An introduction to Attachment theory and addictions

At the University of Luxembourg, I had the privilege to study early childhood development from the perspective of the attachment theory and its effects on the development of independence of a new human being from the womb of it’s mother into the arms of the society at large.

My personal experience today leads me to analyse the connection of that primal sense of insecurity coming from neglectful, uncaring or even abusive family relationships and the connection to addictions that developed as coping mechanisms to deal with the life experiences and traumas that came out of these relationships.

In this longer piece, I want to give a short introduction to the theory of attachment, the characteristics of the 4 attachment styles and then explain its link to addiction and what steps you can take to heal the wound.

“Secure or insecure, is that the question?”

John Theodore

Attachment theory: Origins and key ideas

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Origins

The story begins in 1933 when John Bowlby observed that the behaviours of the children that attended his children psychiatry institution were linked to the experiences made in their family of origin. In particular he pointed out in an empirical study, in 1944, that a link existed between motherly deprivation and socially delinquent behaviour. After the second world war, John Bowlby was given the task to do research on orphans and wrote the World Health Organisation report “Maternal care and Mental health”.

Related to that event Kendra Cherry from verywellmind.com wrote: 

„In 1951, the resulting work Maternal Care and Mental Health was published. In it, he wrote, “…the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute – one person who steadily ‘mothers’ him) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.” 

After the publication of the influential report, Bowlby continued to develop his attachment theory. Bowlby drew on a variety of subjects, including cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and ethology (the science of animal behavior). His resulting theory suggested that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life.

Besides John Bowlby other researchers and authors came to similar conclusions joined his team and supported his work. Among them should be named Mary Salter Ainsworth, she would later complete the team Bowlby-Ainsworth in 1950, and James Robertson, with whom Bowlby developped the Protest, Despair, Detachment (PDD) Model”.

Mary Salter Ainsworth wrote in her 1940 dissertation “An evaluation of adjustment based upon the concept of security”. :

„Familial security in the early stages is of a dependent type and forms a basis from which the individual can work out gradually, forming new skills and interests in other fields. Where familial security is lacking, the individual is handicapped by the lack of what might be called a secure base from which to work.“ (Salter, M. D., & Study, S. G., 1940, emphasis added) 

Key ideas

The long empirical research of Bowlby and Ainsworth culminated in the publication of the attachment “trilogy”: Attachment in 1969; Separation in 1973 and Loss in 1980, which define the core of the inter-disciplinarian attachment theory.

McLeod from simplypsychology.org has summarised five key findings as follows:

  1. A child has an innate (i.e., inborn) need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e., monotropy)
  2. A child should receive the continuous care of this single most important attachment figure for approximately the first two years of life.
  3. The long-term consequences of maternal deprivation might include the following: delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression, affectionless psychopathy.
  4. Robertson and Bowlby (1952) believe that short-term separation from an attachment figure leads to distress (i.e., the PDD model).
  5. The child’s attachment relationship with their primary caregiver leads to the development of an internal working model (Bowlby, 1969)

In summary

The main thrust of the findings behind the attachment theory is the concept of the secure base or the “heaven of safety” for the child. Mary Ainsworth described the mother as the heaven of safety in situations of emotional stress and insecurity for the child.

This concept is refined to mean a “primary consistently available and sensible caregiver”. The caregiver functions as an emotional regulator for the child when it is yet unable to do so independently or through other means. The child seeks the closeness of the his secure base when it feels unsafe.

This heaven of safety concept remains prevalent throughout life even though that base may be subject to change from one person to another depending on the experience of the individual in the family of origin or other events.

Understanding Attachement

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A baby is born

Just to illustrate the importance of what we have seen above, here is a glimpse of what the attachment theory tries to describe before we dive into the relationship to self-destructive coping behaviours and addictions.

Over the first few months of the child’s life in the womb, the child’s mental concepts of the surrounding world develop. As such, the child only knows the mothers womb, the voice, the heartbeat, the warmth, the security related to a “concept of self”. A child does not distinguish itself from the mother, but is part of it.

