Developed by John Bowlby in the 1950’s, attachment theory identifies the qualities necessary for secure connection and the predictable cycles of distress that occur when relationship bonds are ruptured. His research shows that early childhood deprivation has severe consequences for development and serious implications for the individual and the larger society (Bowlby, 1982; Karen, 1996). Attachment theory is growing in popularity among counselors, educators, and scientists because it explains the dynamics of human relationships and functioning and it makes contact with what we are learning about human beings from neuroscience (Johnson, 2004; Schore, 2009).
Attachment is an innate motivating force that influences our sense of self and our sense of the other (Hofer, 2006, Johnson, 2009 & 2004). Out of key interactions with caregivers, we develop “internal working models” that tell us about the inside and in-between of relationship. Research indicates that these working models develop out of relationship, influence the capacity and possibilities for relationship, and can be re-worked within a healthy secure relationship (earned security). The strength of the relationship bond, in childhood and across the lifespan, is crucial for the health of the individual and the system (Johnson, 2004; Mikulancer & Shaver, 2007; Siegel & Hartzell, 2005).
The research on infant-caregiver dyad has now expanded well beyond the childhood years to include attachment longings active in adult relationships (Johnson, 2004; Mikulancer & Shaver, 2007). The findings are clear: accessibility and responsiveness, the key qualities necessary for secure attachment in children, are active across the lifespan. Social contact is essential for overall well-being (Coan, 2010; Coan, Schaefer and Davidson, 2006) and physical health (Ham & Tronick, 2009). Throughout their life, humans need a safe haven and a secure base to function fully and well; adults as well as children need protection from danger and security for exploration in order to thrive.
The key question, “Will you be there for me when I really need you?” provides an entry point for understanding the dynamics of human behavior. When the answer to this question is “yes” we are able to form secure connections that provide the safety and security necessary for relational contact and exploration. Internal alarm bells begin to sound, however, when we feel threatened or our relational connections are challenged. Whether in childhood or as adults, predictable patterns of distress (protest, clinging and seeking, despair/depression and detachment) are activated when we feel our “other” is not there for us (Johnson, 2004). This system is about protection and affect regulation; we use our attachment connections to modulate our internal state.
Attachment theory, then, gives us an account of the biological and relational dynamics of affect regulation (Schore & Schore, 2009). Healthy attachment relationships soothe and calm. Insecure attachment styles are coping patterns, which provide protection for the individual in the moment, but often negatively impact the capacity for healthy relating (Beckes, Simpson & Erickson, 2010; Mikulancer & Shaver, 2007). Research now shows that repair is possible whether working with an individual, couple, or family (Fosha, 2009; Johnson, 2004 & 2009; Diamond, 2003). Moreover, current research demonstrates the attachment has relevance for social relating and social policy.
Attachment theory is a lens. It provides a way to see and understand behaviors that otherwise might not make sense, bringing reparation and healing at all levels of relating. For the individual, couple, family, community and society, attachment theory provides an exciting next step for understanding yourself, your work, your relationships and the larger world.
Beckes, Simpson, and Erickson (2010). Of snakes and succor: Learning secure attachment associations with novel faces via negative stimulus pairing. Psychological Science OnlineFirst, April 5, 2010 as dol: 10.1177/0956797610368061.
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Coan, J. (2010). Adult attachment and the brain. Journal of social and personal relationships, V.27(2): 210-217.
Diamond G.S. & Stern, R.S. (2003). Attachment-based family therapy for depressed adolescents: Reparing attachment failures. In Johnson & Wiffern (eds.) Attachment Processes in couple and family therapy, New York: The Guilford Press.
Fosha, D. ( 2009). Emotion and recognition at work: Energy, vitality, pleasure, truth, desires, and the emergent phenomenology of transformational experience. In Fosha, Siegel & Solomon (eds.), The Healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development and clinical practice, New York W.W. Norton and Co.
Ham, J. & Tronick, E. (2009). Relational psychophysiology: Lessons from mother-infant physiology research on dyadically expanded states of consciousness. Psychotherapy Research, November 2009; 19(6): 619-632.
Hofer, M.A. (2006). Psychobiological roots of early attachment. Current directions in psychological science. 15 (2).
Johnson, S.M. (2009). Extravagant Emotion: Understanding the transforming love relationships in emotionally focused therapy, In Fosha, Siegel & Solomon (eds.), The Healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development and clinical practice, New York W.W. Norton and Co.
Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating Connection, New York: Brunner/ Mazel.
Johnson, S.M., & Whiffen, V. (1999). Made to measure: Attachment styles in couples therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 6, 366- 381.
Karen, R.(1998) Becoming attached: First relationship and how they shape our capacity to love. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mikulancer & Shaver (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics and change. New York: Guilford Press.
Schore, J.R. & Schore, A.N. (2008). Modern attachment theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical Social Work J. 36:9-20.
Siegel, D.J. & Harzell, M. (2006). Parenting for the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin.