Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month
June 2001
By Joyce Parker, Ph.D.

Adult attachment is an important new way of looking at adult intimate relationships. It helps to clarify so much about our emotions and reactions in relationships. It suggests a more comprehensive explanation for the way we connect with important others, why it is so difficult to disconnect, and the intense feelings surrounding separation and loss. Attachment Theory is a developmental theory that encompasses the life span. John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, formulated the theory shortly after World War II. He recognized that attachment is instinctual. Infants are predisposed to seek proximity with significant others and to form affectional bonds. Attachment provides the biological function of protection and safety. The caregiverŐs ability to be sensitive and responsive to the infantŐs signals is the basis for the development of a secure attachment, and is an important ingredient in future mental health and future perceptions of self and others. A secure attachment provides children with a secure base from which to move out and explore the world with the confidence that they may return if they feel the need. Attachment behaviors are potentially active throughout life. They are activated when one is ill, fatigued, fearful, or separated from loved ones. Attachment behaviors are considered natural responses under these circumstances.

Attachments are well developed by the end of the first year of life. Both caregivers and children have made many adjustments to each other. They have developed patterns of relating which are highly characteristic. The patterns of attachment developed over the course of the first year tend to persist because they are organized around repeated patterns of interacting. By the time children reach adulthood, it is believed that their attachment patterns are stable and they will exhibit attachment behaviors that are typical in eliciting situations such as close personal relationships.

With the development of expectations as to the availability and reliability of attachment figures, children begin to develop what Bowlby calls a working model of the self and others. The working model is based on their conceptions of themselves according to their attachment figuresŐ responses to them. Thus, unwanted children will not only feel unwanted, but will also come to believe they are basically unworthy of love. Children who believe they are unlovable interact with others based on this premise, often creating situations in which their negative expectations are confirmed over and over again.

Working models are mental representations that include both affective and cognitive components. They guide behavior. They are most likely formed out of generalized event representations. They are usually unconscious and stable. These mental representations develop from the outcomes of attempts to seek proximity to and comfort from caregivers. They reflect the history of the actions of caregivers to children and responses of children to caregivers. From earliest childhood, knowledge of self and other is contingent on what is experienced within the context of the relationship. Thus mental representations of self and others are interdependent.

At each phase of our lives, from infancy and through adulthood, individuals tend to make strong affectional bonds to a few significant others. As long as these bonds exist, people are more likely to feel secure. When bonds are broken by such events as separations or deaths, individuals become anxious and distressed. Much psychological distress can be traced to a personŐs inability to make and maintain affectional bonds with particular others. The impact on the individual of the day to day reliability of attachment figures is also considered important in the development of trust and the sense of safety and well being. Not only separations and losses but also everyday interactions are significant in the formation of working models of self and others.

Adult attachment patterns are therefore an extension of childhood attachment patterns. The two main categories of attachment patterns are secure and insecure. There are three categories of insecure attachment in childhood that have been observed, anxious/ambivalent, avoidant and disoriented. In adulthood these patterns have become mental representations and thus more conceptual than behavioral. Attachment patterns for adults are not as fully agreed upon or elaborated by researchers as those for children. Broadly speaking, securely attached adults have internalized a secure base. Such individuals trust themselves and others. They have a feeling of competence and enthusiasm for the physical and social world. There is movement toward personal growth. In relationships, these individuals are cooperative and compromising. They view themselves as worthy of receiving love and are generous in giving love. They feel safe, trusting and supported in their intimate relationships. In one study of adult attachment patterns in dating relationships, secure lovers described their intimate relationships as more positive and trusting. They reported that their dating relationships lasted for longer periods of time.

Insecurely attached adults are chronically in search of a secure base. This is manifest either in anxious ambivalent feelings or avoidant feelings. They often feel dependent and isolated. Their approach to the world can be manipulative and they may take a self-protective stance. They are oversensitive to frustration and either over regulate or under regulate affect. They may be over aggressive or too passive, over sexual or sexually avoidant. Their internalized self feels undeserving and dependent. They may protect against feelings of vulnerability with exaggerated competence or bravado. But they continue to experience emotional hunger and are, therefore, motivated to seek out relationships to rework issues of basic trust. In relation to partners, attachment behaviors may be more readily activated at more intense levels or deactivated even when some activation would be appropriate. They are constantly looking for a secure base outside themselves or they may deny the need for a secure base and connection to others.

Thus when individuals establish relationships, they bring with them a particular attachment pattern that influences their perceptions and their behavior. Understanding these patterns is a first step toward changing them if they are getting in the way of having a secure and satisfying relationship. Understanding the early childhood influences that create an insecure attachment can help to make relationship destructive reactions comprehensible. Then the work of recognizing and changing these reactions can begin. Attachment patterns may be stable by they can be altered throughout the life span.

Dr. Parker is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network and the editor of the web site.

The author of this article, and founder of the website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.

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