Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory

© Linda Graham, MFT

Attachment research is becoming a popular topic in clinical trainings for MFT’s because it explains and supports so much of what we do under our license to “improve and maintain healthy family relationships.” It teaches us – and parents – what behaviors of early caregiving create “secure attachment” in an infant, and along with infant-child development research, explains why secure attachment is so foundational to trust, affect regulation, self cohesion, learning, and adaptive relational-coping strategies.

It explains so much of what goes on now – relationally – in adult clients in terms of the “relationship rules” learned in earliest attachment (family of origin) dyads. Along with recent findings in brain research, it verifies why those “relationship rules” are so deeply imbedded in our implicit memory by 12 months of age and operate unconsciously in all of us well into adulthood. And the research indicates that an adult with less than secure attachment style can “earn” secure attachment – with all the capacities for adaptive functioning that that implies – by experiencing secure attachment with a “true other” (spouse, therapist) over time.

This is powerful stuff. I want to explore briefly what this implies for therapy with adult clients whose “relationship rules” have become rigidified into the maladaptive strategies we term personality disorders.

Attachment theory posits that human beings have an innate biological drive to “seek proximity to a caregiver in times of alarm or danger”. We’re “hardwired” – programmed in our brains – to “attach” to someone for physical safety and security. Research has since proven this hypothesis beyond irrefutability and prioritizes it even over the drive for food. This hardwired attachment behavior becomes a powerful ally in the healing process in therapy; clients can use the therapist as an “attachment figure” to experience safety, protection, a “secure base” in times of alarm or perceived danger and, over time, internalize that secure base within themselves.

Less than secure patterns of relating and coping (clinging, avoiding, manipulating, dissociating, etc.) in adult clients have traditionally been worked in the transference relationship between client and therapist. Clients re-enact or project these rules onto us; we feel our way through transference and counter-transference to make deeply unconscious dynamics – and their implications for experiences of self and relationship to others – conscious. Not easy to do, and not sufficient. After all, many of our clients do “know better”, and their patterns remain frustratingly intractable to consciousness and insight alone. Attachment research helps us understand why these patterns are so remarkably robust and resilient, and de-pathologizes their stubborn inflexibility.

The elements of early caregiving that create “secure attachment” in an infant – presence, attunement, empathy, affect regulation, reciprocal communication -are the very elements that help create conditions for a client’s healing in therapy. The therapeutic (attachment) relationship heals – at least in part – by creating a securely attached dyad that re-parents our clients into healthy mental and emotional functioning. And the capacities that identify a parent as secure and able to create secure attachment in their infant – self cohesion, reflective self function, meta processing, external differentiation, internal integration – are the very capacities embodied in an effective therapist.

When clients experience themselves as securely attached to a secure attachment figure in therapy, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they can literally begin to re-program their unconscious “rules” about relationship. Literally create new “grooves” in their brain. ((I’m not making this up; it’s the research.) It’s the experiencing themselves in relationship in a new way, over and over and over, consciously and unconsciously, that does the re-programming.. With enough plasticity in the adult brain and enough flexibility in the adult psyche, clients can actually “earn” secure attachment with all the possibilities for healthy functional relationships that implies for their lives.

We’re learning: more than our theories and techniques, necessary as they are, it’s the resiliency of the client, the mature being of the therapist, and the relationship between the two that creates the miracles we strive for in our sessions.


Linda Graham, MFT, is in full-time private practice in San Francisco and Corte Madera, CA, specializing in relationship counseling for individuals and couples. She offers consultation and trainings nationwide on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. She publishes a monthly e- newsletter on Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness, archived on www.lindagraham-mft.com, and is writing a book: Growing Up and Waking Up: The Dance of the Whole Self. Contact Linda through this website

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