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Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

Relationship Therapy

Theory and Practice


PART ONE

Attachment Theory
Heartsease Training, Shifnal Shropshire email : - petercreagh43@virginmedia.com 1

© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

General Introduction

This is one of a series of short notes that explore aspects of Relationships. Arguably,
relationships are one of the most important issues that face each of us throughout life.
We are , for the most part, conceived through the most intimate relationship between a
man and a woman. Our relationship with our mother is extremely important and we
continue to have relationships that heavily influence our personality, choices and life.
In another short paper we explored aspects of Buber’s theories of relationship. A short
resume now follows.

For Buber, relationships were holistic and involved all aspects of what it is to be human.
Buber explained this philosophy of relationship using the word pairs of I/ Thou and I /It.
With these pairs he outlines two modes of consciousness, encounter and being
through which an individual engages with other individuals, the world and with reality..
In other words, he suggests that we adopt two attitudes toward relating with the world and
with others, either as I/Thou (I/You) or I/It.

The I/Thou mode is a way of relating that is subject-to-subject, where we are aware of
each other in an holistic manner without the concept of ‘false’ boundaries. To put it
another way, in the I/Thou relationship we do not perceive each other as consisting of
defined and separated persons with different parts or qualities, but we engage in a
dialogue involving each other's whole being – Body- Psyche and Spirit. However, in the
I/It relationship we engage at the subject-to-object level. At this level we do perceive
each other as consisting of defined and separated parts and thus view ourselves, and
others, as part of a world which consists of ‘ things’ with distinct boundaries. Therefore,
whilst the I/Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, the I-It is one of
separateness and detachment. Throughout life we struggle with these two modes and
this struggle is fuelled by the tensions between our often conflicting needs for intimacy,
independence and identity.

In this second note of this series we look at some aspects of


John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory and its application
to relationships

NOTE
This notes are complemented by a series of practical
exercises presentations ( not based on the Authors 18 years
experience as a Relationship Therapist.

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

ATTACHMENT MODEL
‘The Making & Breaking of Affectionate Bonds’.

INTRODUCTION

Bowlby,J ( 1979) in his work ‘The Making and Breaking of Affectionate Bonds ‘ outlines
some of the main theories and concepts which inform the use of the Attachment Model.
This outlines some theories of attachment which are relevant in general therapy,
bereavement counselling and in family and relationship counselling. Bowlby’s work was
based both on Ethological Theory ( the importance of biological and instinctive roots )
and on research of orphaned children and their disposition to form attachments. His
ideas arise out of Object Relations Theory and deal with how we relate to and get
attached to ‘objects’ and the ways that we react to loss or separation. This brief note will
examine some of the concepts and ideas of the Attachment Model and relate these to
Couple Counselling.

ATTACHMENT BEHAVIOUR

Bowlby maintains , as do others like Rutter(1981) and Schaffer & Emerson91954) , that
the seeking and maintaining of proximity to others is a normal activity or impulse for all
primates. This impulse may also apply to inanimate objects. Consequently, we can
define attachment behaviour as one that results in a person attaining or maintaining
closeness to some other individual who is conceived or perceived as better able to cope
with the world.

Attachment behaviour is at its most obvious in early childhood, but can be observed
throughout the life cycle and especially in crisis or emergencies. Some of its main
features are :

• Maintenance of proximity with the attachment figure and restoration of same.

• A tendency towards symbolic messages to mark the importance of this


particular relationship. E.g. Letter writing , cards , email , telephone/texting,
giving presents etc.

• The above is stronger at certain times, particularly in times of loss and


crisis. This is also particularly apparent in young children and teenagers
where it is a normal behaviour pattern for these stages of life.

The above behaviours can be particularly significant and helpful when examining both
family dynamics and the couple relationship.

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

ATTACHMENT THEORY - Some of the Main Concepts


Bowlby noted that at around six months the baby begins to discriminate between the
people who ‘belong’ to his/her world. At this stage the baby begins to recognise
significant people and to form relationships with them. This is particularly true of the
primary care giver – a relationship which has probably already begun to bond. It is
important to note that attachment is distinct from feeding and nurture.

