Attachment Theory

As human beings, we are born to connect. We come equipped with an attachment system that compels us to interact with other human beings. From birth, we are dependent on others for our survival and well-being. Babies who don’t have a nurturing presence in their lives have the potential to develop ‘failure to thrive’, and may die as a result of lack of connection. Certainly our most basic needs for food and shelter have to be met. But in addition to basic survival needs, we are programmed to get our emotional needs met by those who are taking care of us. Babies depend on their caregivers to help regulate their nervous systems, to help calm them when upset, to soothe them when they are stressed, and to assure them that they will be taken care of and protected. When this doesn’t happen, it can cause a great deal of distress in the infant, even momentarily, as seen in this powerful YouTube video called “the still face experiment”.

John Bowlby, the famous British psychiatrist, developed a theory of attachment in which he theorized that our inborn attachment system is an evolutionary mechanism that keeps infants safe from predators.  He wanted to study how the attachment between a child and their caregiver impacts the development of the child, and also how this attachment style can be passed down through the generations.  Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, continued to explore his ideas and devised the famous “strange situation” experiments1 which observed the attachment relationship between the child and her/his caregiver and what happens when the child is separated from his/her caregiver. These experiments, combined with the work of other researchers, have culminated into classifying attachment styles into four basic categories:  secure, avoidant, anxious/preoccupied, disorganized.   To read more about these attachment styles and to take an adult attachment style quiz, please visit

Of course, nobody can be totally present and attuned to another person 100% of the time. These styles develop over time as a child is exposed to many different familial interactions taking place around him/her. This learning becomes laid down as a kind of blueprint, a template, of what to expect when interacting with others. This blueprint is laid down as implicit memory, procedural memory, meaning that it is out of our conscious awareness.  We begin to develop expectations, defenses and strategies in response to the overall general learnings about being with other people, which all serve the ultimate purpose in making sure we survive whatever is happening around us.  As we grow, our style takes more shape and we can begin to understand what our particular style is when we start looking at how we are interacting with our peers, our colleagues, our friends, our family and, ultimately, with the adult intimate partners we choose.

Most of us have moments and situational contexts where we are activated into exhibiting qualities of each of these styles.  However, our overall way of relating to the world and to other people usually tends to lean more towards one general tendency.

The good news is that attachments styles can be worked with and changed.  They are not immutable.  In working with clients, I am aware of how primary the relationship is between us.  I work hard to create a stable, reliable and consistent presence which operates as a secure base from which to do our work.

If this is of interest to you, we can work together to explore explicitly how your particular attachment style shows up in the world, in your relationships and whether you would like to create changes in these patterns. Through our relationship, we have the opportunity to work, in vivo, live, with any material of an attachment nature that comes up between us. In the safety of our therapeutic relationship, I can set up mini experiments, using the principles of Attachment Theory and Hakomi Psychotherapy, to explore new ways of being with another. This has the potential to then be taken out into your experiences with others in the world. Our attachment styles with others can be a primary source of joy and also pain. Learning more about your style of connecting to others and having the opportunity to experiment with new ways of relating can be a profound experience of growth and healing.

When appropriate, I also use Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) which is a way of incorporating the attachment relationship between my clients and myself during the process of clearing trauma with EMDR.  This way of working was developed by Laurel Parnell, PhD, and more can be found in her book, Attachment-Focused EMDR: Healing Relational Trauma. I am a contributing author of two Chapters: Chapter 10: “Case Example, Preparing a Client with Severe Attachment Trauma for EMDR”, (pages 160 – 173), and Chapter 16: “Using AF-EMDR as an Adjunctive Therapist to Treat Lifelong Depression, Development Neglect and Attachment Wounding”, (pages 287-320).

1 McLeod, S. A. (2014). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from