Attachment Theory in Therapy Use

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Relationships are both beneficial and necessary in the human experience but the way that a person connects with or attaches to others can be linked to numerous aspects of their experience in both positive and negative manners. Attachment styles have been reported as one of the earliest elements of a person’s development (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Berant, 2013). This suggests that relationship difficulties, as well as mental health issues, can be traced to the attachment styles that are formed during youth and adapted through experiences.

Type of Relationships Formed

According to Martin (2017), relationships can be evaluated based on three primary styles of attachment:

  • Secure attachment – which can create solid and stable relationships in which the individual is comfortable in expressing their needs and being emotionally intimate.
  • Avoidant attachment – a more isolated state whereas the individual needs to spend a great deal of time alone and, as the name suggests, avoids intimacy to the point of pushing others away if the relationship begins to feel too intense.
  • Anxious attachment – inconsistency in relationships as the individual may plead for attention but resort to avoidance at a moment’s notice. These individuals are usually considered to be clingy but do not maintain stable relationships because of this inconsistency.

Martin (2017) adds that these styles are formed through the parent-child relationship and dictate relationships into adulthood. The type of attachments we form affect the individual not only in their relationships with others but also in their confidence in themselves (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). The results showed that secure attachment supports balanced relationships while dismissive attachment showed difficulties in expressing emotions. 

The relationship we develop as children with each parent can form the type of adult relationships we develop. If both parents were loving, kind and attentive; our attachment style is normally healthy and balanced. If however we had one or two parents that were dismissive, withheld affection and we lacked attention, then we may experience ongoing attachment issues as an adult. Our attachment style is developed when young and while we can make adjustments with ongoing attentive, kind and affection partners there may remain remnants of issues from our childhood. Looking carefully at the individuals’ genealogy can provide us with considerable information.

Discussion of Events

Attachment is formed when the caregivers are attentive and consistent in providing for the individual’s needs. In adulthood, this can be achieved through a strong relationship with a partner or other interpersonal relationship. Dismissive, preoccupied, and avoidant are all three imbalanced attachment styles. This occurs when the caregiver in childhood or previous relationship has been distant or unresponsive. This leads to the feeling of being overwhelmed when a relationship partner attempts to be more attentive.

Finally, fearful and anxious attachment styles occur when the caregiver was inconsistent. The individual is unsure as to whether or not the intimacy will be there on a consistent basis so they become needy and clingy while still staying at such a distant that they feel safe from the anticipated dismissal.

Application to Therapy

The type of attachment the client has developed can be determined by a simple conversation, or interview, regarding their expectations of a relationship. It is possible to determine how their attachment style is affecting their current relationships as well as their difficulties in pursuing their life goals. According to Schimmenti and Bifulco (2015), the events in childhood related to the development of attachment styles can be indicative of mental health disorders such as anxiety into adulthood.

Recognising the type of client’s attachment will allow the practitioner to gear the therapy towards addressing the events that led to the development of these disorders. The origination of the attachment style is the primary source for the origination of effective therapy (Mikulincer, Shaver, Berant, 2013). If the root of the attachment style can be determined, then the process of therapy can effectively be directed to the root of the inability to establish healthy relationships in adulthood.

Recommendations for Therapists

It is important that the practitioner has a comprehensive understanding of the different attachment styles, the context of assignment of these styles, and the associated events that have been attributed to these styles in order to determine the best course of therapy for the client. The attachment may primarily form during childhood but a variety of relationships may have shifted the attachment style from one domain to another by providing, or failing to provide, a dynamic of secure attachment. Therapy can be individualised to reach the best possible outcomes for the client. It is critical that the client is comfortable in the discussion of their relationships as well as any recognisable events that may have altered their attachment styles as the ability to form an effective relationship with the practitioner is critical to their therapy. Approaching the onset of relationship issues without being aware of these attachment styles can be detrimental to the best outcome for the client.

Do you understand the style of developed attachment of your clients’ relationship issues?

References:
Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(2), 226
Martin, S. (2017). There are only 3 relationship attachment styles – Which is yours? Your Tango.
Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Berant, E. (2013). An attachment perspective on therapeutic processes and outcomes. Journal of Personality, 81(6), 606-616.
Schimmenti, A., & Bifulco, A. (2015). Linking lack of care in childhood to anxiety disorders in emerging adulthood: the role of attachment styles. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 20(1), 41-48.

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