Attachment Styles: What Are They and How Do They Impact Addiction?

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

The connection people form with their caregivers at a young age can impact them well into adulthood. John Bowlby made a significant contribution to the world of developmental psychology by introducing attachment styles that develop during the early years of life.

Attachment styles also play a role in developing addiction and can help predict who is more at risk of developing substance use disorders and different forms of addiction.

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

John Bowlby was a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who spent a few years working clinically with emotionally disturbed children. Bowlby questioned how important the maternal relationship is for a child’s development.

He wondered how separation and inconsistency in the parent-child dyad during the early years might affect the development of the child. Bowlby described “attachment” as an emotional and psychological bond created with other people.

Bowlby believed that the relationships and bonds experienced during childhood, especially from parents or caregivers, play a considerable role in behaviors that can extend into adulthood. He believed that infants need to be in a close relationship with their caregivers during times of stress.

This led Bowlby to consider how not meeting an infant’s needs affects relationships and connections as they mature. Along with his attachment theory, Bowlby concluded that there are four main styles of attachment.

Types of Attachment Styles

While attachment styles largely develop during infancy and childhood, they still impact people through adulthood. The two main attachment styles are secure and insecure. An insecure attachment is further divided into:

  • Anxious-avoidant
  • Anxious-preoccupied
  • Fearful-avoidant

Secure Attachment

A person with a secure attachment style means they have an equally positive view of themself and others. They aren’t afraid of intimacy or trusting others which helps them create long-lasting healthy relationships.

When a partner needs space or time alone, a person with a secure attachment style doesn’t worry and doesn’t typically take it personally. According to studies, around 50% of the population has secure attachment. Any other attachment style that is not secure is considered insecure.

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

A person with a dismissive-avoidant style of attachment may avoid romantic relationships. Independence and self-sufficiency are crucial, leading to strict boundaries, which may cause them to appear private or secretive.

A child that did not receive adequate attention from caregivers may learn that their needs won’t always be satisfied or acknowledged. This can lead to a belief that not only will their parents not meet their needs, but others won’t either.

A person with this attachment style may become self-dependent and avoid relationships as they get older. Instead, they may tend to seek casual flings that don’t require total commitment or deep feelings.

Anxious-Preoccupied (Anxious-Ambivalent) Attachment

A person with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style may have a positive view of others but have low self-esteem. They may have the desire to seek out relationships but become too anxious or insecure. During childhood, their parents may have been inconsistent in meeting their needs, but they were not intentionally neglected.

A child is typically happy when their needs are met by caregivers, but when their needs are not met this can lead to confusion and anxiety. With age, these people may seek out intimacy, security and comfort from others specifically in romantic relationships. They can become overly dependent, causing panic and anxiety about their partner’s behaviors.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Fearful-Avoidant—also called disorganized—is the most complex and difficult attachment style as it is linked to trauma, abuse and inconsistency during the early childhood years. Disorganized children often received inconsistency in the care they received from their parents, whose behaviors were often unpredictable. Therefore, they begin to fear their parents even though they understand that they should be a form of safety.

Unpredictable behaviors cause the child not to know what to expect from their parents, which causes anxiety, fear and a lack of trust. An adult with this attachment style may display extremely inconsistent behavior and has difficulty trusting others. They may struggle with relationships because they desire to form connections, but they struggle to fully trust others and be vulnerable.

The Link Between Insecure Attachment and Addiction

Substance use is often an attempt to self-medicate, which can lead to addiction or dependency. Studies have shown that insecure attachment styles are closely linked to addiction and substance use. Addictions are not confined to only drug or alcohol addictions but may include sex, food and other types of addiction.

Human connections are essential for well-being; however, people with insecure attachments have a more challenging time making and maintaining healthy relationships. Healthy relationships have been shown to improve mental health and can contribute to a person’s self-esteem.

Since people with insecure attachment styles have difficulty maintaining relationships, they often suffer from anxiety, depression, stress and lower self-esteem. Insecure attachment styles, specifically disorganized, often secretly crave relationships, but the fear of relationships only increases stress.

They may find themselves resorting to substance use as a way of coping with these uncomfortable feelings. A person with an insecure attachment style who is using drugs or forming any other addiction as a way to cope should seek professional help to work through these feelings.

The parent-child relationship that starts during infancy plays a critical role in shaping how the child will navigate human connection later in life. Cliffside Malibu can provide a clear path to healing through a number of therapeutic modalities. To learn more about our treatment center and the programs available, call us today at (855) 403-5641.