Have you ever wondered why do we keep falling in love with people who are bad for us? Or why do certain people stay with partners who are unkind, inattentive, and even abusive?
Usually, it all comes down to attachment — the emotional bond that is formed between an infant and its caregiver and impacts the former’s behavior in relationships.
I’ve already written multiple times about Bowlby’s attachment theory. This time, we’re gonna explore attachment from a different angle: Konrad Lorenz’s imprinting theory.
Konrad Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist/ethologist/ornithologist, who, gifted with the power of understanding the animal world, made some pioneering contributions to ethology by studying animals.
One of the things he investigated were the mechanisms of imprinting in animals, e.g how some species of animals form an attachment to the first large moving object they set their eyes on.
His findings’ value lies in the fact that they can be used to explain in a very simple way how attachment works in humans.
Let’s dive right in.
A Groundbreaking Experiment
In one of his experiments, Lorenz removed several eggs from a goose’s nest and kept them until they were about to hatch out. Then, he put half of the eggs with a goose mother, and the other half were put to hatch in an incubator. Lorenz made sure he was the first moving object the latter saw.
The result of this experiment was the following: the first group of goslings identified the goose as their mother, whereas the second group identified Lorentz as their biological parent, following him around like the first group did with the goose.
To validate his findings, he later put all the goslings together under an upturned box and allowed them to mix. When he removed the box, the two groups separated to go to their respective ‘mothers’ — half to the goose, and half to Lorenz.
The Theory of “Imprinting”
Lorenz’s findings were seized upon by psychologists studying human behavior and a specific common, yet painful tendency of humans: seeking out and getting attached to people who might not be appropriate for them.
When it comes to attachment, infants are like newly hatched goslings: they develop powerful attachments to the adults who are closest to them in their early days.
Unfortunately, just like geese, as babies, we are unable to understand, examine or choose between our caregivers.
We end up getting attached to the person who’s closest to us, even if that person is bad, immoral, and unable to fulfill our needs. We could be as well drawn to someone who is:
- emotionally unavailable
The problem is that, as we grow up, this early imprinting influences our choice of partners and therefore, the quality of our relationships and love life.
If our caregivers were cruel and abusive, there’s a high chance we’ll only be attracted by and form relationships with people who are cruel and abusive as well. If our caregivers were inattentive and didn’t meet our emotional needs, chances are we’ll be drawn by emotionally unavailable partners throughout our lives.
That’s why it’s important to explore our childhood and understand our attachment style: so that we can change our habits, develop a more secure (healthy) attachment style, and ultimately, improve our love life.
You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Your Attachment Style
An adult who has been imprinted with wrong ideas about what it means to be loved and cared for might spend years, even decades attaching themselves to the most inappropriate romantic partners.
Lorenz’s experiment and his imprinting theory show that behind our choice of romantic partners lie deeper reasons that can be traced back to our childhood.
It’s not that you like falling for emotionally unavailable people or abusers. It’s just that you are imprinted to follow them, even if you know, deep down, how bad they are for you.
And that’s not something that should make you feel guilty. You need to remember that as an infant, you never had a choice as to whom you would get attached to. Unfortunately, you don’t choose your parents (or caregivers) and you can’t change their behavior or how they treat you.
Honesty, I probably will never stop reading, talking, and writing about the importance of our attachment style in our love lives.
If someone who wanted to improve their relationships and love life asked me what’s the most important thing they could do, I would, without hesitation, tell them:
“You need to study, explore, and understand your attachment style.”
Some of the things that studying your attachment style can do for you, is to help you increase your self-awareness, understand why you keep dating the same people, get in tune with your emotions and realize where they come from.
And remember, with time, patience, and hard work, you can work on your attachment style and develop a more secure one.