Then the day comes that there is a great shock. The child is born and has to realise that it is different and independent from the womb, the voice, the heartbeat, the warmth, the security. The sense of “loss of self” breaks in and the alarm system is in panic mode!

When the child finds back to the voice, the heartbeat, the warmth, the security in the mothers arms, the whole system relaxes and calms down, feeling safe again. Researchers call that the attachment system and it is closely tied to the lymbic system1 of the brain that warns us of trouble.

From here on out, the child discovers it’s difference from the mother and other strange creatures like the father. That emotional and relational experience of discovery, of separation from the mother and relationship building to the father, will shape all subsequent emotional and relational experience and determine the attachment style of the child.

1Limbic system: “The limbic system, often referred to as the “emotional brain,” is an area deep in the middle of the brain that is in many ways a bridge between brain areas that lie in the brainstem (such as the locus coeruleus; see Box 5.3) and the frontal cortex (ventromedial/orbital and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; see Box 5.5). The limbic system is a collection of distinct but interconnected brain regions that play several important roles in fear, stress reactivity, learning, and memory. Hence, it is not surprising that limbic system areas are intimately involved in PTSD.” (Ford, J., Grasso, D., Elhai, J., & Courtois, C. (2015). Neurobiology of traumatic stress disorders and their impact on physical health. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, 183-232. doi: 10.1016/b978-0-12-801288-8.00005-4)

Consquences of insecurity

The mother, the father, the grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and teachers will all contribute to the shaping of an underlying feeling of “trust or distrust”, “security or insecurity” in the development of identity or “self” in the child and the subsequent building of new available, loving and caring relationships in the world.

This being the nature of reality, the lack of a consistently available and sensible secure base for the child in times of fear, loneliness, stress, etc. has continued to be linked to negative cognitive, social and emotional consequences that endure into adult life.

So we retain that, a loss in consistency of love in your primary relationship will have consequences on how we develop ways to cope with fear, anxiety, stress and loneliness.

In the following part, I will try to explain how our experience of childhood and our attachment to our parents, grandparents, peers etc. has profoundly shaped how we deal with our own negative emotions today.

Attachment and addictions

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4 Attachment styles

The empirical studies of researchers following Mary Ainsworth’s observations during her “strange situation2” study have identified at first 3 and then later 4 major categories of attachment styles. (Lengning & Lüpschen, 2012)

  1. Insecure-Avoidant
  2. Secure
  3. Insecure-Ambivalent
  4. Disorganised or Disoriented

2Strange situation test: The Strange Situation is a method of observing and recording the quality of attachment by examining the child’s inner state. The survey of the inner experience of babies is obtained in the case of the “strange situation” through observation (K.E. Grossmann, 2014). In contrast, older children and adults can use stories, additions or interviews to provide verbal information about the internal representations of their attachment system (Gloger-Tippelt, 2014).

1. Insecure-Avoidant

During the strange situation test the insecure-avoidant child has no emotional orientation to the mother as a safe heaven or secure base. There are few reactions on the part of the child in the event of a separation from the mother and in the event of a reunification, body and eye contact with the mother is avoided (G. Gloger-Tippelt, 2014; cf. Lengning & Lüpschen, 2012).

These children are perceived as very independent and have no difficulty in being comforted by other people and playing with them. This is considered very desirable in western culture. Attachment researchers such as Brisch note, however, that these children have a lower level of ability to assess potentially dangerous situations than children with a secure attachment pattern (Brisch, 2014).

2. Secure Attachment

In the same test the child with a secure attachment shows the opposite behavior. The mother serves as a safe base for exploration. In the event of emotional stress, the child quickly becomes noticeable and at the reunification, the mother is actively greeted with sounds, gestures and facial expressions. The child seeks physical contact with the mother under stress, but quickly returns to exploration when it has calmed down with the caregiver (G. Gloger-Tippelt, 2014; cf. Lengning & Lüpschen, 2012).

