Attachment Theory in Couples Therapy

For three weeks in November, I served as a faculty member of a wonderful on-line forum on Attachment Theory and Couples Therapy. We had an enlightening dialogue about both the research and clinical application of attachment theory concepts to couples therapy. In the process, I discovered the Couple Attachment Interview. I was introduced to it by Carolyn and Phil Cowan. While many of you may know the AAI, this interview is specific to couples.

The CAI is an interview where an individual provides a narrative about his/her relationship with a current romantic/marriage partner. It is designed to assess a partner's frame of mind about attachment. Partners are rated on their resemblance to three prototypic descriptions of couple relationship narratives: Secure, Dismissing, and Preoccupied. I will give you a few quick headlines about each type:

The Secure Type:

“The hallmark of this prototype is a coherent and credible narrative that shows a valuing of intimacy and paints a believable picture of two individuals involved in a relationship. The secure type shows credible valuing of attachment, reciprocity, mutuality, or intimacy.”

The Dismissing Type:

“The hallmark of this prototype is the fact that the importance of the relationship and/or the partner is minimized or dismissed. The avoidance of attachment concerns takes the forms of downplaying or denying the importance of the attachment relationship or partner; downplaying or denying the negative impact of difficulties on the relationship, the partner, and/or the self;. There is an implicit claim to personal invulnerability and independence. This partner often avoids attachment-related concerns (i.e., creates an impression that thinking and talking about relationships is foreign and uncomfortable).”

The Preoccupied Type:

“The hallmark of this category is an enmeshment or preoccupation with the relationship.  This preoccupation may be exhibited by unregulated affect such as uncontained, preoccupying  anger or anxiety (unsuccessful struggling against the relationship difficulties) AND/OR by vague, long, rambling, incoherent, or irrelevant explanations and descriptions (passive reception of difficulties)” This partner is often  preoccupied with the relationship or with attachment-related experiences. Often their defenses are “not working, as evidenced by eruption of uncontained, preoccupying anger or anxiety, or by passive, vague, rambling or vacillating speech. They lack genuine insight into the impact of their own behavior on the partner.”

One thing to keep in mind is that attachment is not a fixed character trait but is directly related to a specific relationship. Just as Bowlby found that a child could have different attachment patterns with each parent, so may an individual partner emphasize different attachment patterns in any primary relationship. Security and insecurity are specific to a particular relationship.

As we approach the holidays, I am helping many of my couple clients look at deepening the quality of their attachment. We talk about what touches them emotionally at this time of year. It is so easy for them to get caught up in spending money, buying gifts, and entertaining, that they actually forget to value one another and the relationship/family they are developing.

The value of a secure, loving relationship is particularly poignant during the holidays and the absence of it is often more starkly felt. I find that couples are relieved when they know that both partners are stretching to make the relationship feel good-truly a better gift than anything they could purchase this holiday season!

Next week is the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference. I hope to see many of you there. It will be a gathering of over 8,000 therapists. If you are there, please stop at The Couples Institute Table in the Exhibit hall to say hello. If I don't see you, I wish you holidays full of warmth, love, creative approaches to stress and remembering that the quality of the attachment with friends and family means so much more than anything else.

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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