Attachment and Addiction

John Bowlby pioneered understand of the way human being “attach” in his study of children and their caregivers. His fundamental insight is that the shape of our emotional response to the people closest to us has been informed by very early childhood experiences. 

Therapists use the basic insights of Attachment Theory and and their understanding of Attachment Styles in treating sexual addiction. 

While an attachment style begins to form in the infant-caregiver relationship, a particular style — that is how we experience our emotional connection with others — continues to be either reinforced or challenged throughout our lives. 

Two researchers in the 1980s (Hazan and Shave) studied how attachment style influences adults. 

Hazan and Shaver looked at the emotional bond between romantic partners. They found this connection is driven by the same emotional patterns are present in the infant-caregiver relationship. 

Chris Fraley summarizes their insight:

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  • both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  • both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
  • both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  • both share discoveries with one another
  • both play with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
  • both altar speech to signal intimacy (“baby talk”)
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Hazan and Shaver show that adult romantic relationships demonstrate similar attachment processes. Relationship of healthy intimacy are characterized by “Secure Attachment”. When the relationship includes avoidance or anxiety, partners do not receive the affirmation, validation, appreciation, and support that contribute to general, emotional health and personal stability.  

People who struggle with sexual addiction tend to be be particularly challenged in developing secure attachment relationships. This failure to connect with others is reinforced by the addictive process. Indeed, failure to develop a relationship of secure attachment feeds the addictive process and undermines recovery. 

Once one understands that adult attachment and infant-caregiver attachment function in the same way, one can begin to appreciate what is involved in a treatment plan for sexual addiction and why it is not complete until one addresses attachment issues.   

One cannot begin treatment for sexual addiction by addressing Attachment. As long as a person is trapped in the addictive process, the obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior drive the proverbial. 

The therapist first must reduce shame so the client can overcome denial and face the truth of the addictive process. The client must then embrace and master recovery skills that will allow him to separate from the addictive process. 

Once sufficient sobriety has been established, the client can begin to address the challenge of healthy attachment. This is one of the necessary elements that assures a life-long recovery. Once the person in recovery learns to develop healthy attachments he will be able to:

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  • Engage in relationships of healthy intimacy with others
  • Experience greater emotional stability
  • Embrace the his personal value and worth without shame
  • Spend time with others with reduced stress and anxiety
  • Become more resilient in response to disappointment 
  • Express his feelings and seek emotional support from others

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Image by ZioDave