Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy

Posted: November 28th, 2013


Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy








Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy


In human psychology, the relationship between a parent and a child creates a strong bond. When a child is born, he or she forms a bond with his or her parent(s). According to the prominent psychologist, John Bowlby, a child is supposed to form an attachment with at least one person so that he or she can grow emotionally healthy. This resulted in Bowlby’s development of the attachment theory that has been of great help in psychotherapy. However, some psychologists have greatly opposed the theory. This is because they claim that the theory lacks enough evidence to support its philosophies. In spite of these oppositions, the theory has shown great success in the therapy of patients with psychiatric ailments. Therefore, the inception of the attachment theory has been a significant break through in psychotherapy and human psychology.


The article ‘Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy’ by Daniel Sonkin is an overview of the attachment theory by John Bowlby. The author was keen to show that one of the survival tactics of humans was to develop attachments with each other. For this reason, Bowlby was able to create the attachment theory. Additionally, Sonkin showed how the attachment theory was related to psychotherapy. Sonkin also discussed the theory in relation to psychotherapy by looking at other works done by Bowbly. Sonkin concluded his article with a simple explanation of how the attachment theory could be easily understood by other users for the purposes of applying it in psychotherapy (Sonkin, 2005).

The second article ‘Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy Research’ by Tracy Eells is also about the relationship between psychotherapy and the attachment theory. In this article, Eells first introduced the attachment theory to her readers. This general overview stated that the attachment theory is the early bond formed between individuals, caregivers and infants. Additionally, Eells discussed about the progress being made by other scholars to develop the attachment theory by introducing classifications of attachments between different people. In addition to that, the researcher summarized other works done by scholars to show the relationship between the attachment theory and psychotherapy. Finally, the author concluded her article by showing how the attachment theory had enriched the understanding process and outcomes of therapy sessions (Eells, 2001).

I highly agree with the viewpoint of the two authors concerning the great influence that the attachment theory has had on psychotherapy. Bowlby was requested by the UN to conduct a research on the subject of orphans developing psychiatric problems. The research aimed at helping psychiatrists with evaluation and diagnosis of psychiatric problems. This clearly shows the immense impact that the attachment theory has on the field of psychotherapy. In addition, the theory also improves treatment of patients with psychological problems related to issues of attachment. This shows that the theory not only helps children with psychological problems, but also helps adults who were suffering from the same ailments. Therefore, I highly agree with the two authors that the attachment theory is a great breakthrough in psychotherapy.

Based on the research conducted be psychiatrists over the years, most of the problems that are affecting psychiatric patients are related to attachments that were formed from birth. These researches have proved that many children who form bonds with their caregivers often do not have psychological issues (Gillath, Selcuk & Shaver, 2008). On the other hand, those children who grow up without forming relational bonds are constantly affected by psychiatric problems. I have also learnt that Bowlby’s theory of attachment was developed with the aim of aiding orphans with psychological problems. The development of the theory stimulated growth in the field of psychotherapy.

Various improvements can be made on the attachment theory to ensure that it remains relevant and efficient in the society. When the theory was started by Bowlby, it was based on children’s psychiatric problems (Johnson, Dweck & Chen, 2007). However, the articles by Eells and Sonkin have tried to improve the theory. The authors improve the theory by expounding on use of the attachment theory during adult therapy (Eells, 2001). I believe researchers need to develop ways of including adults in the use of the attachment theory. The complete inclusion of adults in the attachment theory will mark a great revolution in the field of psychotherapy. The attachment theory can also be applied in the family setting. In this set up, the different types of bonds formed can be evaluated in relation to the roles they play in developing psychological health.


            One of the greatest achievements in the study of human psychology was the development of the attachment theory. However, over the past few years, some psychologists have tried to discredit the theory. The basis of their critic has been the efficiency of the theory in delivering successful therapy. On the other hand, the articles by Eells and Sonkin prove the feasibility of the attachment theory in psychotherapy. The articles show the role that attachment plays in diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems. The contribution of the two authors also shows the need for the attachment theory to be improved to include adult treatment. The contribution of the attachment theory in the development of psychotherapy is immense. The development of the theory will see further growth in the fields of human psychology and psychotherapy.



Eells, T. D. (2001). Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy Research. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research. 10: 132-135.

Gillath, O. Selcuk, E. & Shaver, P. R. (2008). Moving Toward a Secure Attachment Style: Can Repeated Security priming Help? Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2 (4): 1651-1666.

Johnson, S. C., Dweck, C. S & Chen, F. S. (2007). Evidence for Infants Internal Working Models of Attachment. Association of Psychological Science. 18 (6).

Sonkin, D. (2005). Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. The California Therapist.17 (1): 68-77.

Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy Research

Tracy D. Eells, Ph.D.

Dr. Eells is a clinical psychologist and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY.

Key Words: Attachment Theory • Psychotherapy Research • Research Abstracts

John Bowlby’s1,2 attachment theory has had a profound influenceon developmental psychology, but until the past decade it hashad a limited influence on psychotherapy research.3 Recent yearshave seen a great increase in psychotherapy research that drawsexplicitly from attachment theory. For example, studies of personswith and without serious psychiatric disorders show that attachmentstates of mind are associated with different approaches to interpersonalrelationships.4 Furthermore, individual differences in clinicians’attachment states of mind appear to influence the treatmentrelationships they form.5 This increased interest among psychotherapyresearchers is reflected in two journals’ recent special issuesdedicated to attachment3,6 and also in the several chaptersdevoted to psychotherapy in the recently published Handbookof Attachment.7

In part, the recent interest is the product of methodologicalimprovements in measuring and classifying attachment styles.812 One classification system that seeks an integration of othermodels is that of Bartholomew and Horowitz.8,13 They posit twoorthogonal dimensions that in combination yield four main attachmentstyles. One dimension measures self-image along a negative orpositive continuum; the other measures one’s positive or negativeimage of others.

Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy

by Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D.

Published in the The Therapist, a publication of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists January/February

Sonkin, Daniel (2005). Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. The California Therapist, Vol 17, #1, pp 68-77.

Last year I co-authored a book chapter with Donald Dutton, entitled Treating Assaultive Men from an Attachment Perspective (Dutton and Sonkin, 2003).  This chapter was excerpted in The Therapist, September/October, 2003.  In it we gave an overview of domestic violence and attachment theory, explored our rationale and clinical approach to treating perpetrators from this developmental perspective.   In this article, I would like to speak about attachment theory and its application to psychotherapy in general.  I will first begin with an overview of attachment theory and the assessment of attachment status.  Then, I will discuss other contemporary authors who are exploring the clinical aspects of attachment theory.  The article will finish with how I believe attachment theory may inform our understanding and development of the therapeutic alliance.


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