Studies such as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (A Departement of the National Institutes of Health, US) “Early Child Care and Youth Development” study (2006) were able to show that children with a secure attachment also had a mother with sensitive competence. For this purpose, the mothers were observed interacting with their children, who were placed in day-care centers for a long time every day. Sensitive mothers presented themselves very lively in their communication with the child and she actively responded to their child’s objects of interest. The mothers of securely bound children were also much more attentive to the child’s reactions when it came to eating (Brisch 2014).

“Sensitive mothers presented themselves very lively in their communication with the child and she actively responded to her child’s objects of interest. The mothers of securely bound children were also much more attentive to the child’s reactions when it came to eating.”

3. Insecure-Ambivalent Attachment

The behaviour of children with an insecure-ambivalent attachment is characterised by little exploratory behaviour when the mother is present and alarm when separated from the mother. The child cannot judge the mother’s answers. At the reunion, the child seeks closeness and whines. Outbursts of anger are also observed in this situation. The child does not know whether it can trust the mother and how she will react. The exploration radius is limited accordingly and the child behaves either “actively and angry” or “passively” towards the mother (G. Gloger-Tippelt, 2014; cf. Lengning & Lüpschen, 2012).

These children are perceived as calm because they scream little, but studies that measured the child’s cortisol level (stress hormone) during the “strange situation” have shown that these children are internally stressed and stressed (Birsch, 2014).

4. Disorganised or Disoriented Attachment

Children with a disorganized / disoriented attachment often had abusive parents or parents with alcohol or drug problems. Compared to the inconspicuous middle class samples, the likelihood of these children having a disorganized bond with the mother was three times as high. (Zulauf-Logoz, 2008).

These children show disorganisation or disorientation in their behaviour through a form of “wandering, confused expressions, freezing, undirected movements, or contradictory (i.e.” unorganised “) patterns of interaction with a caregiver.” (Howe, T., 2011)

Emotional consequences of attachment styles

“A child will interpret the relationships on the basis of experiences made in early childhood and have corresponding expectations of new relationships.”

John Theodore

Every child develops different patterns of expectations through their experiences with their attachment figures and interprets further relationships based on the earliest relationships with the mother, father and others.

Depending on the early childhood experiences, the child will find it easier or more difficult to build new and lasting relationships. For us as adults this means in concrete terms that future social relationships could suffer from the early childhood experiences.

If we developed a secure bond with our mother and father will expect the same from future relationships and will be more likely to be willing to knot new relationships. We developed a sense of trust and security in our capability to form loving relationships. We have experienced our worth in the light of the love of our parents and others that were close to us.

The hurt caused by neglect, carelessness, insensitivity or flat-out abuse will reflect itself in your attachment style. You may have had a caring mother, like myself, but a more distant father, who left a sense of insecurity about your worth to be loved as you are rather than for the performance you give.

John Theodore

On the other hand if there was an insecure attachment with our mother and/or father, then we venture into the world with a sense distrust and insecurity in our ability to be able to form new lasting relationships and it will make it more difficult for us to feel safe. We not sure about our worthiness to be loved and we try to make up for that lack in one way or another.

We will always interpret relationships on the basis of experiences made in the early childhood years and have corresponding expectations of new relationships. We may be more reluctant and suspicious to develop new relationships and subconsciously tend to reflect the reactions of our parents in our relationships.

The expectation of the relationship with your mother can be improved or worsened by your father or another secondary caring person. And with every new relationship an expectation process is set in motion for every person that you meet.

The hurt caused by neglect, carelessness, insensitivity or flat-out abuse will reflect itself in our attachment style. You may have had a caring mother, like myself, but a more distant father, who left a sense of insecurity about your worth to be loved as you are rather than for the performance you give.

