Childhood experiences on adult relationships

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Bowlby in 1969 proposed the internal working model which suggested that early childhood experiences would determine the adult relationships that child would have in the future. Infants primary attachment style is carried through into adult life so would expect the same expectations in later relationships. Shaver et al suggested three behavioural systems that are acquired in infancy which are attachment which is related to Bowlbys research, care giving where infants learn to care for each other through modelling the behaviour of the primary attachment figure and sexuality systems which is learnt in relation to early attachment so an individual with avoidant attachment will be more likely to hold the view that sex without love is pleasurable.

In some extreme cases a child’s internal working model leads them to develop an attachment disorder which means they would resist or reject the mutual intimacy of loving family relationships. Often these disorders occur due to abuse and neglect during infancy which has led to them not developing a close relationship with someone who can comfort and reassure them. Springer et al. in 2007 found that individuals who experience physical abuse have negative effects on adult psychological functioning; they are more likely to report depression and anxiety than non-abused individuals. In terms of sexual abuse, research has shown that those individuals find it most difficult to from healthy relationships in adulthood.

When experience of both kinds of abuse occurs in early childhood, Alpert in 1998 found that the ability to trust people is damaged and there is a sense of isolation from others. Fraley in 1998 conducted a meta analysis of studies between childhood experiences and adult relationships and found correlations of 0.10 to 0.50 (?), reason being perhaps that insecure-anxious attachment is more unstable. However the certainty over the stability of the attachment types is unclear as it could be that an individual’s attachment type could be determined by the current relationship which is why happily married couples are secure.

The attachment theory does suggest that significant relationship experiences may alter attachment organisation. Kirkpatrick and Hazan in 1994 found that break ups were associated with a shift in attachment type from secure to insecure. In 2006 Berenson and Anderson provided support for the claim that abused children have a difficult time developing adult relationship when they studied a group of women who had been abused in childhood. They found that those women displayed negative reactions towards certain people who reminded them of their abuser and concluded that this process of transference could lead individuals abused in childhood to use inappropriate behavioural patterns in their interpersonal relationships.

Moreover Simpson et al. In 2007 conducted a longitudinal study over 75 years with 75 participants who were assessed at 4 different key stages; infancy, early childhood, adolescence and adulthood. His findings supported the claim that the type of relationship that occurs in adulthood can be related back to a person’s previous earlier social development. Participants who were securely attached at the age of 1 went on to be rated having higher social competency and at the age of 16 having close friendships with peers. Finally in adulthood these individuals became more expressive and emotionally attached to their romantic partners.

This theory can be criticised as being reductionist as it only focuses on the attachment types of the individuals and not any other factors that may affect adulthood relationships such as individual differences and life experiences. Overall there seems to be a large amount of evidence to back up this theory that early childhood experiences determines the type of adult relationship that will develop.

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