The attachment figure is one who provides closeness and reassurance, particularly in
times of anxiety. The task of primary care givers ( normally the parents ) is to help the
child in the ( early ) years to accept longer periods of separation. This is in order that
he/she will grow up to be happy in forming close relationships and become both
independent and confident as an individual. In early childhood substitute attachment
figures ( teddy, comfort blanket etc ) often fill the gap left by the primary care giver as and
when the child is left alone.

Unreliable or Absent Attachment Figures. When the attachment figure is absent or


unreliable or if there is a significant disturbance in childhood e.g. going into hospital or
care or particularly the loss of a significant attachment figure, this can lead to protest,
despair and (often) detachment. The consequences of the above can lead to the
growth of the following fears and relationship issues in later life.

Fear of Intimacy As an adult we can often become a compulsive detacher, preferring


animals or inanimate objects to people, since these do not let you down. Thus we avoid
intimacy with people. This can seriously impact on the quality of any intimate relationship.

Fear of Separation As an adult we can often become a compulsive attacher,


preferring any relationship to none. Consequently, they can rush from relationship to
relationship fearing being left alone. In this way they often form a series of unsatisfactory
and often abusive relationships

Ambivalent Attachment There are also ambivalent attachers who search for the ideal
attachment figure until they become disappointed with the reality, rejecting them and
searching for a new figure. This search for ‘perfection’ is endless and is rooted in an
unconscious desire to relive/renew a perfect original relationship with their prime
attachment figure . This is very often one of their parents

Anxious Attachment Another possibility is anxious attachment. This is often rooted


in a previous relationship where the significant figure kept coming and going.

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

APPLICATION TO THE COUPLE RELATIONSHIP ( also to families)

After separating from parents during adolescence, most people choose a new attachment
figure as an adult. In these relationships they attempt to balance the needs of intimacy
and independence, depending upon their previous experiences. Many feel that as we
mature we strive to find our ideal relationship. We are either trying to replicate some
aspects of a previous ‘perfect’ relationship or, if we have never experienced a good
relationship, we are searching for this ideal.

Consequently, we search for a partner that can complement our virtues and fill-in our
perceived ‘faults’. In other words we search for a partner whose virtues balances our
‘shadow’ side. Recent advances in Neurology and Neuro-Psychology confirm much of
Bowlby’s earlier work concerning the importance of our 1st relationship with our main
carer. This is because our brain is still forming in our earlier years and very string neural
pathways are formed by our experiences as infants. The application of Attachment
Theory is useful in wide range of therapies and situations.

Attachment theory can be a powerful tool in assisting client’s to gain insights into the
impact of previous relationships on the present. Therefore further aspects that are
applicable to both family and couple relationships will now be examined, these will
include :

• Loss and Bereavement

• A possible ‘Model’ for a grieving process

• Aspects of avoidance

• Possible application to Couples Counselling

• Some typical ‘clues’ for the Relationship Therapist

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

APPLICATION TO LOSS

If a close adult relationship ends, the grieving process is similar to the reaction of a child
who has lost its primary care giver. To some extent the same process is involved with all
lost objects e.g. job, health, teddy bear etc. If any of these losses are ignored, a
subsequent loss can be the stimulus for grieving for both losses and the person who is
mourning is very often unaware of the connection between the losses. Then what often
occurs is a ‘process of grief’

Grieving Process

A grieving process starts with the loss, referred to as the EVENT. There then follows a
serious of deepening and distressing emotions, usually ‘bottoming’ in depression and
despair before beginning to recover and reach some resolution. This the leads to a return
to some normality of life. This process is shown in the diagram below

EVENT NORMAL LIFE

SHOCK

ACCEPTANCE
DENIAL

ANQUISH

ANGER

YEARNING
RESOLUTION

DEPRESSION

DESPAIR

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

The process outlined is only a proposed model. Every human being is unique and can
process loss in different ways and at different rates of progress. However, the model does
outline some of the more common and universal impacts of loss of people.

