Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Attachment Theory Part Two: The post in which I cite research

After my last post on attachment theory, I received a thought-provoking response from a friend. He said:
I don't understand why someone would want to change their attachment style. In your article, you just assume that everyone will want to have secure attachment. But why? Why not just accept that people have differences?
I think this is a great point. I remember being told by a professor once, "If you can't cite text, you're just pissing and moaning." So here is my answer to that question, with some references. (Please notice I'm going to talk about “secure attachment” contrasted with “insecure attachment.” As you might assume, all the other three attachment styles besides “secure” are considered “insecure.” )

First, is insecure attachment a mental illness?

No. Insecure attachment is not pathology. It is a style of personal relationships, and is more like a personality trait. There is some research that insecure attachment underlies some pathology (in other words, people with insecure attachment are more likely to be depressed), but in an of itself, insecure attachment styles are not a mental illness.

But that does not meant that you won't hear clinicians talk about insecure attachment styles as if they were pathology.

For example, I once attended a lecture at which a speaker was making a case that “sexual addiction” should be identified as an “attachment disorder.” (As you may know, there is much disagreement in the field about whether or not sexual addiction is a real disorder.) This man made a case that people in insecure attachments often turned to sex to feel secure in the relationships, and to improve their sense of themselves. He used the evidence that sexual acting out behavior is often based on insecure attachment to make a case that “sexual addiction” is a real diagnosis and a real disorder.

I must admit that I was not brave enough to raise my hand and ask him why he felt that two fictitious disorders added up to one real disorder. But I was sitting in a room full of therapists, and no one else challenged him, either. This speaker had made the assumption that insecure attachment is a disorder, and no one in the audience challenged that.

The truth is that “attachment disorder” is not a diagnosis in adults. (Please note: There is a diagnosis called “Reactive Attachment Disorder,” but it can only be diagnosed in children under the age of 5. It is not the same thingthat I'm talking about here.) The take-away message is this: Adults are not considered mentally ill merely because they have difficulty with attachment. 

So what is the problem with insecure attachment? Why would anyone want to change?

Just because something is not an illness does not mean that you want it. For example, hunger and thirst are not illnesses, but you probably don't want to be hungry or thirsty all the time. In a similar way, illiteracy is not an illness, but being able to read might make your life easier.

Insecure attachments can cause difficulties for the individual and for their relationships. I've seen it in my practice more times that I could count, and so has any other therapist you care to ask. But you don't have to take my word for it: Mountains of research have been done on attachment styles. (Make a quick Google search of “attachment theory research inadults” to see what I mean.) Here is just a sample of what the research shows:

People with secure attachment are more likely to reach out for social support.  
People with secure attachment are slower to anger, and cope more effectively once they do get angry. 
People with secure attachment cope better in times of transition.

People with secure attachments are more successful at regulating emotional distress.

People with secure attachments are generally happier in relationships.

Insecure attachment is correlated to worse health overall.

People with insecure attachment are more likely to develop depression. There are two studies on this. 

And on it goes. Basically, insecure attachment style can make life's stressors more challenging.

The common mistake therapists make about attachment theory

Most therapists will likely take this view: Since your adult attachment style is related to the relationship you had with your childhood caregivers, healing your childhood wounds will help you change your attachment style. Sounds good, right?

The problem is there is no research to support this.

As it turns out, childhood attachment styles do not always predict adult attachment style. Yes, attachment style is stable across long periods of the life course, but it also fluctuates in response to negative events during the life course. But more importantly, the process by which adult attachment styles change is not really understood. (Also, this article.)

And it seems that attachment changes occur in the context of the individual's current relationship, rather than in the process of “healing childhood wounds.” 

Many therapists will talk about “the unfinished business of childhood.” Well, if you are an adult, then your childhood is over, and you cannot change any part of it. Changing attachment style, if you should choose to do so, happens in the here-and-now. So while understanding your childhood experiences of attachment is important to self-knowledge, mere understanding will not help you change your attachment style.

Attachment Theory Bonus Easter Egg: Baby Talk

Attachment theory provides a model for both parent-child attachment and romantic partner attachment because these two kinds of relationships have a lot in common. Hazen and Shaver, two researchers mentioned in the previous piece on attachment theory, noted some of the commonalities between adult romantic relationships and parent-child relationships in their 1987 article. Here are a few:

- Feeling safe when the other is physically near and responsive
- Engaging in close, intimate body contact
- Feeling insecure when the other is inaccessible
- Sharing discoveries with one another
- Playing with facial features
- Engaging in “baby talk”
So your Bonus Easter Egg: Attachment theory explains why you engage in “baby talk” with your partners, or with your cat, or your car, or anything else you love. 

(PS: One of the people I asked to proofread this piece said the Easter Egg is “not satisfying.” So, if you did not find that Easter Egg as enjoyable as I did, then I am a bigger nerd than you are, and I apologize. I'll try and do better next time.)

1 comment:

  1. I love the Easter Egg. I've always been curious about the "baby talk" thing. Great articles, very useful!