14. Attachment Theory - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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14. Attachment Theory

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Attachment theory consists of the attachment style and the internal working models of self and others, each of which mutually affect the others' development.  "The attachment style refers to the relational behaviors that occur between the individual and the primary caregiver in order to get basic needs met (initially) and then to develop a schema (or response set) for interacting with the world (and others) around them" (Peluso and Macintosh, 2007).  The attachment style is considered the "womb" for the "psychological birth" of the infant essential for emotional, psychological, and relationship health.  Attachment appears to have universal or cross-cultural validity.  For example, Gaines and Henderson (2002, page 92-93) found that lesbian and gay couples while also dealing with the persistence of heterosexism and stigmatization, share the same patterns of relationship as heterosexual couples.  Watanabe (1987) described case studies of two young Japanese girls who were insecurely attached to their mothers for different reasons.  Both of the mothers had relationship problems with their husbands, the fathers of the girls.  As is sometimes the case, one girl had never been able to enjoy a peer relationship (page 403).  Both girls had difficulty attaching to new potential intimate figures in the hospital treatment program.  They did not have the relational behaviors to connect.  Each girl was eventually able to attach to their mothers after achieving some secure attachment relationships with professionals in the hospital.  They were further able to deepen their relationships with professionals as their attachment with their mothers deepened.  In addition, the girls began to develop peer relationships (page 403-04, 406).  Sonkin (2010, page 11) noted that, "Dr. Mary Main, who developed the Adult Attachment Interview (see Main and Goldwyn, 1993), says, 'Insecure individuals show their feelings, whereas secure individuals talk about them.'  Therefore developing a strong reflective function will necessarily involve talking about… the thoughts and feelings evoked by the process."

For the Japanese women there may have been cultural models that precluded overt conversation about their feelings of isolation from their husbands and with their children.  Their daughters may also not have had the verbal language to speak about their anxious and depressed feelings.  Individual, family, and/or cultural communication patterns may preclude positive overt communication about feelings and/or exacerbate relationship problems within families and couples.  The cyclical nature of attachment security or insecurity may play itself out as it shaped by and affects one relationship after another, including from one generation after another.  Without the positive interventions that fostered healthier attachment between mother and daughter described by Watanabe, speculation about the girls' adult romantic relationship could predict another generation of failed attachment.  One (for example, either of the Japanese mothers or either of the Japanese girls as adults, if untreated) or both members of a couple presenting for therapy may have attachment trauma/loss or anxiety.  One or both may have profound needs to be soothed and may not know how to self-soothe.  Or, an individual despite otherwise healthy attempts at soothing another such as the partner somehow cannot do it correctly or adequately to the other's satisfaction, because of the individual's void of fundamental emotional development. Such a person may be able to feel, own, and express the attachment needs for validation or nurturing. While sounding relatively healthy enough to be self-aware, the question remains as to he or she has picked and kept a partner that fails him/her in this fundamental manner.  And perhaps, why he or she may have repeated picked this type of partner.  What kind of person seeks and keeps an inconsistently soothing partner?  

The therapist should note that individuals with borderline tendencies really feel the anxiety, demand to be soothed, and then are triggered to anger if not soothed when or as needed.  Alternatively the therapist should consider that individuals with dependent tendencies also feel anxiety and express neediness and helpless to soothe themselves.  They may often passive-aggressively make the partner the "bad" or inadequate one through the dependent person's suffering.  Or, they may be overly aggressive to hide, mute, or obscure such vulnerable or desperate feelings.  The therapist often requires, teaches, and facilitates individuals, especially often in such couples to express their feelings.  For an individual, therapy may be an opportunity to practice emotional expression with a safe receptive person- the therapist.  Couple or family therapy may be one of the first or few times, partners or family members have talked about their feelings and relationship.  Or, therapy may be the only time they can talk with someone- the therapist providing the structure and guidance to do so without re-traumatizing one another… hopefully.

Attachment theory can have applicability to many types of relationship.  For example, Sonkin (2010) discussed the relevance of attachment theory to parents' reactions to college-age children leaving the home.  Sonkin presented an overview of attachment theory.  "John Bowlby's work on attachment theory began when he observed the effects of disruptions in maternal bonds in his work with delinquent boys (see Bowlby, 1989).  He believed that these disruptions were precursors to psychopathology.  Bowlby viewed attachment through the lens of evolution and ethology.  Attachment behaviors are important because they increased the likelihood of offspring protection and provide a survival advantage.  He coined the term 'attachment behavioral system', borrowing the concept of behavioral systems from ethology, which is in essence an innate motivational drive that insures protection and survival" (page 8).  Bowlby believed that all children become attached whether or not a particular caregiver feeds them.  This includes attaching to abusive caregivers.  The human infant and child is inherently vulnerable and is instinctively compelled to be associated with a physically and intellectually more capable caretaker.  The attachment behavioral system responds to real world interactions with real world people rather than some imagined relationships or worlds.  Depending on the quality and consistency of caregiver interactions, the infant or child will develop different attachment patterns.  In other words, the quality of attachment varies rather than whether the child will attach.  The child develops expectation templates or memories of implicit procedures based on interactions with caregivers.  

These generalizations of how relationships are supposed or expected to work are applied to other or subsequent attachment figures as the child matures and become involved in other situations.  "Attachment theory is both about emotions and cognitions.  When an infant feels emotional distress, proximity to its caretaker becomes the means to reducing emotional distress" (page 8).  The experiences the infant have seeking proximity to its caregiver create the beginnings of identity and the relationship of self to others.  "Am I the kind of person people will respond to?  Are others likely to respond to my needs?"  Variations in the parental caregiving system- that is, parent responses to the infant's attachment behaviors affect the infant's attachment behavioral system creating individual differences in how emotions are regulated and belief systems about relationships.  "Secure attachment patterns manifests adaptive affect regulation strategies when the child has a mental representation of the attachment figure being present, attentive and responsive when needed.  Insecurely attached children lack such a representation and therefore manifest maladaptive affect regulation patterns.  And depending on the response patterns of the caregiver when the attachment behavioral system of the child is activated (wanting proximity), you will see different patterns of insecure attachment.  When this occurs, we see patterns of attachment that result in either a hyperactivation of the attachment behavioral system or deactivation of the attachment behavioral system" (page 8).  

Reacting with loss and separation with sadness, fear, and anger from attachment figures are key aspects of the theory.  Attachment theory is in part a theory of affect regulation.  There are important differences in how individuals with secure attachment versus individuals with insecure attachment regulate negative emotions. "Individuals with secure states of mind are likely to be aware of these emotions, label the emotions, modulate them adaptively, represent or communicate them through language and soothe them adaptively either dyadically (with others) or alone (self-soothing)" (page 9).  Essentially, it is probable that such secure individuals are more likely to be in intimate relationships without as many or severely difficult problems, and/or more able to utilize couple or family therapy successfully.  They may have relationship or other life problems but seem to handle them more readily than individuals with insecure states of mind.  Insecurely attached individuals tend to have more problems with affect regulation process. "…because they lack the actual experience of a secure resolution of the attachment behavioral system response, insecurely attached individuals may neither feel that dyadic soothing or self-soothing are not viable options" (page 9).

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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