When counsellors talk about ‘attachment’, we are talking about the bond a baby forms with their first caregiver early in life. You may be quite familiar with the term, as it is one of the wider known psychological theories, and its importance is often spoken about. The attachment phase, the period during which the relationship between baby and caregiver is particularly important, begins at birth and continues until a child is about three years of age. During this time, the child is dependent on a ‘good enough’ environment to ensure that they develop what is known as a secure attachment to their caregiver. This means beginning their growth as a baby with enough care, warmth, affection, food, sleep etc. that they need to thrive.
The securely attached child learns, through the care, comfort and attention provided by their caregivers, to pay attention to themselves, to self-soothe, and to begin to regulate their own emotions. As their sense of security in their (then very small) world starts to grow, they begin to feel a bit more confident in their abilities to explore, to cope with new experiences, and they gradually start to move away from the caregiver,using them as a secure base that they can return to when needed. In short, they are ready to begin exploring a bit more of their world, safe in the knowledge that if it all gets a bit too much theirparent figure will be there to mind them again. As these children explore, they continue to grow in confidence, and provided they can continue on this course fairly unimpeded, they will become securely attached adults.
The securely attached adult might be said to have a good enough template for relationships. They have experienced, and therefore may expect, that relationships will be mutually respectful, emotionally regulating,and empathically attuned experiences. They tend to have realistic expectations of relationships, to expect difficulty and disagreement, but also to be able to navigate these differences in ways that helps them to grow. While affection and intimacy come quite naturally to them, at the same time they will experience inevitable anxiety and uncertainty at times in their relationships. However, the securely attached adult seems able to sit with and process these natural reactions without major difficulty. They know that these obstacles are par for the course.
It is easy of course, to fall under the impression that the securely attached person has it ‘all sorted’, that ‘negative’ emotions are short-lived for them or that they do not experience these much at all. It would be very easy to imagine that emotional health means feeling content or happy all the time, to imagine that the securely attached person does not suffer. The reality, though, is really quite different. The nature of attachment is such that the securely attached person certainly does feel negative emotion, but as they are aware and connected to this feeling they are able to process and move through it, integrating their painful experiences to create a fuller, more robust, sense of self. The securely attached person, by definition, suffers in the loss of relationship – because they are attached to the person they have lost. The key though, is that this suffering may not prevent them from grieving, adjusting to, and integrating the loss, so that they may move on to experience new relationships in the future. Avoidance of intimacy in relationship is not necessary because the threat of loss is not experienced as a threat to one’s being or sense of self. There is a (maybe unconscious) ‘knowing’ that loss can be experienced, can be felt, that it is painful but survivable.
It is because of this relationship between attachment and emotional health that psychotherapists and counsellors pay so much attention to attachment. I have often been asked, as a therapist who puts great emphasis on the importance of the therapeutic relationship, what talking about this relationship in counselling and psychotherapy has to do with people’s problems. The answer to this is simpler that it may seem at first glance – our ability to sort our own problems, to trust in and challenge ourselves, to regulate our emotions so that we can relate healthily (and establish relationships that help to get us our needs met outside the therapy), is so intertwined with attachment that to not pay attention to the relationship would be to ignore the client’s most potent potential source of self-agency - their ability to relate.
In part 2 on Attachment I will be looking more at insecure styles, their impact on relationship, and how therapy aims to work with these difficulties.