Introduction to Attachment Theory

Attachment theory describes several behavioural systems, the function of which is to regulate human attachment, fear, exploration, care-giving, peer-affiliation and sex. Attachment is defined as any form of behaviour that results in a person attaining and retaining proximity to a differentiated other. The primary caregiver is the source of the infant’s stress regulation and, therefore, sense of safety and security. Attachment theory emphasises the role of the parent as mediator, reflector and moderator of the child’s mind and the child’s reliance on the parent to respond to their affective states in ways that are contingent to their internal experience, a process often referred to as secure base/safe haven functioning. Within the close parent-child relationship neural networks dedicated to feelings of safety and danger, attachment and the core sense of self are sculpted and shaped. These networks are conceptualised as internal working models of attachment.

Characteristic patterns of interaction operating within the family’s caregiving-attachment system give rise to secure, insecure and disorganized patterns of attachment. These discrete patterns have been categorized using the Strange Situation research procedure, which observes the young child’s behaviour when separated and reunited with his or her primary caregiver. Attachment patterns are represented in the child’s internal working models of self-other relationships. Secure attachment is promoted by the interactive regulation of affect, which facilitates the recognition, labelling and evaluation of emotional and intentional states in the self and in others, a capacity known as reflective function or mentalization. The recognition of affects as having dynamic, transactional properties is the key to understanding behaviour in oneself and in another. The child comes to recognize his or her mental states as meaningful self-states via a process of parental affect mirroring and marking. Secure children are able to use sophisticated cognitive strategies to integrate and resolve their fear of separation and loss.

When the parent is unavailable, inconsistent or unpredictable, the infant develops one of two organized insecure patterns of attachment: avoidant or ambivalent-resistant. These defensive strategies involve either the deactivation or hyper-activation of the attachment system. Deactivation is characterized by avoidance of the caregiver and by emotional detachment. In effect, the avoidant child immobilizes the attachment system by excluding thoughts and feelings that normally activate the system. Hyper-activation is manifested by an enmeshed ambivalent preoccupation with the caregiver and with negative emotions, particularly anger. However, in common with the avoidant child, the ambivalent child appears to cognitively disconnect feelings from the situation that elicited the distress. Disorganised-disoriented attachment is discussed below.

Attachment research, then, demonstrates that discrete patterns of secure, insecure, and disorganized attachment have as their precursor a specific pattern of caregiver-infant interaction and their own behavioural sequelae. Repeated patterns of interpersonal experience are encoded in implicit-procedural memory and conceptualized as self-other working models of attachment. These mental models consist of generalized beliefs and expectations about relationships between the self and key attachment figures, not the least of which concerns one’s worthiness to receive love and care from others.

In sum, the care-giving environment generally, and the infant-caregiver attachment relationship particularly, initiate the child along one of an array of potential developmental pathways. Disturbance of attachment is the outcome of a series of deviations that take the child increasingly further from adaptive functioning. Child abuse and cumulative developmental trauma violate the child’s sense of trust, identity and agency and have pernicious and seminal influences on the developing personality. In essence, internal working models of early attachment relationships provide the templates for psychopathology in later life, which may include violent, destructive and self-destructive forms of behaviour. In attachment theory, the main purpose of defence is the regulation of emotions. The primary mechanisms for achieving this are distance regulation and the defensive exclusion of thoughts and feelings associated with attachment trauma.

Early trauma in the form of abuse, loss, neglect and severe parent-child misattunement compromises brain-mediated functions such as attachment, empathy and affect regulation. From an attachment theory perspective, patterns of attachment are encoded and stored as generalized relational patterns in the systems of implicit memory. These are conceptualized as cognitive-affective internal working models which are seen as mediating how we think and feel about ourselves, others and the relationships we develop. Although open to change and modification in the light of new attachment experiences, whether positive or negative, these non-conscious procedural models, scripts or schemas within which early stress and trauma are retained, tend to persevere and guide, appraise and predict attachment-related thoughts, feelings and behaviours throughout the life cycle via the implicit memory system. Psychopathology is seen as deriving from an accumulation of maladaptive interactional patterns that result in character traits and personality types and disorders.

Disorganised attachment may occur when the child’s parent is both the source of fear and the only protective figure to whom to turn to resolve stress and anxiety. In such instances, neither proximity seeking nor proximity avoiding is a solution to the activation of the child’s attachment and fear behavioural systems. If the trauma remains unresolved and is carried into adulthood, it leaves the individual vulnerable to affect dysregulation in interpersonal conflict situations that induce fear, hate, shame and rage. In such cases, alcohol and illicit drugs are often resorted to as a maladaptive means of suppressing dreaded psychobiological states and restoring a semblance of affective equilibrium.

Findings show that disorganised attachment developed in infancy shifts to controlling behaviour in the older child and adult, reflecting an internalized mental model of the self as unlovable, unworthy of care and support, and fearful of rejection, betrayal and abandonment. Disorganised attachment is associated with a predisposition to relational violence, to dissociative states and conduct disorders in children and adolescents, and to personality disorders in adults. This state of mind constitutes a primary risk factor for the development of borderline, anti-social and sociopathic personality disorders. The rate of such disorders in forensic settings is particularly high. Clinically, dissociated traumatic experience is unsymbolized by thought and language, being encapsulated within the personality as a separate, non-reflective reality which is cut off from authentic human relatedness. The information contained in implicit memory may be retrieved by state-dependent moods and situations. Dissociated archaic internal working models are then activated, influencing and distorting expectations of current events and relationships outside of conscious awareness, particularly in situations involving intense interpersonal stress. In such situations, the self is felt to be endangered, thereby increasing the risk of an angry and potentially violent reaction.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X
Written by Paul Renn
Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples coun...


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