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 self.
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.