Now, our attachment style as a child rarely changed with leaps, and as an adult it demands your willingness to come to the end of yourself and to see how your past relationships have dictated they way you have lived for all your life. There is hope and the hope is found in others.

“… if there is an insecure attachment with the mother and the father, then the child ventures into the world with a sense distrust and insecurity in its ability to be able to form new lasting relationships and will make it more difficult for the child to feel safe. The child is not sure about its worthiness to be loved and tries to make up for that.”

John Theodore

The link to addictions

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Yearning for love

The importance of a loving relationship comes in the form of compassion, care, sensitivity, responsiveness and interest. We are all looking for it and need it. It is a God given need to be loved and feel loved for who we are as a human being.

A person that received this kind of attention from its parents and maybe the larger community, will have a greater chance to grow up to be a self-respected and civilised person who is able to love others in the same way knowing he (or she) himself is loved.

Since the decline of marriage and the nuclear family, securely attached children, I am sure, are in decline. A secure attachment is more of a privilege today and rarer in a culture where single parenthood, divorces, bullying, assault and abuse of all kinds are so prevalent and almost expected in our culture.

We see new generations growing up with a yearning to be loved for who they are, seeking to find acceptance in a performance drive society through breaking the boundaries of natural families and seeking alternative lifestyles to effectively run away from their broken family experiences.

John Theodore

We see new generations growing up with a yearning to be loved for who they are, seeking to find acceptance in a performance drive society through breaking the boundaries of natural families and seeking alternative lifestyles to effectively run away from their broken family experiences.

That is emotional pain and, I dare say, trauma. Trauma develops either through a terrible momentary event or over a longer period of time with similar small events. Therefore an unsafe or insecure relationship with your most parents and later the larger community have significantly impacted the formation of an emotional wound or trauma. And that trauma you have been carrying with you all your life.

Seeking medication for the pain

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The feeling of love, acceptance and belonging is a fundamental need of every human being. And that explains why not feeling loved, accepted and connected is an emotional pain the human species. Children need it or they will become helpless and defenceless for manipulation and all sorts of evil.

That is what happened to me and does happen to billions of people. When we have not received the care and been valued according to God’s value, we will seek relief for the pain. We seek to be loved in all the wrong places and will also settle with love that is fake, counterfeit or even abusive.

Therefore, addictions are nothing else than the highjacking of your reasoning (your reptile brain) to do what is best for you as a human being. You just give in to whatever feels good and become addicted to your medication of choice, believing that this thing, this experience is what you need to make it through and that it is the only thing that will help you right now.

“You just give in to whatever feels good and become addicted to your medication of choice, believing that this thing, this experience is what you need to make it through and that it is the only thing that will help you right now.”

John Theodore

Fake love and other stuff

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The medicating of your pain of not feeling loved, cared for and belonging, can be as harmless as through reading fantasy novels, watching TV and video gaming, and as terrible as pornography, drugs and straight self-harm and suicide.

All these things are part of the world’s goods and solutions. It promises you happiness, freedom, love, ecstasy, you name it, yet nothing can replace relationships with a sense of true love and belonging.

That is why I have found and am saying to you that breaking free from addiction comes with recognising that we need to heal the wound:

  • We have been hurt in the past
  • We have come to believe certain things about ourselves and others
  • We have isolated and nobody really knows what is going on
  • We have adopted ways to cope with our emotional pain (fear, stress, anxiety, loneliness…)

Are we ready to leave our old medication behind by being courageous, embracing true love and laying a hold of the joy set before us?

Will we go ahead, and have a look at the wound and tell the story about what we have experienced to someone wo really cares?

Are we willing to see our addiction to substances, things and events in the light of what they are: lies that promise peace and love but can not deliver?

Great News! There is HOPE!

The wonderful thing about the attachment styles is that it is possible to change from insecure to secure. That change can make all the difference you need to grow into a more secure, self-respected, loving man or woman, who overcomes fear and stress in healthy ways and will also help others do so in the future.

