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  • Attachment Theory & Science

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    The Core Tenets of Attachment Theory

    Relational therapy is important and essential no matter what your presenting problem is. Attachment Science shows us that we are bonding mammals created for connection. From cradle to grave we are hardwired to seek not only social contact, but physical and emotional proximity to loved ones. The longing for connection with loved ones is primary in the hierarchy of human goals and needs. As humans we become most acutely aware of this longing for connection when we experience times of threat, risk, pain, or uncertainty. Threats that trigger our longing for connection can be from the outside or inside. It can come from rejection from a loved one or an experience of a distressing event (for example, being shot at in war). What brings people together and strengthens relational bonds are shared vulnerabilities.

    A predictable or trustworthy physical and/or emotional connection with a loved one, often a parent, sibling, longtime close friend, or spiritual figure calms the nervous system and shapes a physical and mental sense of a safety where comfort and support can be reliably obtained, and emotional regulation and balance can be restored and/or strengthened. The responsiveness of our loved ones from a young age is what tunes our nervous system to either be less or more sensitive to threat and creates our perception of the world as relatively safe or unsafe. For example, a child who was vulnerable that reached for emotional proximity with a loved one and was rejected is going to view the world as relatively unsafe or bad.

    Having loved ones who are emotionally available, responsive, and engaged promotes emotional regulation, the development of a grounded, positive, and integrated sense of self and the ability to organize inner experience into a coherent whole. This grounded sense of self enables authentic bids for emotional closeness when feeling upset; these calls are likely to result in more courage to call for help when in need, which then continues to build positive views of others as accessible sources for support and comfort.

    Feeling that you can depend on a loved one creates security — a secure base to move out into the world, take risks, and explore and develop a sense of competence and autonomy. This dependency becomes a source of strength and resilience, while the denial for a need of close and secure relationships hinders us from becoming stronger, and more resilient and independent. It is a myth and in fact the complete opposite to believe that dependency on a loved one is weakness. Knowing that you have a loved to count on no matter what is the ultimate resource to survive and thrive in an unpredictable world.

    The essential factors that define the quality and security of an attachment bond are the perceived accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement of loved ones or attachment figures. These factors can be referred to in the acronym A.R.E.

    Distress arises when a relationship or an attachment bond is threatened or when a secure connection is lost. Emotional and physical isolation from attachment figures is inherently traumatizing for us, bringing with it a heightened sense, not simply of vulnerability and danger, but also of hopelessness.

    The sense of general attachment security is not fixed, it can change when new experiences occur that allow us to revise our mental working models of attachment and their related emotion regulation strategies. So, it is possible to be secure in one relationship and insecure in another. One’s working models of attachment are primarily concerned with trust, “Can I count on you?” and “Are you there for me?” and “Do I matter to you?” and “Am I worthy of your love?”

    Those who have secure attachment can acknowledge their attachment needs and reach out to their secure other in a congruent and authentic way to make or maintain connection. The person can send clear attachment signals to their attachment figure. When the person responds to the bid to make or maintain connection, this response is then trusted and taken in by the other, which in turn clams the nervous system. This appears to buffer stress and create positive coping throughout the challenges of life.

    If however, someone is perceived as inaccessible or unresponsive (anti A.R.E.) when needed, then secondary models and strategies for connection are adopted. There are two main strategies that develop, the anxious or avoidant strategy. The anxious strategy is hyperactive and vigilant, and the avoidant strategy is dismissing and deactivating. When an anxiously attached person is triggered, their response is “fight” in response to distance to get an attachment figure to be more A.R.E. When the avoidant attachment person is triggered they “fight” by minimizing frustrating and distress through distancing themselves from loved ones who are seen as hostile, dangerous, or uncaring. In this “fight” attachment needs are lost and never seen or heard by one another. The third type of attachment is a mixture of anxious and avoidant. This person has experienced an attachment figure as both the source of their comfort and fear. This attachment is stuck between demanding connection and then distancing, and even attacking when connection is offered. This third type of attachment is called, disorganized or fearful avoidant.

    In adult romantic relationships the attachment is more reciprocal compared to child-parent relationships. In child-parent relationships the parent needs emotional attunement to their child to know when they need them and when they do not. Security in parent-child relationships is defined by the parent’s ability to provide attention and responsiveness when needed. This security is on a continuum and is not constant.

    Taken and adapted from “Johnson, Susan M.. Attachment Theory in Practice (pp. 18-20). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.”