What Can We Do With Attachment?

The dimensions of attachment and their corresponding prototypes

Attachment theory relates to how our relationships function with those closest to us. Attachment theory, established by John Bowlby, holds that attachment results from the close relationship needed between infant and caregiver in order for the infant to survive. Under attachment theory, we base our expectations for future relationships on the relationships we had at an early age; most prominently, those with our caregivers. Research done to characterize the attachment has resulted in the proliferation of the idea of “attachment styles”, which are descriptive categories for the attachment behaviors displayed by someone towards their attachment figure. According to Hazan and Shaver (1994), these attachment styles were initially characterized as secure (in which the caregiver is responsive to the infant), anxious/ambivalent (in which the caregiver sometimes is responsive and sometimes is not), and avoidant (in which the caregiver isn’t responsive). Later, attachment was categorized through the use of two dimensions, those being avoidance and anxiety experienced in the relationship with the attachment figure.

So beyond being a way to describe relationships, what can we use attachment for? Research done on applying attachment to therapy by Simon Fraser psychologist Marlene Moretti and colleagues has shown that focusing therapy on attachment concepts in the parent-teen relationship has benefits for aggressive behaving teens. This therapy notably centers on the parents of the teens that are at risk for aggressive behavior and does not actually directly intervene with the teen. Each week for the therapy features an attachment principle; examples given by the researchers include “Attachment is for life,” “Conflict is part of attachment,” and “Understanding, growth, and change begin with empathy.”  The therapy intends to improve security within the parent-teen relationship by focusing on these attachment principles. The researchers have also been able to involve a wider group of parents in the therapy through dissemination of their therapy manual and training.

While improving parenting is a relatively proximal application of attachment, other applications have been more abstract from the central focus on the parent-child of relationship. For example, Ciechanowski and colleagues applied attachment theory to health care, assessing how attachment related to symptom reporting and primary care use and costs in a sample of female patients. The researchers focused on attachment styles, putting the patients in the various attachment categories based on a self-report measure. They found that patients with a fearful attachment style and patients with a preoccupied attachment style reported more symptoms than those with a secure attachment style. They also found that patients with a preoccupied attachment style had significantly more primary care visits and costs than the other patients. The authors attributed these findings to preoccupied individuals being highly dependent on others as a result of how their attachment experience shaped their expectations for relationships.

These two research projects are quite disparate in their focus, but they both rely on attachment theory to provide the theoretical basis for their efforts. It is interesting to find that attachment theory, which began as a way to describe close relationships, has a varied set of applications to the real world.

Image Credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/Attachment_Theory_Two_Dimension_Model.png

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