Telling your story is the best way to start! Share your life as it is and open up to the possibility that you are not defined by the voices of your past but by the next relationship you are going to start.

Do you have someone with whom you can go deep and with whom you can grow in your relationship? Or do you have shallow relationships that only scratch the surface?

Your experience and voice is important to me.

I invite you to be courageous and to share your story by getting in contact with someone. We all are wired for love and belonging and I would love to hear your story of how your early childhood shaped your life and how your choices to find peace in a world of stress, fear, pain and despair have shaped you and share my own experience with you.

Learn more about the author on the Simple Man page.

References to articles and books

  • Ainsworth, M. (2003). Feinfühligkeit versus Unfeinfühligkeit gegenüber den Mitteilungen des Babys. Zusammenspiel versus Beeinträchtigung. Annahme versus Zurückweisung des Kindes. In K. E. Grossmann, & K. Grossmann, Bindung und menschliche Entwicklung. John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth und die Grundlagen der Bindungstheorie und Forschung (S. 414-440). Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 
  • Cherry, 2004, Biography of Psychologist John Bowlby. verywellmind.com. 18.08.2020: https://www.verywellmind.com/john-bowlby-biography-1907-1990-2795514
  • Gloger-Tippelt, G. (2014). Individuelle Unterschiede in der Bindung und Möglichkeiten ihrer Erhebung bei Kindern. In L. Ahnert, Frühe Bindung. Entstehung und Entwicklung. (3. Auflage Ausg., S. 82-109). München: Ernst Reinhardt. 
  • Grossmann, K. E. (2014). Theoretische und historische Perspektiven de Bindungsforschung. In L. Ahnert, Frühe Bindung. Entstehung und Entwicklung (3. Auflage Ausg., S. 21-41). München: Ernst Reinhardt. 
  • Howe, T., 2011, Disorganized / Disoriented Attachment. Encyclopedia Of Child Behavior And Development, 514-515. Doi: 10.1007 / 978-0-387-79061-9_870)
  • Lengning, D., & Lüpschen, N. (2012). Bindung. Münvhen: Ernst Reinhatdt. 
  • McLeod, S. A. (2017, Febuary 05). Bowlby’s attachment theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html
  • Salter M., 1949, Child Development Series, 18, 72. page 45
  • Salter, M. D., & Study, S. G. (1940). An evaluation of adjustment based upon the concept of security. Child Development Series, 18, 72.
  • Zulauf-Logoz, Marina. (2008). Die Desorganisation der frühen Bindung und ihre Konsequenzen.

Lecture:

  • Dr. Brisch, K. H. (18.11.2014). Der Einfluss schwieriger Lebensbedingungen auf die Entwicklung von Kindern. Die wichtige Rolle von Eltern, Adoptiveltern, Pflegefamilien und ErzieherInnen. Walferdange: Croix Rouge, Université du Luxembourg. 

General reference:

  • Schintgen J.-N., 2015, Development of independence from the perspective of attachment theory, The paradox of attachment and separation. Université du Luxembourg.
  • Karl Heiz Brisch: Research on attachment disorders, trauma and addiction
  • Ahnert, L., 2010, Wieviel Mutter braucht ein Kind – Bindung – Bildung – Betreuung: öffentlich und Privat. Heidelberg: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag. 
  • Ahnert L., 2014, Frühe Bindung: Entstehung und Entwicklung (3 Ausg.). München: Ernst Reinhardt Verlag. 

Hebrews 12:1-3 

King James Version (KJV)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weightand the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.

“To feel safe we all need someone to whom we can turn in our greatest moment of distress and despair. – John

Published by John Theodore

Graduate from the University of Luxembourg with a Bachelor in social and educational sciences with specialization on early childhood attachment development. He experienced freedom and is healing from trauma that underlies addictions in his personal life through the power of the promises of God, the healing experience of a loving community and a healthy personal mindset centered around the love of God and the future in His presence.

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