“Addictions from an Attachment Perspective”—A Review (part VII)

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Welcome back. This is part VII and the last of my multi-part blog series wherein I review the 2014 edited volume entitled Addictions from an Attachment Perspective—Do Broken Bonds and Early Trauma Lead to Addictive Behaviours? We’ll start off looking at Chapter Eight—Technology, Attachment, And Sexual Addiction by Cara Crossan. And I’m going to add Chapter Nine—Gambling Addiction: Seeking Certainty When Relationship Is the Risk by Liz Karter. My summary of Chapter Nine will bring this blog series to a close. Pull up a chair.

Crossan starts out by making this simple observation: “The Internet has changed the face of sexual addiction and how clients are presenting for treatment.” She continues, “ ‘Sex’ continues to be the most frequently searched term on the Internet.” According to information Sir Richard Bowlby presented to an audience up in Canada back in October of 2005, the second most frequently searched term is “genealogy.” Here’s what I wrote in my Sir Richard workshop summary (contact the Foundation for a copy):

Sir Richard tells us, “Do you know that next to pornography, the second largest use of the Internet is searching for information on family history, searching for genealogical data.” Apparently as marriages continue to breakup at alarming rates, people begin to search for some semblance of home by searching for their family roots, their family legacy.

It would appear that the number one and number two uses of the Internet share a common link: a search for attachment. Sadly though, Crossan reports (using other research [1]) that as people become addicted to the Internet and spend more “solitary time in front of a computer,” they spend “less time with real people.” This agrees with the information that Sherry Turkle presents in her 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle goes so far as to suggest that screen devices of all kinds are becoming attachment substitutes.

Now that people can effectively have a sexual experience via the Internet, “sexual activity no longer requires physical contact” (quoting Crossan). This has become a big problem in Japan where Japanese men increasingly prefer sex with virtual women versus real women. For more on this theme, see the following 2013 article: The Japanese Men Who Prefer Virtual Girlfriends to Sex. Crossan gives us this “take home” statement concerning why Internet or screen sex is potentially addicting: “The availability, accessibility, convenience, affordability and anonymity of stimulating content can contribute to highly addictive behaviour or experience.” This fits with descriptions earlier in this series of addictive objects as being predictable in two key ways: the availability of the object is predictable, and the emotions evoked by the object are predictable. Again, it would appear that one of the hallmarks of early insecure attachment is a later desire for an attachment object that has the potential to atone for the misdeeds of an attachment figure who was not predictable, who was not available. Seeking atonement through addiction will never work because the attachment object provides levels of predictability that are beyond human (which may in part explain why computers and smart devices have such appeal as attachment objects). According to Crossan, here are the three A’s of cybersex:

  • Anonymity
  • Accessibility
  • Affordability

Crossan now pulls from the work of sex addiction expert Patrick Carnes. [1] Carnes believes that the origin of sexual addiction “is rooted in early, developmental attachment failure with primary caregivers,” writes Crossan. Crossan briefly reviews Bowlby’s theory of attachment and the various attachment patterns. I’ll leave the reader to access this information if it is of interest. Here’s how Crossan describes an insecure bond:

An insecure bond is formed when the caregiver is neglectful of the child’s needs or emotionally dysregulated (i.e., depressed, anxious, fearful). Insecure attachments give rise to people presenting with an inability to emotionally attach known as the love avoidance, or emotional anorexia (Adams, 2011). [1]

Crossan presents a case example, which I will leave for the reader to investigate if this is of interest. Let’s move to Chapter Nine—Gambling Addiction: Seeking Certainty When Relationship Is the Risk by Liz Karter.

Like Crossan, Karter starts out with a simple observation: “Gambling addiction is not about the money.…” She continues thus: “All that matters is to buy complete absorption in the gambling activity and so play yourself away from a world that feels too scary, too painful, too risky to inhabit.” Here’s Karter’s “bottom line”: “Often the biggest risk of all for the women with gambling addiction is being in an intimate relationship.” Karter works mainly with women. Apparently gambling addiction is a big problem for women. Karter gives us a few statistics that are rather sobering (no pun intended):

  • Eighty-four per cent of women who have attended women’s group meetings for gambling addiction (which [Karter has] facilitated) have been survivors of child abuse and/or domestic violence.
  • Seventy-four per cent of women who have attended women’s groups during that time live alone or alone with children.

A woman suffering from gambling addiction “is unlikely to form healthy attachments,” writes Karter. She continues, “[S]o the woman I see for gambling addiction treatment is frequently isolated, lonely, anxious, and depressed.” As talked about above, the addictive gambling process is “often a replacement for the longed for but deeply feared intimate relationship” (quoting Karter). Karter points out that gambling these days is often done in front of a computer screen. In this way, gambling addiction shares much in common with Internet addiction. “The slot machine, the computer screen will never abandon her, never betray her trust, never judge her behaviour,” reveals Karter, “or punish her for what she thinks or feels.” A woman suffering from gambling addiction comes to depend on “gambling to soothe her [e.g., regulate her emotion], like a child depends on a parent for comfort and a sense of stability and security.” As Bowlby pointed out regularly, whether through a secure attachment pattern or an insecure one, we will find a way to satisfy our need for attachment. Bowlby also told us to not shame the client for their need for attachment—which is a universal need of all humans—but to help them find ways of securing attachment that are not self-defeating.

Karter now tells us about a unique feature of gambling addiction: “[T]here are physical objects to attach to.” She continues, “A woman who has addiction to slot machine playing might attach to a favourite machine, viewing it as ‘hers’ and becoming greatly distressed if another person plays her machine in her presence.” Karter, like many of the authors (speakers) before her, makes clear the parallel between the early insecure attachment relationship and the later relationship between the gambler and her gambling device of choice. “The object,” alerts Karter, “is closely associated with soothing and emotional support in the way that an okay mother might have been in childhood.” Karter wraps up her discussion of theory by making a point that we have heard before. The woman suffering from gambling addiction “will not let go easily and cast herself adrift without at least the hope of something else she might depend on to get through” (quoting Karter). The reason is clear. “Gambling is perceived,” writes Karter, “as offering her a sense of comfort and dependability that she has perhaps sadly not experienced from any living being.” Karter then goes on to describe a few case examples. Please avail yourself of this information if it is of interest.

With that I will bring my review of the 2014 edited volume entitled Addictions from an Attachment Perspective—Do Broken Bonds and Early Trauma Lead to Addictive Behaviours? to a close. As a general observation, addiction may be one of those areas that allows us to see clearly the connection between early insecure attachment and later self-defeating behaviors. Using Bowlby’s work as a background, we should never shame a client for their need for safe and secure attachment relationships—a universal need felt by all human beings.

PS – I’ll be taking a bit of time off from my blogging duties as I go off and play during the upcoming long weekend. Have a great Labor Day weekend!


[1] See Addictions from an Attachment Perspective for references.