Early experiences have an important role to play on everyone’s personality development and behavior and also determines the choices. It also characterizes attachment styles and patterns, adults with different attachment styles differ in how they perceive things and take decisions.
Your attachment style and degree of individuation determine your partnership choices and relationship satisfaction. The process of individuation—becoming an individual—allows you to meet your needs for both attachment and autonomy necessary for healthy relationships.
It starts in the first year of life, as we learn that we’re separate from our mother and that we and other people, each have our own thoughts, feelings, needs, perceptions, and boundaries.
Margaret Mahler studied mother-child dyads and identified how we separate from our earliest caregivers and developing autonomy and identity to become an individual. This allows us to develop our true selves.
Mahler concluded that separation-individuation depends on continued attachment to a responsive caregiver. This allows a child to develop a stable sense of self and others by integrating fluctuating internal states and frustrating and pleasurable aspects of another person.
Whereas Mahler studied the task of separating, John Bowlby developed attachment theory, also based on early child development, but which focused on how attachment defines our sense of self and others.
The two theories overlap, and attachment is affected when we have difficulty differentiating from our first caretaker. Both Bowlby and Mahler agreed that a mother’s consistent and understanding attitude is critical for child development.
As we grow, other people at home become important and impact our sense of security, self-esteem, and later adult relationships. Autonomy is best achieved when separation from our parents is conflict-free and they’re seen as supportive and nurturing. Separation marked by guilt, resentment, and anxiety is associated with insecure attachments.
Object Constancy And Splitting
To separate from our mother (or earliest caretaker), as infants we must make sense of contradictory feelings of love and hatred toward her and develop a cohesive view (“object constancy”) of ourselves and others, meaning that we internalize a steady image of ourselves and our mother.
When parenting is deficient and we’re unable to integrate good and bad feelings and aspects of our mother, the result is called splitting, first coined by Freud. To cope, we mentally split the good and bad mother into two contrary representations.
Splitting keeps the “good” and loved aspects of our mother separate from the “bad” and hated aspects of her. This impairs object constancy and our ability to fully develop autonomy. Splitting affects us internally and confuses us. It creates turmoil in close relationships and is associated with an anxious attachment style and fears of abandonment.
For example, splitting impairs your ability to remember that you love your partner when you’re angry or that your partner is dishonest when you feel close. Splitting contributes to idealization and devaluation.
Then you react to your projection rather than reality. You might take impulsive action, such as breaking up or cheating, all the while denying the ensuing heartache stemming from your love and need for your partner. Conversely, you may deny or forget about abuse when your partner is flattering or apologetic.
When separated, you may not be able to recall your partner’s positive or negative traits. If you have an anxious attachment, you may imagine your girlfriend is losing interest or that your boyfriend is flirting.
You feel compelled to frequently text or seek reassurance. Not only is it difficult to stay emotionally connected to your partner when apart, but you may also conjure up negative characterizations that are abusive, ungratifying, or abandoning, which feel very real until you again talk or see each other.