What can be reasonable accepted is that grief causes deep emotions for all forms of life
on our planet. Both humans and animals display signs of grief and loss. So for us, as
human beings, some of these emotions are so painful that we can try to avoid them and
thus repress, delay or obstruct the grieving process. This can occur either consciously or
unconsciously. Strategies of avoidance include :

Replacement Instant replacement of a new object/relationship. Very often we can


rush to ‘fill the void’. This can be very dangerous because the
grieving process often blocks us from making and taking wise
decisions. However, if and when this subsequent relationship fails
the subsequent grieving is more intense

Delay/Denial Very often we try to avoid by using denial. Because we find it


difficult to cope we use drugs, alcohol or medication
( tranquilizers etc). Now short term use of medication can
help but they are not a long-term option. Because , if we
continue to use denial the grieving remains incomplete

Avoidance Avoidance of despair by turning to drugs and/or alcohol


Some similarity with denial but we are more aware of our
avoidance

Suppression This can often lead to a cycle of Protest – Resignation


( depression) – Detachment ( defensive ) – Anger etc.

Using Attachment Theory in Therapy

Our task as therapists is to assist clients in shining the light in ‘insight’ into their deeper
levels of awareness or the unconscious. These insights can very often lead to clients
making connections with their past experiences and understanding how these impact on
the present. This , in psycho-dynamic terms, is referred to as ‘the presenting past’. To
achieve this, therapists need to look for clues in the clients story and particularly as they
relate to past relationships

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

ATTACHMENT AND THE COUPLE – SOME CLUES

The following may be some indication / clues for the counsellor :

• Clients story provides evidence of previous difficulty with endings and


beginnings

• Evidence of severe detachment from primary carer in early life ( death,


separation etc). This is often compounded by unresolved grief issues.

• Frequent references by client(s) to the concept of COMMITMENT ,


REJECTION , LOSS

• Inaccessible primary carers ( evidence of depression, alcoholism of a


parent/carer)

• Recurrent patterns of losses and separation – many previous relationships

• Anxious attachment by client ( over familiarity with counselor or others)

• Detached client ( missed sessions, walk outs.)

All the above are quite common issues for most clients who seek relationship therapy.
Most clients do not display ALL of these but do have several of them. If attachment theory
could be applicable, then there will be a correlation between the clues. This correlation
will ‘group’ the clues and thus provide evidence for one of the many fears/behaviours
common to Attachment Theory. Examples are:

• Fear of Intimacy

• Fear of rejection

• Anxious Attachment

• Ambivalent Attachment

• Detachment

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© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory
Counselling Theory and Practice:- RELATIONSHIP THERAPY

DEALING WITH ATTACHMENT

The counsellor may wish to be guided by the following

• Build up a picture of losses and grieve where necessary

• Facilitate recall of childhood ( birthdays etc )

• Examine feelings around abandonment and separation.

• Examine ending process

• Examine the couples expectations re bonding

• Model security in the whole process of the sessions and the therapeutic
contract.

FINAL NOTE

Remember that there are often shared attachment problems within a close relationship
( such as a couple or parent ; child etc) – possibly one is anxiously attached and the other
is detached.

BIBLIOGRAPHY :
Bowlby, J ( 1988) A Secure Base Routledge, London
Bowlby,J ( 1979) The Making & Breaking of Affectionate Bonds Tavistock, London
ButlerC & Joyce, V Counselling Couples in Relationships Wiley, New York
Laverack & Laverack ( The Essential Red Guide to Couple Relationship Perceptions
1994) Counselling Theory

Heartsease Training, Shifnal Shropshire email : - petercreagh43@virginmedia.com 9

© 2010 - Peter Creagh, Trainer, Supervisor and BACP Registered Counsellor UKRC
Attachment Theory