or many people who seek therapy, attachment issues are at the root of their emotional or psychological distress. We need strong, healthy bonds with others to thrive, especially in childhood, and missing these bonds can make us more vulnerable to difficulties later in life.
If you have attachment issues, you may feel isolated, overwhelmed, or confused. You aren’t alone. Attachment issues affect many people, but you can overcome this challenge with therapy.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Broadly speaking, attachment is the ability to form a deep bond with another. The earliest attachment that most people develop is with their mother or caregiver, and this first bond sets the stage for your overall social and emotional development.
By exploring the nature of the bond between the child and primary caregiver, we can identify different ways that the attachment affects us later in life. This is the primary focus of attachment theory, which was originally developed by psychologist John Bowlby.
One of the most famous psychological experiments was the Strange Situation Test conducted by Mary Ainsworth. During this test, the mother leaves the child with the researcher, who assesses the child’s reactions. The researchers identified four different types of attachment based on the behavior of the children in the study:
1. Secure: The child interacts with the researcher when the mother is present but avoids the researcher when the mother leaves.
2. Anxious-resistant: The child is anxious when the researcher is present, becomes upset when the mother leaves, and does not respond to the mother’s attempts to interact when she returns.
3. Anxious-avoidant: The child doesn’t show a preference toward the mother or researcher and doesn’t want to be held.
4. Disorganized: The child is upset when the mother leaves but shows anger or aggression when the mother returns.
The idea behind this test is that your bond with your caregiver in early childhood affects the way that you connect and interact with others. Securely attached kids trust their caregiver and have the closest bond with them. An anxious-resistant attachment may be a sign that the caregiver doesn’t always meet the child’s needs. Children who are anxious-avoidant may have learned that their caregiver will not meet their needs, so they don’t look to anyone for support or connection. Kids who show disorganized attachment may be contradictory or inconsistent in their interactions.
These behaviors may not stop in childhood. Your attachment style as a child, which is determined by your earliest experiences with your caregiver, can continue to affect your relationships and emotions as you grow up. In many cases, attachment issues in adults can be traced back to childhood experiences.
Understanding Attachment Disorders
Attachment issues aren’t talked about nearly as often as mood disorders or anxiety disorders, but they are just as worthy of treatment as any other mental health concern.
A number of adverse childhood experiences can lead to attachment issues. Abuse or neglect from a caregiver, changing primary caregivers, separation from the caregiver, or any other event that causes instability or inconsistency can affect your attachment style.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), symptoms of attachment disorder appear in childhood, and it can only be diagnosed in children. Although there aren’t any formal diagnoses for adults, you can still experience the effects of attachment issues regardless of your age.
Here are some of the most common signs of attachment issues in adults:
• Difficulty feeling close to others
• Intense fear or stress as new relationships develop
• Difficulty finding or maintaining boundaries
• High-risk behaviors like substance abuse
• Problems with intimacy in romantic relationships
Many of these symptoms are signs of other disorders, too, so it’s important that you seek advice from a professional if you’re experiencing these struggles. Attachment issues often occur alongside disorders like depression or anxiety, so it’s not uncommon to feel like your attachment issues are affecting other areas of your mental well-being.
Attachment Issues Don’t Have to Define You
If you think you have the signs of attachment problems, therapy can be a valuable way to explore this topic. Attachment issues are complex, so talking through your experiences in therapy can help you better understand yourself and begin the healing process.
For children experiencing attachment issues, play therapy is very common. This type of therapy involves both the child and the caregiver, and the goal is for the two to strengthen their bond. Improving the child-caregiver attachment can reduce the risk of attachment issues later in life.
Unfortunately, if you’re grappling with attachment issues as an adult, you can’t go back in time to change the bond you had with your caregiver when you were young. Instead, the goal of therapy is to identify and explore your early experiences that may still be affecting you. The next step is to find closure by grieving the healthy or stable bonds you didn’t get to experience in childhood. Then, you can work on building up coping skills and learning to develop healthy attachments.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful for attachment issues because much of the healing happens through the relationship between the therapist and the client. Although your bond with your therapist isn’t the same as a bond with a family member or partner, it can show you a great example of a stable and supportive relationship. By establishing trust with your counselor and learning to open up to them, you can start to overcome the anxiety you may feel about bonding with others.
There are different types of talk therapy that may be valuable for people struggling with attachment issues. The most valuable of them is based in Object Relations Theory. This concept helps you identify ways you relate to different people and things (objects) in your life. In noticing these patterns, you can connect them to early, monumental experiences from your childhood, so that you can notice the way you may be repeating similar patters that are manifesting through your attachment difficulties.
Another style of therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is all about identifying your unhealthy or unhelpful though patterns. With attachment issues, your past experiences may influence your thoughts or beliefs about your current relationships. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you notice these thoughts and gradually replace them with healthier thoughts.
Humanistic therapy is also popular for treating attachment disorders. With this method, you and your counselor work on equal ground to discover helpful insights about your situation. Your counselor regards you as the expert on yourself, so this can be an excellent opportunity for self-reflection.
Couples or family therapy is sometimes used to address attachment issues, too. If you think your attachment issues are actively causing problems in your relationships, you could invite your family or partner to therapy so that you can work together to improve your bonds.
Most therapists don’t subscribe entirely to one style or another. They may use a mix of different philosophies in their work, and they’ll use the specific therapy techniques that they think will be the most beneficial for you.
Therapy for attachment issues can be a long-term process. The behaviors or thinking patterns involved have usually been in place since childhood, so it takes a long time to unravel them and build up healthier habits. During any type of therapy, patience is key.
If you’re struggling with an attachment problem, you don’t have to address it alone. The Beverly Hills Therapy Group offers counseling for attachment issues so that you can heal from your past and strengthen your current relationships. To connect with a licensed therapist in Beverly Hills, contact us today.