Attachment: A Closer Look

attachment theory

Do you remember the first three years of your life? This period most of us don’t remember. This is when we learn how to attach to our caregivers; it sets the groundwork for our relationships for the rest of our lives.  Attachment is defined as the deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969). During the 1950s, when attachment theory was just developing, hospitals caring for babies on neonatal units were concerned about keeping their units sterile. To keep infections out, they would not allow the parents on the units and the nurses would be the ones primarily responsible for infant care. There were not enough nurses to care for all the babies, which resulted in many becoming ill and even some passing away. We know now, this is because babies are not born with the ability to self sooth and we learn this skill from our primary relationships. Hospitals, now informed with this research, have parents and volunteers come to their units to hold and sooth babies to meet their needs. 

When our caregivers are attentive, supportive, consistent, loving and available, we develop what we call secure attachment. The general belief with this attachment style is that “relationships are safe and a place for me to get my needs met”. Given what we know about addiction being an attachment disorder, in that we struggle with knowing how to self sooth, most of us who happen upon this disease are not securely attached. We may have had parents who worked a lot, were preoccupied, or had their own addiction/mental health issues, which lead to feelings of abandonment and anxious/preoccupied attachment. The belief here is “people leave” or “I only get my needs met inconsistently in relationships” and often leads to frantically seeking relationships. This can manifest into codependency and love addiction in the desire to defend against having to be alone. For those whose parents were void of noticing or validating, this leads to dismissive attachment. These are the “emotionally unavailable” people. The belief here is “I don’t need people; I can only depend on myself”. This attachment style is often seen in sex addiction, where sex has more to do with power and control and seeking to avoid true intimacy/closeness at all costs. Last, when caregivers were a combination of styles, this leads to disorganized attachment or a combination of anxious/preoccupied and dismissive. This type tends to struggle the most in that they feel the desperate need for relationships but feel utterly unsafe while in them. So, it can feel impossible to get their needs met. 

How does this show up in adulthood? We are attracted to what is familiar to us unconsciously; in that we replay the pattern of our childhood again and again until we realize this pattern and seek to change it.  As much as we say we might desire a stable, loving relationship, if this was not provided or modeled to us growing up, it is likely that we find it to be uncomfortable and aversive. If we did not learn how to bond, how to process emotions, how to share parts of ourselves and get our needs met (intimacy), these things are likely terrifying to us. We often attract partners with the same traits that were within the parent whom we had the most conflicted relationship and recreate this trauma bond. 

While we may know rationally that we want something healthy, we can be addicted to the highs and lows that occur in these relationships through intermittent reinforcement. One reason domestic violence relationships are so difficult to leave is because when your partner behaves lovingly one time out of one hundred, the brain latches on to this and says “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” or “they DO love me”. This is the most powerful form of reinforcement and leaves the victim “hooked” on the potential of what could be but we know likely never will. One positive reframe of why these things repeat, is we are repeatedly given new opportunities to heal. What we don’t heal, we repeat.

So, how does one go about healing their own attachment? Finding a trauma therapist who understands attachment and building a relationship with them is the first step. The relationship in therapy is the most important aspect and predictive of positive outcomes. Together, you will learn how to finally self soothe and calm the child part of you that never learned how to tolerate emotions and intimacy. Connecting with and caring for this inner child through guided meditation or Internal Family Systems (IFS) can help you to re-parent yourself. Changing your belief system about yourself and relationships through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can help you unlearn beliefs like “all people are untrustworthy” or “all people leave”. With EMDR and IFS, new positive support systems can be installed and help reduce distress in parts of your subconscious most affected by trauma. Yes, this takes work and cannot be accomplished overnight, but your childhood need not define you for the rest of your life! We all deserve to attract and enjoy relationships where we feel safe, feel seen, and our needs are met in healthy ways.   

Written by: Julie Jones, LPC-S, LCDC, CES-1