Attachment refers to a person’s ability to form emotional bonds and empathetic relationships with other people. It is a process that starts at birth and that is impacted by the quality of the first emotional bond an infant develops with his or her mother or primary caregiver as he or she makes his or her needs known.
“Attachment-based therapy isn’t a concrete, step-by-step prescription. Instead, it’s fluid and organic. To see actual progress, it’s important to adopt a ‘go with the flow’ attitude, come with a sense of openness, and be aware things might get painfully difficult before they get better. … It’s a deep process, but it’s so worth it.”
– Caroline Fenkel, DSW
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory describes the way the emotional bond between mother and infant develops, and the attachment style to which it leads. The theory was formulated by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby following the extensive studies he conducted on babies’ interactions with their parents and how they attached with them.
Bowlby posited that the way a person learns to form and maintain relationships later in life is contingent on the interactions he or she had with his or her mother during early childhood. He said a strong attachment to a parent or primary caregiver in infancy is a basic necessity for healthy growth and development.
Adults who did not have a strong attachment foundation in infancy are more likely to be fearful, confused, and insecure, and to have a hard time expressing their emotions and forming meaningful relationships with others.
Four attachment styles.
Based on his research, Bowlby came up with four attachment styles:
Secure attachment is the ideal form of attachment. It lays the foundation for stable, positive relationships in adulthood. A person with a secure attachment style likely had a safe, trusting emotional bond with his or her mother or primary caregiver during infancy. She was sensitive to his or her needs, was prompt to meet them, and provided consistent and reliable care.
As an adult, he or she has a positive view of him or herself and others, feels well liked, and expects the best. He or she feels secure in his or her close relationships and trusts that loved ones will be there for him or her when he or she needs them to be.
A person with anxious attachment likely had a mother or primary caregiver who either failed to meet his or her needs during infancy, or was slow or unpredictable in doing so. As an adult, he or she is likely to have a hard time forming intimate bonds with others or trusting those close to him or her.
He or she craves intimacy and has a need to feel wanted, but does not feel secure in his or her relationships and fears being abandoned. His or her anxiety level is high, and he or she requires frequent reassurance that his or her loved ones care about him or her. If he or she doesn’t get it, he or she may believe the other person is upset with him or her and is going to leave him or her.
A person with an avoidant attachment style is likely to have had a mother or primary caregiver who was insensitive to his or her needs during infancy, who ignored his or her efforts to have them met, and who was emotionally unavailable. As a result, he or she grows up to be an adult with deep-rooted trust issues and conflicting feelings about relationships and intimacy.
He or she is uncomfortable with closeness, and tries to protect him or herself from getting hurt by striving to be independent, self-sufficient and distant in his or her relationships. This makes it hard for others to support him or her or to feel close to him or her.
A person with a disorganized attachment style was likely exposed to early childhood neglect, abuse, and/or traumatic loss. As an infant, he or she may have been physically and emotionally dependent on a parent or primary caregiver who was also a source of fear. As an adult, he or she is prone to extreme emotional instability that causes his or her relationships to be chaotic and full of ups and downs as he or she seeks closeness, but then pushes people away.
Attachment-based therapy (ABT) is a form of counseling based on Bowlby’s attachment theory. It specifically targets the maladaptive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors a person has learned as the result of his or her early attachment wounds that are interfering with his or her ability to form meaningful relationships as an adult.
The goal of ABT is to enable the client to overcome the impact of these negative early attachment experiences through a client-therapist relationship focused on developing trust and open expression of emotions. Once a bond has been formed between the client and the therapist, counseling can help him or her rebuild trust and equip him or her with the necessary tools and strategies to enable him or her to build strong, supportive relationships going forward.
An important note: Attachment-based therapy should not be confused with attachment therapy, which is a controversial, potentially harmful, and abusive treatment that was developed in the 1970s as an intervention for children with behavioral challenges, and that promotes questionable methods such as physical restraint. It has since been investigated and rejected by conventional medicine and psychology.
Common techniques used in adult attachment-based therapy.
Building rapport. Studies indicate that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is key to a positive outcome. An important first step is for the therapist to build rapport with his or her client through the use of techniques that foster trust and openness and lead to a secure bond between them.
This enables the therapist to become a temporary attachment figure who takes on the functions of a nurturing mother. As the client internalizes the therapist’s warmth and sensitivity, it gradually becomes an internal resource upon which he or she can draw for strength and support.
Assessment. The therapist gathers information about the client’s early childhood, such as his or her relationship with caregivers, in order to identify early attachment wounds that may still be impacting him or her at the present time, as well as to assess his or her attachment style.
Psychoeducation. The therapist explains the importance of early attachment. He or she provides the client with information on how experiences that disrupt the normal bonding process between an infant and primary caregiver can lead to insecure attachments that have long-lasting effects which carry over into adulthood.
Providing insight. The therapist helps the client unpack and identify childhood experiences that have led to his or her attachment style. The client will gain insight into how they are impacting his or her current communication patterns and relationships.
Building resiliency. The counselor shows the client how to tap into his or her inner resources in order to manage stress and anxiety by regulating his or her emotions and responding to stressful situations in more effective ways.
Learning self-compassion. Adult attachment-based therapy includes repairing the client’s relationship with his or herself through being non-judgmental and compassionate towards himself or herself and using positive, encouraging self-talk instead of harsh self-criticism.
Learning to communicate. The therapist helps the client understand the connection between his or her current feelings and behaviors and his or her early childhood experiences, and helps him or her communicate more openly.
If you have questions or would like to set up an appointment with one of the faith-based counselors in our online directory, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.
“Attachment-Based Therapy,” Psychology Today, July 28, 2022, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/attachment-based-therapy.
Li, Pamela. “Bowlby Ainsworth Attachment Theory—How Does It Work.” Parenting For Brain. Updated October 25, 2022. https://www.parentingforbrain.com/attachment-theory/
“Mother and Child”, Courtesy of Hollie Santos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Roman Kraft, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting Man”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Anxious”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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