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Attachment therapy is a form of talk therapy that is based on attachment theory. The basis of attachment theory is that all children gain an attachment style from the primary caregivers, usually parents, in their lives.
The attachment style that a child develops is based on the physical and emotional care that the primary caregivers provide for the child. This attachment style is usually what informs how children show up in relationships as adults.
Psychologist, John Bowlby, started this theory based on his research while working with children. His work with children revealed that there were different attachment styles formed based on children’s experiences with their primary caregivers.
In his theory, he maintained that the bonds the children formed in their childhood with their caregivers would have a huge impact on the same individual as an adult. For this reason, attachment theory has been widely used as an effective form of therapy for adults dealing with attachment issues.
What is an attachment issue?
Bowlby identified four attachment styles in his theory: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. The “ideal” attachment style is secure because in this style of attachment the primary caregiver is attentive to the child and the child feels safe and secure in their care. This child usually grows up to be an adult that is trusting, has high self-esteem, isn’t afraid to be alone, and has a strong sense of self.
A child with an anxious attachment style develops this type of attachment when a caregiver is not able to provide a secure attachment bond and a child experiences distress. Anxious attachment shows up in adult relationships when an individual is afraid of being alone, cannot deal with negative emotions, and struggles with showing up as their authentic self.
Avoidant attachment is a style of attachment that also develops when a child is distressed by their caregiver(s) inability to meet their physical and/or emotional needs. In adult relationships, it looks like the adult dismissing vulnerable conversations, having a compulsive reliance on self, and disengaging from meaningful relationships.
Disorganized attachment style (termed fearful avoidant for adults) usually occurs when a child is harmed by their primary caregiver(s) in cases such as abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma. This pushes and pulls emotions as an adult when it pertains to relationships with others.
It develops into an inability to even understand what emotions are and presents emotions in a very disorganized manner. It’s important to understand that an attachment issue isn’t a mental health diagnosis or dysfunctional at its core.
It is an issue that can make it difficult to connect with other adults in healthy ways. An attachment issue can make it hard to have deep, meaningful relationships if the wounds of attachment bonds are not dealt with.
Who is attachment therapy for?
Attachment therapy is for individuals who:
- Find it hard to connect with people on a deep, emotional level.
- Have a fear that they will be left or abandoned in their relationships.
- Leave relationships before they are left, even if it’s going well.
- Try their hardest to make relationships work, even when it’s highly dysfunctional.
- Do not feel the desire to connect to people through emotions; emotionally “numb.”
- Deal with issues of self-worth.
- Have a hard time trusting others and their intentions.
- Tend to isolate themselves from people.
- Are always looking to be in a new dating situation or dealing with codependency.
How does attachment therapy help?
Attachment therapy helps individuals unpack the attachment bonds that may have been broken as a child. In attachment therapy, you explore your childhood to understand the dynamics of your relationship with your caregiver(s). This provides insight into the insecure attachment style that you may have and work on ways to unlearn the behaviors that perpetuate it.
In research, attachment theory is especially effective for individuals dealing with anxiety and depression. Overall, this form of therapy is useful for all individuals, as it provides the usual information to help guide therapy sessions. From children to adults, anyone dealing with a mental health issue can benefit from attachment therapy.
How does it work in therapy?
When using attachment theory, your therapist will first talk about your history. This will include an inquiry about your childhood relationship with your primary caregivers (mother, father, sibling, grandmother, etc.) Through this deep dive into the past, your therapist will help you uncover any unhealthy emotional coping skills that have occurred due to these bonds.
Unhealthy coping skills can involve the destructive use of emotions or can show up as dangerous behaviors like heaving, drinking, or drug use. Your therapist will also discuss how your coping skills impact your adult relationships (romantic, platonic, work). Your therapist may combine attachment therapy with other modalities to make sessions even more effective.
Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) and attachment theory. EFT is a form of therapy whose root comes from attachment theory. EFT focuses on emotions and how emotions connect us with other people in relationships. EFT is about understanding and managing our emotions so we can make the best, informed decisions in our lives.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and attachment therapy. CBT is a form of therapy that helps you change unhealthy thought patterns. When combining it with attachment therapy, CBT can be used to reframe the negative thoughts one has of themselves due to insecure attachment bonds acquired in childhood.
Psychodynamic Therapy and attachment therapy. Psychodynamic therapy explores the unconscious thoughts and behaviors that are present in your life. It finds a connection between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. When used with attachment therapy, a person can unlock the unconscious part of them and how it relates to the experience they had with their primary caregivers as a child.
Family Systems Therapy and attachment therapy. Family Systems Therapy examines how a person’s family of origin impacts their self and their behaviors. When this is combined with attachment therapy, families can look at how attachment styles have affected each member of the family as an individual and how it impacts them as a unit.
Existential Therapy and attachment therapy. In existential therapy, you are working with your therapist to discover your purpose in life and find what brings you a sense of fulfillment. The combination of existential therapy helps you investigate your past to see what has stopped you from being your best self and helps you explore what you currently need to reach your highest potential.
By using attachment therapy alone or combining it with many other forms of therapy, your therapist can help you discover the things that are creating emotional blocks for you. This can help create new adult relationships or transform relationships that you already have.
When using attachment therapy, your therapist will help you unpack your past and focus on the present. The goal of attachment therapy is to become the most secure version of yourself and to be freed from attachment issues.
How do you begin attachment therapy?
First, examine how you may have attachment issues. Are you dealing with any of the issues of avoidance or anxiousness mentioned above? Do you feel like you need to explore these issues on a deeper level? Do you believe these issues affect the way you show up in relationships?
If you feel like attachment therapy is right for you, the best thing you can do is get started now. Find a therapist who works on attachment theory and consider booking a consultation or intake session. If you especially feel like attachment therapy is for you after reading this article, I invite you to take the first step of starting therapy today.
You can book an intake session with one of our secretaries so they can get you scheduled for a session with me. I look forward to helping you on your journey through working on attachment issues.
“Mother and Child”, Courtesy of Praveen Kumar Mathivanan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Father and Son”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Happy Couple”, Courtesy of AllGo – An App For Plus Size People, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Laughing Together”, Courtesy of Eric Froehling, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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