Molly learnt to distinguish between facts and feelings and to understand the patterns of childhood influence.

Whilst the effort to be conscious is hard work, it is worthwhile every time. Sadly, not everyone can manage this, and not everyone has a partner who can wait patiently for this process to take place.

But understanding through self-reflection, and sometimes some professional help, can make a world of difference to how we see life and our partner's behaviour.

There are a lot of competing theories out there to explain what happens and why in our closest relationships. Genes, gender, economics, culture and social pressures all play their part and mold and influence how we perceive behaviour.

But if you find yourself caught in a repetitive dance, then it might well be worth having a look at attachment styles and the impact of early life influences.

- nzherald.co.nz

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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