How Early Childhood Relationships Influence Our Choice of Partners

child trauma

How Early Childhood Relationships Influence Our Choice of Partners

We are born with a set of basic relational needs – acceptance, affection, security, attention, appreciation, approval, encouragement, respect and support. When one or more of these needs are missing in childhood, the child learns to adapt their behaviour in an attempt to feel accepted and loved. 

Example 1 – a child that feels they are only loved if they perform and achieve to meet parents’ high expectations will strive for perfectionism as an adult and feel they’re constantly failing.

I worked with a young woman who’d had straight A* across all subjects at GCSE and ‘A’ Levels, and a first class honours degree from a prestigious university. She was offered a job with a firm in London and rapidly climbed the corporate ladder. She had reached the top and symptoms of stress and anxiety took hold. Despite her many attempts at stress management she eventually had a breakdown. During therapy she admitted her passion was art but she followed engineering to gain her father’s approval, which felt she never got regardless of what she’d achieved. She was engaged to a senior partner in a law firm and felt that she was a failure, a fraud and needed to call off the engagement because she was no longer what he’d signed up for.

Someone else under the same parental pressure may not know how to deal with stress, could easily become overwhelmed and retreat into an internal world to escape, or worse, consider suicide.  

Example 2 – in a chaotic household with fractious relationships, a child may take on the role of peacemaker, caretaker or helper to create harmony and gain parental love. 

I worked with a man who cared for his mother and 2 younger siblings from the age of 10. His father was a violent alcoholic and his mother was in a fragile mental state. As a child he believed that if he was good, did everything needed, his father would be happy and wouldn’t hit their mother. As an adult he was attracted to needy women and work environments where bullying and sarcasm were rife.

Other children in similar circumstances may feel so intimidated and insecure with their family environment, that they become anxious and fearful of the world around them. They carry that fear and anxiety into adult life and withdraw from participating fully in life.

Early childhood attachments to parents or primary caregivers are key to how we relate as adults. Child development psychologist Mary Ainsworth identified four stages of childhood attachment – secure, ambivalent, avoidant and disorganised. The level of emotional and physical attachment a child has with their parents will influence their behaviour in adult relationships as illustrated in the table below. 

Parent Attachment & Adult Relationships

Secure AttachmentSecure Relationships
Able to separate from parentsHas trusting lasting relationships
Seeks comfort from parentsHas good self-esteem
Prefers parents to strangersAble to share feelings with others
Ambivalent AttachmentAmbivalent Relationships
Wary of strangersDoes not form close relationships
Is distressed when parent leavesFears partner does not love them
Not comforted by return of parentDistraught when relationship ends
Avoidant AttachmentAvoidant Relationships
Avoids contact with parentsHas problems with intimacy
Does not seek comfort from parentsLittle emotion in love relationships
Shows no preference to parentsUnable to share feelings with others
Disorganised AttachmentDisorganised Relationships
Avoidant resistant behaviourChaotic inconsistent relationships
Dazed confused apprehensive Mixed behaviour patterns
Caregiver toward parentUnable to form close relationships

We carry compensated behaviours into adulthood and continue the quest to fill the psychological holes left by the unfulfilled relational needs. We look to our love partners to fill those holes in the hope we will feel better about ourselves and heal the early emotional childhood wounds. 

We move from one relationship to another repeating the same patterns of behaviour. Each relationship may appear very different on a surface level. Your current partner may seem to have totally different personality characteristics to previous partners. However, a number of traits surface regularly that you may not be consciously aware. The internal idealised image of your perfect partner is transferred to each relationship in the hope that this time you may have got it right.  

I work through these issues with clients and explore their early childhood history to help discover unhelpful relationship patterns and move towards healthier relationships.   

What positive qualities do you see in your parents?

What negative traits do you see in your parents ?

You may find that your current and past partners have a number of similar traits to your parents, both positive and negative. The characteristics you unconsciously choose in your partners reflect some of the traits your parents possess, whether good or bad. They are part of your comfort zone, what you know and have grown up with from early childhood. Those common traits are what you are attracted to and what you attract at an unconscious level. Attraction to similar types of people with particular characteristics is your way of recreating a part of your childhood in an attempt to fill your needs.  

I’m attracted to intelligent men with a sense of humour and I attract men who are absent or not present. I found it hard at first to accept that I’m a magnet for men who don’t want to commit or often space out. It’s easier for me to blame them for their personality traits and not see my part in it. I’ll talk about this a little later.

If you don’t like a particular attribute in your parents why do you keep on repeating the same pattern and attract the same characteristics in a partner?  

We look to our loved ones to fill the gaps our parents didn’t fulfil in the hope we will be able to fix it and feel better. In other words, we search for completion and acceptance. We also continue the negative traits either through the partners we select or through our own internal critical voices.  

Earlier I mentioned the type of men I attract and am attracted to – my father was an intelligent man with a sense of humour on a good day. Although he was a successful businessman, he avoided dealing with family issues and was frequently absent. Communication with him was sparse and intermittent, often leaving me feeling that he hadn’t listened. The men I choose as partners have all shown varying degrees of these traits. I attract these characteristics in men because unconsciously I’m searching for the love and acceptance I didn’t have from my father. Fortunately, through extensive personal development work and study I have been able to break the pattern and am now happily married to a wonderful man. 

Our unconscious mind is functioning with an old operating system and until we identify what it is, deal with it and upgrade it, it will continue repeating the same patterns. It’s hard at times to accept that what we search in a partner is the very same thing we don’t like, despise or even loathe in our parents. 

Exploring the roots of your relationship choices is not meant as a criticism of your parents, family or teachers for who they are or what they did. Parents always do the best for their children based on their own life experiences and childhood conditioning.

Avoiding dealing with painful issues and not acknowledging what’s driving your emotional or behavioural patterns will not help you move on. All of our avoidance strategies eventually fall apart. As excruciating as it may seem, exploring the roots causes will bring you more clarity about what changes you want.  

Avoidance is like having a house with subsidence that starts to show cracks on the walls. You can keep on filling the cracks, papering or painting the walls. One day you’ll need to face the fact that the foundations will need underpinning.               

Being aware of your partner’s negative traits doesn’t mean you have to trade them in or upgrade them to a newer model. Finding a way of accepting them, with all their quirks, will help you find a way forward in your relationship. 

If you relate to what you’ve read and would like help, contact Carla Devereux on 0121 745 9044 to book an appointment.   

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Psychotherapy delves deep into the root causes of your symptoms.  Psychotherapy in Solihull, encompasses a multitude of approaches, each offering a wide range of tools that help different people.