What is Attachment Theory and Therapy?
Updated: Sep 5
Attachment Therapy is a therapeutic model that helps people who are struggling with the effects of trauma, abuse, or neglect that happened in their childhood. When this happens in someone's childhood, it can affect the way they interact in social relationships and with themselves throughout their life. Attachment Therapists work to help people overcome the negative effects of these traumas so they are able to live more fulfilling lives.
Attachment Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that originated in the 1980s. It utilizes emotionally focused interaction to help individuals learn how to deal with feelings of attachment, which typically occur with issues such as abandonment. Attachment Therapy therapists will employ certain techniques to help their clients become more confident in their abilities and build stronger relationships.
Four main types of attachment have been identified: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized.
The main premise of Attachment Therapy is that we form an attachment with our primary caregiver as infants and this relationship serves as a template for all other relationships we have throughout life. If our parents are good caregivers, they will help us develop secure attachments which will serve us well in relationships throughout our lives. On the other hand, if our caregivers are neglectful or abusive, we will be likely to develop insecure attachments which can cause problems later in life including depression and anxiety disorders.
Brief History of Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby and then further developed by Mary Ainsworth. The theory explains the nature of emotional bonds between
humans and it forms the basis for research on infant-parent relationships. This attachment style formed in infancy/childhood can have lifelong impacts on how we create connections and build relationships with others as adults.
According to this theory, attachment is an instinctive bond that develops within the first two years of life, becoming especially important in times of stress or threat.
Bowlby’s work began in the 1940s when he worked with children who had been separated from their parents during World War II. He realized that many of these children experienced psychological problems as a result of their separation from their parents, even when they were eventually reunited with them. This led him to investigate how early childhood experiences affect future development.
Bowlby developed his theory based on observations of infants and toddlers who were separated from their mothers for long periods of time during World War II. He noticed that infants who had not formed a strong emotional bond with their mothers would develop serious psychological problems upon reuniting with their mothers at the war’s end.
Bowlby's work led to the development of attachment theory by Mary Ainsworth, who studied infant behaviour in Uganda with her husband Robert Ainsworth. In order to test Bowlby's theory, she developed a series of experiments based on his ideas, which were later revised and expanded by herself and other researchers working at the University of London Institute of Child Health (now part of Great Ormond Street Hospital). Four main types of attachment were identified: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized.
What are Attachment Styles?
The four types of attachment are secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized. Learning about what attachment style you are can help you better understand your needs, desires, and reactions as adults in relationships. Finding ways to better understand these patterns in therapy can help one better move forward in their adult relationship, better manage and understand why certain thoughts, words, behaviours from others may hurt you more than you expect it to, and overall find closure towards the past so that you can better plan and create your own desired future.
1. Secure Attachment
Secure Attachment is characterized by the child having a sense of trust that his or her parents are available and responsive to their needs. Securely attached children feel comfortable with intimacy and playfulness in their relationships with caregivers. They also have a sense of predictability in their interactions with caregivers.
What Secure Attachment looks like in adulthood: Securely attached adults tend to have friends, partners, and family members they feel comfortable with. They are able to turn to these people when they're feeling stressed or upset and know that they'll be there for them. The secure style is associated with a positive self-image and the ability to self-soothe. These people are not dependent upon others to make them feel good about themselves — they don't feel the need to be constantly validated by others' praise or approval. People with a secure attachment style tend to be confident in their ability to manage their emotions and relationships, which means they're less likely than other people to become clingy or anxious in new situations.
How can Therapy Help? One of the main goals of attachment therapy is to help folks move towards more positive and secure attachments with the safe people around them, while findings ways to manage and create boundaries with those that are unsafe for them to be secure around. For those already with a secure attachment, learning and unpacking the attachment styles of others around you in therapy can help you better deal with, cope with, and set boundaries with those in your life that may struggle with attachments and boundaries.
2. Insecure-Avoidant Attachment
Insecure-avoidant attachment is characterized by children who are uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy with others. These children tend to be distant from their caregivers and may avoid physical contact with them. In some cases, they may behave in ways that make it difficult for others to get close to them (e.g., they may act rudely or aggressively). They do not seek comfort when they are upset or hurt and do not express sadness easily when they are sad or frustrated. They usually prefer to play alone rather than interact with other children.
