Attachment – What’s Love Got To Do With It?

» Posted by on Apr 20, 2016 in Articles, Attachment, Blog | 5 comments

Attachment – What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What is Attachment?

For children, a “felt sense” of security becomes internalized and helps them approach the world as a relatively safe place, be able to reach out to others in times of crisis, work difficulties through to resolution (instead of being immobilized by them), and gives them the courage to take appropriate risks in order to grow emotionally.

Attachment – what a strange word! It sounds like an add-on to a vaccuum cleaner, but the basis of “attachment theory” is something quite different. It helps us understand what is fundamental to the emotional life of human beings.

We come from within our mothers, born out of the union of two individuals. For survival we are – we must be – attached to our mother’s (or some caretaker’s) body for protection. That is how we stay safe from predators when we are small and defenseless.

Graphic_BrainDev-2_200pxwEverything we learn in the first year of life is acquired within and through this attachment, as is nearly everything we learn in the second year. We are not an add-on, but we are “added into” a family system. The family system we are added into may well be the collision of two very disparate and dysfunctional systems. The collision could be fairly recent, as with newlyweds, or may have been brewing in the cauldron for years. Nonetheless, these family systems play a most influential role in the development of our brain – in the development of our thought processes, which is what determines who we think we are and who we think others are.

We are born from within the system and then become a force in the system. We adapt to the existing system while the system reacts to the pressure of a new force. This takes place while we are helplessly dependent on others for nurture and protection. Human infants are in this dependent state for a very long time, much longer than other creatures on earth. Ironically, the helpless infant immediately demands the focus of attention, at least initially, around the clock. What power the powerless wield!

In practice and in theory, attachment is the study of how we learn to adapt to perceived danger in the environment (hey, what’s not dangerous when you can’t walk, talk, or feed yourself?) and how we learn to regulate ourselves in times of physical and emotional vulnerability. Our attachment systems are activated when we are afraid or sick or hurt, or when we to have let down our boundaries to try to get close to someone. As children, this system is on overdrive to compel us to cling to and stay close to our parents for safety and protection.

So the experiences that two adult parents had growing up in the constellations of their own families determines how they will respond to their children. It is this response (actually this complex system of responses) to their children’s expressions of attachment that are the crucial factors in their emotional development. This attachment – both the child’s expression and the parent’s response to the expression, was necessity for the survival of the human species. For the individual modern-day child, attachment is the force that connects us emotionally to others. It plays a major role in what we call love and springs from our internalized sense of self and other.


Adult Attachment and Intimacy

The Adult Attachment Interview is an assessment to evaluate the present attachment strategy in one’s adult relationships. One’s present attachment strategy was formed in childhood, often remaining unchanged into adulthood. It’s largely unconscious, and can develop into a mishmash of complex and contradictory patterns.

The AAI manual describes attachment encoding scenarios, using an interesting prerequisite: “The child goes to the parent with vulnerable emotions and…” It is what happens after the “and” that is huge.

Every child has vulnerable emotions. Where children encode attachment is the “…” after the “and,” – based on the response of the all-important attachment figure, which is usually one or both of the parents. So how does the parent respond? Are they directly rejecting of the attachment attempt? Ridiculing? Ignoring? Or are they accepting and validating? Does the parent help the child to regulate the child’s emotional state through modeling and touch? Is the parent consistent or are they unpredictable?

The parent’s response dictates the child’s reaction to and subsequent belief about her felt emotional experience. It is the key that ultimately locks into the child her understanding of love, acceptance, and self-worth. The child will likely, through this modeled behavior, treat herself and others in the same way throughout the course of life, or in an attempt to “not treat my children the way I was treated,” overreact in the opposite direction.

So what we learn in the family determines many things, such as:

  • What will I do when I feel afraid or alone?
  • From whom (and how) will I learn to regulate my emotions?
  • Whether I will internalize safety or fear, or any combination of the two, in any given situation…

This is how the human brain works. It adapts to relational issues in the family and then takes that learning out into the world to navigate present and future relationships. Neural networks are encoded through experience to predict future consequences for optimal outcome. For instance, early fear that is not worked through with a loving and attuned caregiver gets internalized and can become anxiety in adolescence and adulthood.

Take cases of trauma, which can be defined as any experience that is too difficult to handle. When there is no one around to help you feel the feelings, talk through the experience, and help you to make sense of it (which could take quite some time), the experience must be suppressed and sometimes even gets hidden from conscious memory. When a compassionate “talking through” follows a traumatic event, it also serves as a “feeling through” and it allows the traumatized person to safely experience the feelings from the event until they subside.

