The Role of Attachment Theory in Psychotherapy

Although attachment theory has its origins in the research of infant development and is not a model for how to conduct psychotherapy, I have found it increasingly useful as a therapist to consider attachment style when sitting with a patient. In a healthy development children develop a secure attachment with their primary caretaker, usually the mother. More often than not an insecure attachment develops. John Bowlby outlines three types of insecure attachments. An avoidant attachment style is one in which the child adopts the attitude that he/she is fine without the caretaker and maintains this “I don’t need you” stance throughout life. An individual with an ambivalent attachment style responds to an unpredictable parent by either becoming angry or exhibiting helplessness. And an individual with a disorganized attachment style can present as scattered and disoriented, especially when the attachment figure is unavailable.

These attachment styles originate in infancy and persist through adolescence and adulthood. We find that these are transmuted generationally, with children often mirroring the attachment style of their caretaker. It is imperative for a clinician to be aware of one’s own attachment style as well as to attend to one’s patient’s unique attachment style, as these will emerge in the treatment as the relationship between the therapist and patient evolves. It may well inform the clinician and patient about what is being enacted in the therapy, and if a clinician is not paying close enough attention, the danger is that things get acted out in the therapeutic relationship without being addressed.

Attachment styles are not set in stone. Through the work of therapy, someone who previously had an insecure attachment style can learn to develop healthy attachments in their closest relationships. It may not replicate the experience of one who was born with secure attachments, but it is still possible for the individual to establish and maintain close, meaningful interpersonal relationships. As a therapist who works relationally, I view the therapeutic relationship as the primary agent of change. By focusing directly on attending to what occurs in the relationship between therapist and patient, we can afford the patient the opportunity to experience a healthy attachment, possibly for the first time. The real relationship between therapist and patient offers the patient the chance to learn and practice developing true closeness with a nonjudgmental parental figure with whom one can reveal their authentic self without repercussion of rejection, abandonment, or wrath. Over time, the hope is that by modeling a healthy relationship between therapist and patient, this experience will transfer to other close relationships outside of this dyadic relationship. In this way, the bulk of therapy happens in the room by addressing the ever-changing landscape of the real relationship between therapist and patient. The therapeutic relationship thus presents a unique opportunity for emotional intimacy that may endure as one of the closest and healthiest relationships the patient has known.

Couples Counseling From a Psychodynamic Framework

I often reflect on how the skills we need to navigate our lives through adulthood were not taught to us in school. Most of us did not get taught how to identify and express feelings. We didn't take classes in how to nurture healthy relationships and how to sustain these throughout one's lifetime. While a great deal of effort may be given to one's career, an equal amount of effort might be missing when it comes to the relationships that we consider most important.

When the issues that bring people into treatment seem to center on their primary relationship, then couples counseling may be warranted as the preferred treatment modality. Unlike individual therapy where we delve into a patient's psyche to understand how one's unconscious processes inform current behaviors, in couples counseling the couple is the patient and the focus of our work shifts to attending to how the partners communicate, manage conflict, and show empathy for each other. Often my role is to teach specific skills along these lines. I might help them learn active listening and empathy skills. Perhaps I may teach effective ways to deescalate fights and constructively handle arguments. I may encourage partners to talk to each other and not simply to me so they can practice communication, thus bringing their relational issues directly into the room so that I can observe and intervene as needed. As the therapist, I am in the unique position of watching how they interact and I can pay attention to the moment to moment shifts in their conversation to see where they might get stuck or how conflict escalates. 

As a psychodynamic therapist, I also place importance on understanding each person's individual history and how these intersect in their relationship. It is not arbitrary when two people find each other and embark on a journey to form and maintain a relationship. Each person brings to the table their individual relational dynamics that they learned as far back as childhood. Often people reenact in their current relationship patterns that they experienced in their parents' relationship or in their own relationships to their parents. These relational patterns continue to get repeated and played out in their subsequent relationships throughout life. When we can identify these relational patterns and how they are reenacted, then we can set about to shift these in healthier directions. When we come to understand how each individual is triggered by their partner and how that may be connected to experiences they had in childhood and adolescence, it helps each person develop a deeper understanding of their partner, an awareness of how their own behavior is impacting their partner, and the potential for greater emotional intimacy. 

Relational patterns tend to get passed from generation to generation until someone takes the initiative to work through these in the context of psychotherapy. One can imagine how complicated this can be when each member of a couple is bringing to the relationship specific patterns that can be traced back to their own early relationships and those of the generations that came before. So a husband's behavior may trigger his wife in ways that are similar to how one of her parents triggered her or similar to how her parents and grandparents related to each other, and the same can be true for how the husband experiences his wife's behaviors. Usually these patterns aren't easily identifiable at the start of couples counseling, but over time, with the help of a trained therapist, they can be elucidated and worked on. The hope is that by working together in this way, each partner can come to experience a more rewarding and intimate coupling into the future.