Attachment Theory and Why it Matters in Psychotherapy


British psychoanalyst John Bowlby is the man behind Attachment Theory. His theory revolutionized how we think about love, relationships and our human “attachment” needs for emotional connection, consistency, and security.

In 1969-1970, Bowlby published a famous trilogy of papers describing an innate network of psychological, biological and behavioural processes that he called the “attachment behavioural system.” Compared to other mammals, human babies are born quite helpless.

These processes ensure that bonding occurs between babies and parents– and thereby increasing babies’ chances of having their early needs for safety, nourishment, and love satisfied.

Bowlby wrote that the quality of attachment between an infant and parent (or another caregiver) depends whether or not the child sees the parent as a source of security, comfort and understanding–or in other words–as a source of love.

Since Bowlby’s time, psych research has since shown us that attachment experiences shape kids’ sense of self and later experiences in intimate relationships.

Attachment styles are categorized as secure or insecure: securely attached kids think of themselves as lovable and think of others as trustworthy, consistent and responsive.

The picture is slightly more grim for insecurely attached children: they are more likely to view themselves as unlovable and to see others as insensitive, inconsistent and unresponsive.

The good news is that research shows that most of us are securely attached!

Unfortunately, reality and experience are always more nuanced and complicated than scientific research would have us believe.

My view is that attachment styles exist on a continuum, are adaptable, and depend on the relationship. For example, I might be securely attached to my father and insecurely attached to my mother.

Alternatively, I could be insecurely attached to my mother as a child but then build a strong and secure attachment to her in adulthood. Because I see attachment bonds as dynamic rather than stable,  I believe that relationships with parents, friends, grandparents, or lovers can provide corrective attachment experiences.

That is, our adult friends and partners provide the opportunity for us to change our attachment style. Beautiful.

In individual therapy, the client/therapist relationship can provide a corrective attachment experience; in couples therapy, I help clients address their attachment needs in the relationships.

No matter your attachment style(s), we all have a basic need for safety, belonging and love. Seeking connection is a fundamental part of being human–and often a central part of healing in therapy.


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