As it becomes more and more accepted that substance use disorders are a not a moral failing but a maladaptive coping mechanism for deeper wounds, the undeniable link between attachment theory and addiction becomes clearer.
Attachment theory is a theory about the bonds and relational patterns between people that develop initially between a child and her caregiver and then continue to replay in her relationships throughout her life, particularly in intimate relationships. There is increasing evidence that addiction commonly stems from a person’s “attachment style” developed early in life.
Johann Hari famously said “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.” Attachment theory can be seen as a study of the roots of chronic loneliness—the types of loneliness that cause us to cling or run from those who love us for fear of that love disappearing. In this way, it addresses not only fear of intimacy, but also the fear of surviving without it. These are two sides of the same coin. It is also a study in how human connection is the cornerstone of our survival as a species. To understand this, let’s take a deeper look at the basics of attachment theory and addiction’s role in it.
Understanding Attachment Theory
Originally developed by British psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory is a way of understanding human relational behavior. Attachment, or “attachment style,” simply put, is the way in which a person bonds with another person. Bowlby hypothesized that the patterns of attachment that follow adults into their relationships throughout their lives are developed early on, primarily in infancy and toddlerhood.
When we are born, we are far more helpless than most other species. As a small child, our survival depends the love and attention of our primary caregivers.
If these caregivers fail to feed us when we are hungry or console and reassure us when we are scared, we can develop the very primal fear of survivalist panic. All of this affects our patterns of relating to others, emotional regulation, and our risk for substance use disorders, depressive anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
Four Types of Attachment
According to attachment theory, there are four “attachment styles” that develop in the early years of a person’s life:
People with a secure attachment style have a basic trust that the people they are close to can be trusted to be there for them. They also feel comfortable with others depending on them. They are comfortable with both autonomy and intimacy.
Avoidant attachment is a relational pattern that includes feelings of discomfort with having others dependent or attached to them. People with this attachment style may have a fear of intimacy or closeness with others, and can present as emotionally distant, aloof, and non-confrontational.
People with an anxious attachment style may fear abandonment by others, nottrusting that they will be there for them consistently. This can present as “clingy” or controlling behaviors. Anxiously attached people can be very sensitive to other’s moods and have trouble holding boundaries.
A disorganized attachment style can develop when a person is both anxious and avoidant, and is usually the result of significant childhood trauma. The link between abuse and insecure attachment is unavoidable.
While some people may fall neatly into one of these categories, many have a mix of the above relational patterns, depending on their situation. Attachment patterns can have a generational component; the way one learns to relate to their primary caregivers often dictates how they relate to their own children, as well as to intimate partners and other people in their lives.
Attachment Theory and Addiction
Attachment theory and addiction intersect in a number of ways. Secure attachment is extremely important in development of a person’s resilience, self-esteem, empathy, and flexibility, stress management, and communication, among other things. When someone has developed an avoidant, anxious, or disorganized attachment style, they suffer greatly, having a difficult time
maintaining healthy boundaries as well as managing life’s stresses, interpersonal relationships, and trust in themselves.
A person with a secure attachment is generally able to take action in their lives and weather stress with confidence. When this piece is missing, it is not uncommon for people to turn to addiction to cope with trauma, mental health issues, physical pain, and life stressors. A person’s attachment and substance abuse patterns should always be examined concurrently for effective treatment.
Some of the long term effects associated with insecure attachment include not only substance abuse, but also anger management issues, risky behavior, relational problems, process addiction, and disordered eating, among other things. When life becomes overwhelming a person does not have the healthy ways to cope, addiction becomes a means of survival.
Addiction and Loneliness
When someone with an insecure attachment is unable to have a fulfilling and healthy relationship, they may turn to substances to fill this void of loneliness. Though addiction ultimately leads to more chaos, it can paradoxically feel like a consistent, stabilizing force in a person’s life. Take the example of John, a college student and substance-dependent.
John, who has an avoidant attachment style, grew up with parents who were not reliably there for him. Romantic relationships have failed because he fears getting close and opening up to a partner who will abandon him in the same way. But alcohol feels consistent.
No matter what is going on in the world that is out of his control, he can rely on the way alcohol makes him feel. And when he is intoxicated, the rest of life’s unpredictability matters less. In this way, John has attempted to form an attachment bond with alcohol instead of with other human beings. This story is all too common among those suffering from addiction.
Treating Addiction Holistically
Whether avoidant, anxious, or a mixture of both, it is common for people to find respite from their attachment wounds in substance abuse. For this reason, addressing addiction from an attachment-based perspective is imperative to finding long-term addiction recovery. Traditional substance disorder treatment centers that only focus on sobriety miss the root cause of the behavior, setting their clients up for relapse. A holistic treatment center will take into account a person’s developmental history when creating a treatment plan for substance use disorders in order to get to the root of a person’s suffering.
The good news is, the brain is malleable, and a person’s attachment style isn’t set in stone. With the right therapeutic interventions, it is possible to heal from early wounding and develop a secure attachment style in adulthood, ultimately leading to sustainable addiction recovery. We guide our clients towards this type of healing with therapies such as EMDR, Internal Family Systems, mindfulness, and more. Our mission is to guide clients in finding sobriety, but lasting inner peace.