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.