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Attachment Theory and Therapy

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

What are attachment styles?

Hold on, we need to back up a bit.

Humans have made a huge evolutionary bet. Start by looking at how most animals have babies: Insects or amphibians may lay 100 or 1,000 eggs and abandon them because the hatched babies are able to live independently without the investment of parental involvement. Most of these babies won’t make it, but it’s a bet. Think of sea turtles hatching and immediately crawling down the beach.

Some animals take a moderate approach: a cat is pregnant for a bit and has a handful of kittens and devotes some effort to raising them, but they become independent quickly enough relative to their lifespan and most will probably live. Other animals like elephants or primates take it even further. They are pregnant with one baby for many months and spend a lot of time and energy raising it within a social group before it is independent, hopefully guaranteeing that it lives.

Humans take this same strategy to an extreme. And the huge size of our brains requires this.

Our closest evolutionary neighbors, chimpanzees, are born with their brains at 40% adult size, and they are independent at six to nine years old. In order for a human to be born with the head start of a 40% full grown brain the mother would need to be pregnant for 20 months. It can’t work, we developed more narrow hips to accommodate standing upright and this makes for a narrow birth canal. So we biologically bet “all in”, we evict our babies while their brains are underdeveloped (compared to other great apes), while they can still fit, and they complete early development outside of the womb. Brain development completes in our twenties.

This means we are born absolutely helpless, unlike much of the animal kingdom where a baby may be walking within hours. We require constant care and attention for years, or we die. This situation creates evolutionary pressure to establish strong social bonds between children and parents/family/caretakers. Even if our caregivers are unstable or dangerous or uninterested, they’re still the only chance we have when young. If our caregivers abuse us as children we are still biologically driven to want to connect with them, which has some complicated effects on our behavior and mental development. Not to mention very complex feelings.

Attachment is the term for this innate system of connecting with one another for survival, initially between infant and caregiver but also later between adults. It’s malleable. It was coined and researched first by John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Main. And it happens to have some very practical applications in therapy.

What is Attachment Trauma?

Attachment theory posits that our early, repeated experiences with caregivers create Internal Working Models of how relationships work and our role in them. These experiences directly affect how we regulate emotions, process information, and behave in the context of interpersonal relationships. Your parents may have tried their best. But if they repeatedly demonstrated to you (perhaps thousands of times in small ways) that they were not reliably supportive and empathetic when you were upset, then you implicitly learned that this is just how relationships work. This gets baked in during your formative years and can only change, says attachment theory, in the context of a more reliably supportive and empathetic relationship.

What’s more: You will also have learned which behaviors facilitated your parents acceptance or approval, which we are wired to want. You learned to hide/suppress certain emotions that brought scorn or neglect. Attachment is a survival system working behind the scenes, learning how to relate in order to keep people close, even if it ultimately comes at your expense.

Example: A child is repeatedly shown by her caregivers, through years of interactions, that her expression of sadness through crying is bad and weak and “immature”. The child implicitly learns that to maintain their approval she must hide this emotion, even from herself. It’s another bet, made unconsciously: I will push down my sadness and judge it to be bad in order to keep my parents close. This is an adaptive move and may not cause issues at first. But remember: it gets established as an Internal Working Model of how relationships work, which then gets copied and pasted onto future relationships with people who may be receptive to her sadness. The child grows into an adult who cannot seem to allow herself to be emotionally intimate with her partner who nevertheless welcomes it: it’s blocked. Showing someone else her pain feels shameful so it bottles up, occasionally discharging explosively or leaking out in private.

Learn more about the trauma therapy that I offer in San Antonio, Texas

Book a free consultation or session at Witt Psychotherapy to learn more about how you can heal from attachment trauma.


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