Attachment Disorders and Alcoholism

attachment alcoholism

Attachment theory was originally described by psychologist John Bowlby as the biologically rooted tendencies of individuals to create strong emotional bonds with their primary caregivers during their first few years of life. Numerous extensive studies conducted on attachment relationships clearly confirm that the history of early attachment directly affects the health of interpersonal relationships throughout adulthood. The earliest relationship a human being forms, that with his or her caregiver, will pave the way for personality, the development of a sense of identity, emotional functioning, the ability to cope with stress, and the presence of both psychopathological symptoms and potential health conditions. Early interactions with primary caregivers become the ultimate source of knowledge as far as interacting with others and with the world at large. This knowledge will inevitably be expressed in internal operating models over the course of an individual’s life. These internal operating models guide self-perception, and are expressed in interpersonal relationships. When attachment in the earliest relationship with a primary caregiver is insecure, unhealthy, or disrupted, later relationships will suffer.

The Three Patterns of Attachment

Mary Ainsworth, who collaborated with Bowlby, described three predominant patterns of attachment: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant. Three similar styles of attachment present in adult relationships (specifically romantic) were later explored by psychological researchers Hazan and Shaver: secure, anxious-ambivalent, and avoidant.

Let us expand on these three differing forms of attachment in order to better understand.

  1. Secure attachment style.

This attachment style is characterized by feeling a high and consistent level of satisfaction in close interpersonal relationships. Those in secure attachment relationships will employ effective communication, based on emotional openness and mutual trust. When a love one attempts to become closer to the individual, his or her advances are readily accepted. Dependence upon others is perceived in a positive light. When interpersonal relationships become problematic, the individual will reveal a variety of effective and healthy coping mechanisms. He or she will rely on the support of others in times of need, and display an obvious sense of personal and interpersonal security.

  1. Anxious-ambivalent attachment style.

This attachment style is characterized by ongoing concern regarding the stability of interpersonal relationships, as well as a steadily increasing fear of losing loved ones (usually to alternative relationships). In most cases, these fears are not entirely justified, and are likely to cause a steadily increasing state of anxiety pertaining to the behaviors of the romantic partner. In order to protect themselves emotionally, those exhibiting this type of attachment style may opt to become ambiguous towards the relationship, distancing themselves to prevent hurt or heartbreak. Anxiety stems from innate feelings of insecurity in relationships.

  1. Avoidant attachment style.

This attachment style is characterized by a tendency to completely avoid close and emotionally open romantic relationships with a partner, for fear of being vulnerable, extreme lack of trust, and anxiety pertaining to being abandoned. In relationships defined by avoidant attachment styles, the avoidant individual will experience an extreme lack of internal approval regarding dependence upon another human being. If a loved one attempts to get closer, the avoidant individual will likely being to feel overwhelmingly anxious, nervous, tense, and embarrassed. Boundaries are important and strictly enforced (though the boundaries constructed are far from healthy). When difficult situations arise, avoidant individuals will actively avoid seeking the help and support of others, tending to isolate excessively.

Attachment and Alcoholism

It has been found that there are two distinct dimensions in regards to bonds formed in adult relationships. Anxiety, which directly corresponds to a deep-seated fear of rejection, and avoidance, which in turn corresponds to an avoidance of intimacy and emotional openness. Insecure attachment patterns increase the risk of psychopathology throughout life; this we know and understand to be true. Interestingly enough, the relationship between insecure attachment early on in life and the later development of alcohol dependency is becoming more and more clear to researchers. Empirical studies distinctly confirm that individuals who become addicted to alcohol and other psychoactive substances later on in life are extremely likely to have experienced insecure attachment early on, and display both severe anxiety and avoidance in current attachment dimensions. It was recently found, in a study entitled ‘Attachment Relationships Among Alcohol Dependent Persons’, that individuals who are dependent upon alcohol rarely present secure attachment to others. In fact, it was determined that most alcoholic men and women manifest immense distrust in interpersonal and romantic relationships, often avoiding emotional openness and intimacy altogether. The results of the study also indicated that alcoholic men and women consistently differ from non-alcoholics in their dimensions and styles of attachment.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders

So what does all of this really mean? Essentially, it means that men and women who suffer from insecure attachment bonds in infancy will later turn to alcohol as a means of coping with their underlying inability to form healthy interpersonal relationships. In order for healthy relationships to be formed, the alcoholism must first be addressed, and in order for the alcoholism to be adequately addressed, the early childhood attachment trauma must be treated and resolved. We at Next Chapter work closely with men who have unwittingly developed a host of psychopathological issues, ranging from sexual anorexia to compulsive gambling to drug addiction and alcoholism – all stemming from unresolved attachment trauma which occurred early on in life. We specialize in the treatment of co-morbid disorders, and have extensive experience in the realm of insecure attachment and related symptoms. For more information on our comprehensive program of addiction and trauma recovery, please feel free to contact us today.