As humans, we are social beings; learning to have healthy relationships with friends, colleagues and family is an important part of our mental and physical wellbeing. Our comparatively big, sophisticated brains evolved to solve social problems and help us to exist safely and comfortably in complex social hierarchies. No matter how much we may have learned to be independent, we are social creatures, and we do most things in groups.
Western culture teaches us that we are individuals, and that as adults, we don’t need to depend on others to meet our own needs. But how true is this? How many humans live happily as hermits, without contact with others? Are you able to do everything you need to do to make and prepare your own food, without any help from others? When you are injured or unwell, do you rely on the assistance of specialists to get you better? When you are angry or sad, do you talk it through with somebody, find someone to laugh with, play sports with or give you a hug?
Interdependence is natural to humans – we are individuals, but we thrive in communities, with social contact with other people. Loving relationships are a basic need for all human beings.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby to explain human infants’ tendency to form a close emotional bond with one or more caregivers, in order to ensure their safety and social development, and to help them regulate emotions.
Infants seek out their caregivers when they feel unwell, frightened or upset, and the caregiver assists them to settle and feel better. The quality of the infant-caregiver relationship – that is, how in-tune the caregiver is with the infant’s needs – has an important influence on the infant’s attachment style, which may endure into adulthood.
The ability to form emotional bonds and empathic, enjoyable relationships with other people, especially close family members. Insecure attachment early in life may lead to attachment issues and difficulty forming relationships. Because early intervention often proves most effective, children who shows signs of attachment issues may benefit from speaking to a therapist.
Research into attachment reveals two dimensions of attachment: Anxiety and Avoidance.
High Attachment Anxiety is characterised by worry about the availability of caregivers. People with high attachment anxiety have hyperactivation of the attachment system, which means they have a tendency to rely on others for security and emotion regulation.High Attachment Avoidance is characterised by a discomfort with intimacy, deactivation of the attachment system, and excessive self-reliance to regulate emotions.
Understanding Attachment Issues
The attachment bond, or an infant's first bond with the primary caregiver, generally the mother, is essential to later attachment. A weak attachment bond can result in both social and emotional developmental disruptions. Attachment issues typically result from an early separation from parents, lengthy hospitalization, incidents of trauma, instances of neglect, or an otherwise troubled childhood. These issues may have an affect on a child's ability to form healthy, secure attachments later in life. Attachment is related to trust and empathy, and when attachments are not developed early in life, a child may not learn to trust and may not develop a conscience.
Studies show that between 35% and 45% of all children experience some kind of attachment issue, while approximately 35% of adopted children have been diagnosed with an attachment disorder. Many of those who develop attachment issues are never diagnosed or treated, so the actual number of children affected is unknown. Attachment issues are more likely to develop in maltreated infants, primarily due to neglect or the child being moved from one caregiver to another. Prolonged institutional care, long-term hospitalization, or other separation from parents might also lead to the development of attachment issues, as can inconsistent behaviour from caregivers.
Signs of insecure attachment may include:
- Avoidance of eye contact.
- Avoidance of physical contact.
- Rejection of touch or attempts at emotional connection.
- Frequent, inconsolable crying.
- A tendency to self-comfort.
- A lack of interest in toys or interactive play.
How Psychotherapy Can Help with Attachment Issues
Attachment issues that are left unresolved can interfere with the ability to maintain relationships of any kind later in life. Children who have attachment issues can often benefit from therapy, as in therapy they may be able to learn what healthy relationships look like, explore ways to form constructive bonds with caregivers, and develop ways to cope with the symptoms that resulted from their early attachment issues.
Adults who have never addressed problems with attachment and who see the result of attachment issues in their lives might, in treatment, identify and explore early losses, grieve for the childhood bonds that were not experienced, and gain closure while learning how to develop healthy attachments and accept love, if they have difficulty doing so. Through therapy, adults who have experienced attachment issues may become able to build stronger bonds with friends, children, and partners.
How To Develop Healthier Attachments as an Adult?
The first step is to do what you’re doing right now: learn about attachment, and think about your own attachment style. Are you frequently anxious about abandonment in your relationships? Do you avoid close relationships? Do you feel confused and disorganised in your approach to close relationships?
Notice what you’re like in your relationships, and whether you feel comfortable and supported or not. Think about your close relationships, and what attachment styles your loved ones may have.
If you feel distressed in your relationships, then seeking therapy may help you. Establishing a securely attached relationship with a therapist can provide you with a secure base from which you can go on to explore and experiment with other relationships in the world.
Goals of Therapy
- Provide a secure therapeutic environment
- Explore the way you engage in current relationships
- Explore the relationship with the therapist as an example of general attachment style and pattern
- Use of transference as a way of understanding past attachment style with significant others from childhood
- Review how current attachment patterns may reflect past experiences.