This process “moves” the event in the brain from an emotion state to a cognitive state (known as narrative memory). The individual is then able to access the meaning the event had in their life, recall the event without feeling as if a dam that holds back emotion is collapsing, and provides them with evidence that even though painful events take place in one’s life they can be worked through. It allows the person to return to a state of mental health. Therefore, the event need not be forgotten or repressed in order to stabilize the person in the present. It is linked to their return to health and becomes one of many events that the individual overcame in the process of becoming who they are now. This is called a “coherent narrative” of the event.

Without this processing, trauma can become a highly-charged, suppressed emotional state and subsequent experiences that our brain links to the event can increase the charge. A present trigger can unleash an extreme overreaction as all that is suppressed explodes through a hole in the dam, which allows past to pour into present. Often a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) experience is explained as “being back there again.”

Yet even these once-suppressed traumas, with appropriate corrective therapy, can become a past experience with much less (or no) disturbance in the present. Afterwards it is no longer held in working memory as something seeking to be “completed” and can instead become a part of one’s life narrative. A narrative is a more neutral description of important events, their effect, and the resolution of such experiences. Emotions can still be experienced when talking about difficulties, but they are not as disabling or all-consuming in the present.

What does all this actually all mean? Well, for children a “felt sense” of security – one that is internalized – helps them approach the world as a relatively safe place. They can reach out to others when there are difficulties and traumas, work through them to resolution (instead of being immobilized by them), and gain the courage to take appropriate risks in order to grow. Risk-taking, by definition, is to become vulnerable in some way.

Why would anyone become vulnerable if they learned it was extremely dangerous? They’d have to be crazy! But vulnerability is also the way we live in the present moment and experience life to the fullest. When a lack of success is seen only as a temporary setback, vulnerability is possible. But when failure is experienced as an intolerable devastation, risk-taking and vulnerability will be avoided at all costs. This is a core difference between securely and insecurely attached individuals. Securely attached individuals are willing to risk the vulnerability of love and intimacy.

“Children with secure attachment histories scored higher in every area, from ego resiliency, to self-esteem, to independence, to the ability to enjoy themselves and respond positively to other children. They were seen as having superior social skills – initiating more interactions with other children, sustaining them for longer periods, and, when approached, reacting with positive feelings. They had more friends.”   – Robert Karen

This is part of a new blog series that will investigate a number of important topics, according to the latest research from the study of attachment theory. Next article you’ll receive in our e-newsletter: “Is Childhood Attachment Connected to our Adult Love Language? Survey Says, “Absolutely!”


Mike Rechtien, MA, is a trained psychotherapist and a mind-body-spirit life coach working with individuals with eating disorders and other addictions at Harmony Place Monterey and Monterey Institute of Psychotherapy, in Monterey, CA. Mike is currently finishing his upcoming book, “The Unfolding,” from which these blog posts are hot-off-the-press excerpts.


  1. I have to read everything three times and write things out to fully get the fullness of very interesting information and discovery.. so I will continue to absorb .Mom

    • I did that for years with these topics – still do! Like mother like son 🙂

  2. I wished your article was longer. It was wonderfully written.
    I’ve struggled as long as I can remember with painful experiences all related to attachment. I’ve done extensive therapy throughout my lifetime. Psychodynamic, EMDR and IFS.
    To this day therefore still situations that evoke the same enormous debilitating, unmanageable internal pain .
    I just turned 65 and feel pretty resigned to the idea that I’ll just have to ride this out till the end. I just had a major attack today and feel concern that even though I have a wonderfully loving new husband (marriage), that it’s only a matter of time till he tires of this parts fears.
    Your article came at a good time. Reminded me that I’m not really crazy even though I feel like it!

    • Sharon, thanks for you openness. The therapies you mentioned are all powerful tools for healing of attachment trauma and I am sorry to hear you still experience such enormous emotional pain. And yes, I do believe that our emotional struggles do not mean we are defective or crazy. I wish the best for you and hope you can find a way to lasting peace. Congratulations on your marriage. Love is a powerful force. Mike

  3. HELLO DR. MARK SCHWARTZ & Lori Galperin, This is your colleague Lisa McKean , LCSW, LMFT, CAP at 2055 Wood Street, Suite 215, Sarasota, FL 34237

    I will always remember you fondly from my training with you at River Oaks.
    I also will never forget the SHE CRAB soup at the Windsor Court!!! What a wonderful lunch that was you treated me too!!! I thought you would want to know a former person you knew from New Orleans recently died…It is because of your work with them they were able to have a successful marriage. Thank you for your ongoing work and I would love to receive brochures for your program!!! Be well, Lisa McKean, LCSW, LMFT, CAP

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