What Insecure-avoidant attachment looks like in adulthood: Insecure-avoidant attachment style is the least common of the four styles. Adults with this attachment style often have trouble developing close relationships. They may be reluctant to open up to others and may feel uncomfortable getting close to other people. People with an insecure-avoidant attachment style tend to avoid emotional intimacy and conflict in their relationships. They are also less likely to seek support when they need it, which can make them feel isolated and alone. Insecure-avoidant adults may also have difficulty trusting others. They may worry that they will be rejected if they get too close or if they reveal their true feelings.
How can Therapy Help? For Insecure-Avoidant attached individuals therapy can provide a safe space to explore why distant feels like the instinctual choice for them. Your therapist will work with you to better understand why you react to relationships the way you do in a non-blamining and non-shaming space. The goal of therapy for an insecure-avoidant attached person would be to find the different ways to change and challenge our day to day behaviour to better build more intimate and secure relationships while having a safe space to explore personal emotions more intimately… Perhaps for the first time ever.
3. Insecure-Ambivalent Attachment
Insecure-ambivalent attachment is characterized by children who experience strong negative emotions toward their caregivers (e.g., anger or anxiety) but also desire closeness and intimacy from them at the same time (e.g., "I hate you! Come back!"). These children tend to be clingy but also push away caregivers by reacting in anger or ambivalence. They may find themselves very much desiring closeness and intimacy but pushing away each time it is offered to them.
What Insecure-Ambivalent attachment looks like in adulthood: People with this attachment style tend to have a hard time trusting others. They often feel insecure in relationships and can be very sensitive to rejection. As an adult, an Insecure-ambivalent attachment style means you may be afraid of commitment because it brings up feelings of abandonment. You might also find it difficult to trust others because you're afraid they will leave you like your parents did when you were young. People with this attachment style tend to want more affection than they're willing to give in return. They may try too hard to please others and put their own needs aside in order to keep the peace.
How can Therapy Help? For Insecure-Ambivalent attached individuals, therapy can be a space to better sort out the intensity of emotions being felt. Better understanding the intrinsic need to be loved and accepted while at the same time experiencing almost automatic reactions of pushing others away can be deeply frustrating. You and your therapist would work on better understanding the push-pull cycle, and how it has affected your relationships with others, and start to find and try out different ways towards working closer to developing a secure attachment with others. Sometimes just having the safe space of therapy itself could be a strange new encounter, a ‘dress rehearsal’ for what a safe and secure attachment could look like and find the ways to apply it to the real world.
4. Insecure-Disorganized Attachment
Insecure-Disorganized attachment is identified when a child has an ambivalent/disorganized response. This means that the child may show both fearful and avoidant behaviors towards their caregiver. The child will typically have a difficult time regulating their emotions and they may have trouble physically engaging with their caregiver.
What Insecure-Disorganized attachment is like in adulthood: A person who has an Insecure-Disorganized attachment style may be very insecure in their relationships with others, especially romantic partners. They may feel like they can’t trust people or they may have trouble opening up to them because they feel like they will be abandoned again. They may also have difficulty regulating their emotions when something stressful happens because they haven’t learned how to do so from their caregivers. People with this pattern of attachment tend to be anxious, depressed and angry most of the time due to their past experiences with caregivers who either neglected them or hurt them in some way.
How can Therapy Help? Therapy can help someone with an Insecure-Disorganized attachment style by helping them develop healthy relationships with others. Having someone to turn to when times get tough can help improve self-confidence and make life less stressful overall. Therapy can help those with this attachement style work towards creating more secure attachments and help them understand what it means to have a secure style of attachment. Your therapist will also help support you in developing close relationships with others in your life who have secure attachments so that you can learn from other securely attached folks and also find the safe people in your life to create better relationships with.
Interested in learning more? Ready to find closure towards the past so that you can better plan and create your own desired future? Take a look at our team to see who offers attachment therapy and/or book a free 15 minute consultation with one of our therapists now!
Still want more? Here’s a helpful video about attachment styles!
Judy is the founder and clinical director of Your Story Counselling Services, A private practice clinic in Vaughan Ontario servicing individuals, couples, and families across the Greater Toronto Area. As a Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor, Judy is passionate about creating
change and making mental health services more safe and accessible to the public. Judy believes in working collaboratively with others so that they can get back to themselves and their preferred way of life and living.
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