Attachment Theory

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

             A client once told me that the one thing he would have liked to know prior to starting therapy is that “your unbiased opinion you’re paying for is still biased, the therapist has their own take on life and that’s what they’re going to give to you in your sessions.” I agree whole-heartedly with this client. Each therapist pulls from different theories. The theories being pulled from, most likely, are easier to relate to for that particular therapist than other said theories. Attachment theory is just one model for therapists to use in order to interpret their client’s lives and work to guide them into improvement. 

            The basic theme of attachment theory, originated by Psychologist John Bolby, is based on the emotional bond we create with our caregivers. The emotional bond guides how we interpret the world and behave throughout our lives. There are four main attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, avoidant-insecure attachment, and disorganized-insecure attachment. The attachment styles picked up by the therapist can help them to conceptualize their clients and better guide them into making changes.

            The first attachment is secure attachment. This is the healthiest form of attachment and will most likely not be seen by therapists in a therapeutic setting. People who are securely attached tend to have a higher self-esteem, more confidence and independence, better social relationships, and usually experience less depression and anxiety. Securely attached infants will show a sign of distress at the onset of separation from their caregiver. However, after a short period of time will become accustomed to their new surroundings and feel assured that their caregiver will eventually return. Once the caregiver returns, the infant will show elation. In times of need, securely attached infants will seek the comfort, reassurance and guidance of their caregiver knowing that the caregiver will be able to provide what they require. Caregivers tend to be more responsive to the infants and tend to play more with the child.

            As the infants who are securely attached grow older they are able to show more empathy for others, are less disruptive and aggressive, and are seen as more mature than their piers who are not securely attached. As securely attached children turn into adults they are able to form longer lasting, healthier relationships. They are able to seek out social support when necessary, but are also able to work through most of their issues on their own due to higher confidence levels and self-esteem. Securely attached adults are able to assert themselves while also caring for others. They also tend to have healthy boundaries with others, and at the same time can share their emotions and thoughts in order to grow closer to others.

            The second attachment style is ambivalent-insecure attachment. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to this as ambivalent attachment from here on out. Ambivalently attached infants tend to become very distressed when their caregiver leaves and continue to be distressed. Upon the caregivers return, the infant continues to be distressed and is not comforted by the arrival. This may be caused by the lack of availability by the caregiver, as they are not consistent. The infant then distrusts whether the caregiver will return or not.

            As ambivalently attached infants grow older, they tend to be more clingy and dependent. They tend to be anxious in relationships and think that the other person does not share their same feelings.  This can make their relationships feel distant, often leading the ambivalently attached adult to break off the relationship. Despite having ended the relationship themselves, ambivalent adults become very troubled with the onset of another relationship ending.

            Another attachment style, avoidant-insecure attachment (again for simplicity sake I will refer to this as avoidant attachment), tends to be the most distant of all attachments. An infant who is avoidantly attached will not seek comfort or contact from their caregiver. In fact, the infant shows no preference toward their caregiver and a complete stranger. Often times, the infant will avoid their caregiver all together.

            Avoidantly attached adults struggle to make connections in relationships. They tend to invest little to no emotion or feelings into their relationships and therefore have little distress when, or if, the relationship ends. Avoidant attachment also affects the adult’s ability to comfort others in times of need. A partner may need support in stressful times; the avoidantly attached adult often times cannot provide this support. Avoidantly attached adults are more likely to partake in casual sex or think about others during a sexual encounter with a loved one in order to decrease the intimacy.

            The last attachment style for infants is disorganized-insecure attachment (referred to as disorganized attachment in this tip).  Infants who have disorganized attachment often look disoriented or confused. Caregivers tend to be a source of anxiety and fear for disorganized infants. Disorganized attachment is also caused by inconsistent behaviors and unreliability from the caregiver and therefore distrust on the infants’ behalf.

            As disorganized infants grow older their relationships tend to be precarious. These adults have been frightened by their caregiver and therefore react in unpredictable, confusing, and erratic behaviors to stressful events in their relationships. When recalling information about their relationships, disorganized adults are unable to make sense of the events. Often, disorganized adults have fragmented stories and find it difficult to regulate their emotions through self-soothing techniques.

            In knowing what the different types of attachment are, you can now start to recognize what your own attachment style is. Therapists use attachment theory to help clients identify their weaknesses as well as strengths within relationships.  The therapist can then help the client to explore how these strengths and weaknesses are being played out in their relationship and what they can do to make improvements if secure attachment has not yet been obtained.