The Minimalist Guide to Internal Working Models: How Early Experience Shapes Later Relationships

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Early life experiences can shape our later relationships and our emotional profiles. 

Upset that you inherited their father's nose? You may have gotten his trust issues as well.

Internal Working Models of Relationships

Your internal working model refers to how you see the world and predict events. An individual's internal working model of relationships is formed in response to the type of care they receive early on. In essence, early attachment changes how you come to see your later relationships and the amount of trust you have for partners. It can also be passed down through generations because it changes how people respond to their own children.

Minimalist Guide to Attachment Security

Attachment security is usually fostered when parents or caregivers respond consistently to a child's needs, so that the child comes to trust they will be safe and cared for. If a child doesn't end up trusting that their needs will be met by people they care about, this model of relationships may stick with them through later life and change their ability to attach to partners in adulthood. 

How you were treated as a child leads you to expect that type of treatment in the future. As an adult, not only will the behaviors you saw be expected, but they will likely be seen as normal; and normal behaviors are more likely to be continued in relationships with children and romantic partners alike. This matters because the behaviors you see as "normal" may not necessarily be conducive to mental health or healthy relationships. 

If early trust was not a part of your experience, later trust that someone will meet your needs may not be either. In our highly social species where isolation is distressing, the belief that others cannot be relied upon is a pretty stressful place to be.


However, new connections may be formed through consistent loving attention. Unfortunately, this can be a challenge for those with less than ideal internal models of support. 

Attachment, Partner Caregiving and Physical Closeness

Attachment style may affect relationships due to the way it alters caregiving behaviors, and not only when caring for children. In one study published in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," researchers found that those with altered attachment had less motivation to assist their romantic partners, even in cases where the need for support was obvious 1. This may be due to the internal belief that their efforts would not be reciprocated because of early experience. 

Early attachment style may even affect how comfortable you are with physical closeness, according to research published in "Attachment and Human Development" 2. This study found that those with early attachment issues sat further away from others and had more difficulties with proximity. Due to the interplay of physicality and attachment to romantic partners, this is a pretty big deal. It's hard to attract a mate when being close to them is uncomfortable.

"I think I might be into you, but please....sit over there."

Attachment relies on touch, a throwback to primate grooming. Regardless of what you experienced in early childhood, new experiences can prime the brain for healthier relationships, just as practicing physical closeness may be able to make the experience less uncomfortable. Either way, hugging has little downside as long as you have a receptive partner.
Holding your partner after work = awesome. 

Reaching out and touching some dude on the subway = not cool. (Well...maybe cool, but be advised he may not be wearing pants.)

Related Posts:



Topic-Relevant Resources

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.