In this blog post I want to introduce you to something called attachment theory. It has a central role in how I often practice psychotherapy.
The most basic idea of attachment theory is that human beings are deeply and inherently social. This means that our need to belong is only slightly less important than eating and drinking, and in some cases more so. This theory also says that our need to feel deeply connected to at least one other human being is not something that we grow out of in adulthood, but rather something that remains a basic existential need through out our lives. According to attachment theory, when we know that there is at least one person who has our back, this provides us with what attachment theory guru John Bowlby called “a secure base”. From this secure base we are more able to venture out into the world and explore, to grow, because we know that we will always have that person to return to when we need them.
Attachment theory also suggests that the attachment related experiences we have when we are children have very strong impacts in how we relate to emotional closeness and for how we go about trying to meet our attachment needs. In line with this idea, people tend to have one of four primary attachment “styles”.
Many people have a primarily “secure” attachment style. These are people who are able to tolerate both a healthy degree of closeness and a healthy degree of distance in their primary relationships. This allows them to bond successfully with their significant other, while at the same time not becoming overwhelmed by anxiety when distance or conflict temporarily appear in that relationship, as they occasionally do in any healthy relationship.
A significant minority of people tend to primarily demonstrate what is called a “preoccupied” attachment style. For these people closeness and proximity feel good and reassuring, but any distance or tension in their primary attachment relationship is very anxiety provoking. As a result, it is common for people with this attachment style to aggressively pursue their significant other for reassurance whenever some normal tension or distance appears in the relationship. Unfortunately, it is also very common that the intensity of this pressure for reassurance can inadvertently cause the partner to feel overwhelmed and to back further away, which causes the preoccupied partner to become even more anxious and therefore to pursue more, etc etc. In this way, a destructive pursue-withdraw pattern can come to dominate the relationship.
Another significant minority of people tend to primarily demonstrate what is called an “avoidant” attachment style. For these people distance and less emotional intensity feel comfortable, while closeness and intimacy can feel overwhelming. For someone with a primarily avoidant attachment style the anxiety that they feel in response to emotional intimacy can make it very difficult for them to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough with their partners to allow a secure base to truly form between them. People whose attachment style is strongly avoidant often end up feeling deeply alone, because the very thing that they need in order to feel safe in the world (close connection with another person) is also something that they find strongly threatening.
And finally, some people primarily demonstrate what is called a “disorganized” attachment style. For these people both closeness and distance from their significant other can cause strong anxiety at different times. Therefore, depending on the particular situation, people with this attachment style end up alternating between avoiding closeness when it is being offered, and over striving for closeness when it isn't available. As a result, relationships can become a source of confusion and overwhelm for people with this primary attachment style.
Now that I have laid them all out, there are a couple of things that I want to say about these four attachment styles.
The first is that each one makes perfect sense as a way of coping with a particular kind of environment growing up. Coming to understand your own primary attachment style and the ways in which it made sense as a response to your world growing up can offer strong feelings of relief and self compassion, and a stronger feeling of “making sense” to yourself. If we worked together, developing a compassionate understanding of the development of your primary attachment style is something we would likely do together.
The second, and the more important thing, is that attachment styles can be changed, or at least be made to become more flexible and functional. In fact for many of my clients this is one of the central goals that we work on together.
In my work it is a common and wonderfully satisfying outcome to watch one my clients become more flexible in their primary attachment style. For example, when a client with a predominantly preoccupied attachment style learns to regulate the anxiety of separation well enough that they no longer cause conflict in their relationships through excessive reassurance seeking. Or when a client with with a predominantly avoidant attachment style learns how to be more emotionally vulnerable with their loved one, even though this is still scary thing for them. Or when a client with a predominantly disorganized style learns how to do both of these things, so that their relationships can become less confusing, less conflict ridden, and more satisfying.
So, if you do end up working with me it is likely that we will talk together about what we believe your predominant attachment style is, about the ways in which it developed, about how it currently serves you, and about how you can learn to change it in those areas where it no longer does serve you.