“Addictions from an Attachment Perspective”—A Cheat Sheet

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I hope everyone had a great long weekend. A reader emailed me and asked if I could create a “cheat sheet” for my multi-part review of the 2014 edited volume entitled Addictions from an Attachment Perspective—Do Broken Bonds and Early Trauma Lead to Addictive Behaviours? That sounds like a good idea, and, as a result, will be the topic for this week’s post. To speed things up, I’ll use the collective term “the authors” to refer to the various authors (speakers) who contributed to the edited volume. If you wish to know who exactly said what, you’ll have to read my multi-part series. Quotes are by the authors outside of quoted terms.

Probably the biggest point to consider is your position concerning “hardware versus software.” The authors suggest that addiction is a software issue, that is to say, a psychological issue. In contrast, some feel that addiction is a hardware issue, that is to say, some form of gene expression. If you are a hardware person, then Addictions from an Attachment Perspective will be of little help.

The next biggest point to consider is whether you believe that an attachment behavioral system really exists. If you do not believe that an attachment behavioral system exists, then, again, Addictions from an Attachment Perspective will be of little help. Why? Well, the main idea that ties together the various chapters is this: Early insecure attachment plays a central role in the development of addictive behaviors later in life. Addiction may well be one of the best places to see the connection between an early history of insecure attachment and self-defeating behaviors in adulthood. This is one reason why Bowlbian attachment theory (actually, all psychodynamically oriented theories) is often referred to as a “connectionist” theory: A theory connecting early experiences to later behavior. Non-connectionist theories (i.e., behaviorism) take the stand that early experiences have little to no connection to later behavior. If you are a “non-connectionist” then Addictions from an Attachment Perspective will be anathema to you.

Now, here’s a reason why Addictions from an Attachment Perspective may fail some people: The authors never present scientific data establishing a correlation between early insecure attachment and later addictive behavior. This correlation is established through clinical observation and clinical work. Such scientifically derived correlational data may exist, but it is not presented in Addictions from an Attachment Perspective. If you know of any scientifically derived correlational data linking an early history of insecure attachment and later addictive behavior, please leave a comment. We’d love to hear about it.

So, here are the key beliefs you must carry with you in order for Addictions from an Attachment Perspective to make any sense or provide any help:

  • a belief that addiction is mainly a software problem (e.g., a psychological problem)
  • a belief that the attachment behavioral system exists
  • a belief that there is a correlation between early insecure attachment and later addictive behavior
  • a general belief in connectionist theories

If the above beliefs describe you, then let’s continue. If not, you may wish to continue just for grins.

Here’s another key point that the authors make: we can become addicted to just about any object, substance, or process: sex addiction, food addiction, gambling addiction, Internet addiction, Internet sex addiction, buying addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, you name it.

The authors suggest that early insecure attachment creates a yearning in many that can only be satisfied by an addictive process. Looked at another way, the addictive process becomes a surrogate attachment figure. The addictive process becomes the parent (or parents) the addict never had as a child. Here’s the big problem. A yearning born from an early history of insecure attachment has as its object perfection. The addict searches for an addictive object or process that is entirely predictable: predictable in terms of what one feels, and predictable in terms of when one will feel. Growing up in a chaotic and unpredictable environment creates in some a hyper need for hyper predictability. As the authors point out, human beings cannot deliver perfect predictability. As a result, humans as attachment figures will always fail the addict. The authors frame addiction as “attachment to a dead object.” Attaching to a dead object as an adult tends to reveal that the infant/young child perceived his or her primary attachment figure to be effectively “dead” or otherwise non-responsive. [1]

The authors point out that addicts will be very reluctant to give up their addictive object or process. Why? Because the addictive object or process is acting as a surrogate attachment figure. The only way an addict will give up an addictive object or process is if there is an alternative surrogate attachment figure. The authors suggest that the best surrogate attachment figure is some type of therapeutic group. Alcoholics Anonymous would be one example.

The authors caution against shaming addicts by calling them weak willed and only interested in having a good time. Using Bowlbian attachment as a background, the authors tell us that addiction is a “signpost [or connection] to earlier suffering” and also provides evidence of a “human being’s struggle to survive.” There’s nothing fun about an addictive process. As Bowlby wrote about, humans will find any number of ways to satisfy their need for attachment. Unfortunately, an early history of insecure attachment will often put us on a path toward satisfying our need for attachment using self-defeating strategies such as addiction. The authors alert us to the fact that treatment has one overarching goal: move the need for attachment from self-defeating strategies to self-fulfilling and enriching strategies, strategies often associated with secure attachment.

Now, the authors suggest that the addict will have to abstain from the addictive object or process in order to bring about change. Why? Well, it turns out that addiction tends to turn off what are known as the Executive Functions. [2] EF is needed to engage in such things as reflection, setting goals, imagining new possible futures, and being empathetic. We need EF skills so that we are “able to take from life that which makes life meaningful and fulfilling.”

The authors talk about how addicts choose an addictive object or process (not necessarily consciously) as a way of engaging in self medication. Here’s a quote that describes this self medication process:

Addicted individuals suffer because they cannot regulate their emotions, self-other relationships, and self-care. They self-medicate the pain and suffering associated with these self-regulation difficulties.

As you would expect, treatment informed by Bowlbian attachment theory centers on developing ways of regulating emotion that are not self-defeating. No easy task. The authors point out that treatment may take years.

The authors talk about how rise of the digital age has seen to it that the flames of addiction are fanned. I’ll end this post by presenting an excerpt from the last part of my blog series on addiction and attachment:

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).


[1] The Still Face protocol, developed by Edward Tronick, assesses an infant’s reaction to his or her mother suddenly assuming a still or dead face during a typical play session. Infants will try to in essence “bring the mother back to life” through attention getting vocalizations and movements. Failing this, the infants become distressed because in their minds, their mother has essentially gone away. Interestingly, male infants tend to become distressed more easily than female infants. Apparently girls, even at this early age, are able to “keep mother in mind” for longer periods of time when compared to boys. In many ways the Still Face is similar to the Strange Situation Assessment in that both assess the infant’s (Still Face) and toddler’s (Strange Situation) reaction to separation from mother.

[2] See my summary of Dr. Jay Carter’s workshop on EF for more on this theme.