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Learning to See Differently: Why the Adult Attachment Model Succeeds When Others Fail

Adult attachment issues are among the most researched topics in psychology, with thousands of studies (like this one) done on the topic. Most mental health symptoms stem from attachment problems, but surprisingly, findings from these studies on attachment theory are rarely applied in mental health treatment settings.

Why Should I Care About Attachment Disorder in Adults?

Jade was only 21 years old but had spent a cumulative seven years in different types of therapy.  Outpatient, residential, or wilderness, she’d done it all, and more than once. She suffered from intense anxiety that impacted everything she did throughout the day. To quell feelings of  anxiety, she also struggled with self-harm and occasional self-medicating. The coping skills she learned in therapy were helpful for a time, but life in the real world was too overwhelming and the therapeutic coping skills always fell by the wayside. She’d processed every event in her life she could think of, but life was still too hard, and she didn’t want to have to “cope” her way through it. Jade wanted to enjoy life. But she assumed if seven years of therapy couldn’t help her, she was destined for a life of struggle and misery.  Then her parents asked her to try one more treatment program.  That’s when she came to Fulshear.

A year later, Jade was living her life from a foundation of positive self-belief. Life felt a lot easier than just making it through another day. Jade left with a different outlook on life. She left with the ability and confidence to connect with others in meaningful ways, and the ability and willingness to balance school and work. Life had become what she’d always doubted it could be: enjoyable.

Jade’s experience is not unique.  Recently, during a group therapy session, we asked a group of our new clients how many years of therapy they had prior to coming to Fulshear. Between the six new clients in that room, they had a combined total of 64 years of therapy prior to coming to Fulshear. When asked what they knew about themselves prior to coming to Fulshear one of the clients said, “nothing good.”

If after an average of 10 years of therapy we are at this place, then we needed to do something different. It was at this point that we talked and determined that we need to provide something different from what had been done before. What we developed from that and many other conversations is the Fulshear Adult Attachment Model of treatment.

If you’ve been in therapy before, you’ve probably been asked to use skills to help you stop negative behaviors while you talk through some of the challenging events in your life. These are both good and necessary parts of the healing process. But without in-depth work on your world-view and attachment style, the changes you make will likely fade over time as life gets more challenging. As you learn more about adult attachment issues, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the root cause of your struggles, and how a healing change at your core will change everything about your life.

What is Adult Attachment?

Developmental Model-01

Attachment is more than your relationship with your mother.  It impacts your relationships with friends, family, romantic partners, teachers, therapists, and just about everyone you spend any significant time with. Attachments are part of our day-to-day living, and impact more than you might think.

Attachment problems are at the heart of many common disorders and issues, such as:

  • Addiction
  • Personality disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Unhealthy attachment patterns can disrupt your personal development, leading to unhealthy ways of getting your needs met.

But just like an unhealthy attachment style has difficulties that come with it, a healthy and secure attachment style comes with major benefits. A secure attachment style means you feel that you have a safe base from which you can explore the world, grow, and develop as an individual, with friends, and in intimate relationships.

“You will find the therapeutic success you've been looking for.”

We want to teach you how to see your problems and their solutions through an attachment lens and show you how to apply these concepts into your life. We believe that by doing this, you will find the therapeutic success that you’ve been searching for.

Adult Attachment: The Common Experience

What does adult attachment look like?

Every day, you experience threats. Some are so small you barely notice them, like a glare from someone passing you on the highway or your sister angrily taking back the shirt you borrowed without asking. Other threats are more obvious, like parents getting divorced or a close friend moving away. The threat could even be a thought, a dream, or a memory that evokes certain feelings.

Threats are anything that ignites your need to be relational. It’s a momentary and subconscious need to gain safety by seeking the proximity of someone you care about. A small child will run to parents when they hear a loud, unexpected noise. As an adult, you might call a friend when you get bad news, or even when you get good news!

These threats instinctively drive us to connect, or attach, with others in our life.

The Internal Working Model

Developmental Model-02

What you do with this urge to connect depends on your “internal working model”. Internal working models consist of:

  • How you see yourself (Am I worthy? Am I loved?)
  • How you see others (Are they available? Are they responsive?)
  • How you see the world around you (Is it safe? Is it fair?)

Believe it or not, you began developing your internal working model before you were even born. After birth, your early experience with your caregivers further shaped your internal working model. Did someone hold you when you cried? Were you fed when you were hungry? Were you soothed when you were distressed? Perhaps your caregivers did respond to you and did everything they could, but were still unable to soothe you. How your caregivers responded to you as an infant made a lifelong impact on how you view the world.

As you got older, you had other experiences that impacted your internal working model. You might have been bullied at school, experienced abuse, had frequent discord in your home, lived with an emotionally unstable parent, or lost a family member due to death or divorce. We have all had traumatic experiences. How you and those around you handle these experiences continues to shape your beliefs about the world around you.

What Are the Different Attachment Behaviors?

Developmental Model-03

Seek and Find

When you experience a threat, you operate in one of three ways to get your needs met. The first of these is to "seek and find".

After a threat, you seek out “proximity”, or a person to connect with, and you find it. You might call a parent, talk to a friend at work, or ask your boyfriend to go to dinner with you that evening. The person you reach out to is available and responsive. You then feel comforted and no longer feel the need to seek proximity--your need has been met. You’re now able to move on and devote your attention to other things.

When your internal working model is such that you believe people will be responsive to you, you’ll likely seek out someone you know is available to you. When they are available, responsive, and secure, it strengthens that belief, and you continue in a positive cycle.

Developmental Model-04

Seek, Don’t Find

If you seek proximity after a threat and don’t find it, one of three things is usually going on:

  • You are looking for someone to connect to, and truly no one is available to you.
  • The people you want to connect with are available, but because of your own beliefs about yourself, others, and the world, you interpret them as being unavailable or unresponsive.
  • You subconsciously seek people who you know will not be available or responsive to you, because that reinforces your own belief system.

Don’t Seek

If you don’t seek proximity from an attachment figure, it’s likely because you have learned that it isn’t safe to seek others out. You prefer to tackle problems alone, being avoidant of relationships, but you withdraw to manage the threat and the emotions you’re feeling. This often looks like fantasy, using substances, or self-injury. You don’t view others as safe, and instead, you have learned that it’s safer to close off your need from others.

Secondary Attachment Strategies

Developmental Model-05

When you experience a threat, your emotions are heightened. If Plan A works and you’re able to “seek and find”, you can usually work through the emotions with your attachment figure. However, if you “seek and don’t find” or “don’t seek”, prepare for an increase in emotional distress. Your body has a Plan B to neutralize the threat, crisis, or emotion in whatever way it has to.

When a baby cries and gets no response, she will start screaming, grabbing for someone, doing anything in her power to get her need met. Adults missing an attachment will also have a reaction. You might be able to keep yourself from crying and screaming, but instead, you might find yourself:

  • Self-harming
  • Making suicidal threats and attempts
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling anxious
  • Having angry confrontations
  • Misusing substances
  • Engaging in eating disorder behaviors
  • Or isolating, to name a few

If you’ve been in therapy before, you’ve probably learned that you need to learn better coping skills and emotion regulation to get through these symptoms. These can be helpful, especially in tough moments that just need to be survived. But to really heal, your true focus needs to be on internal working models.

Hyper-Activation Strategies*

A hyper-activation strategy (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007) is a behavior used to get an unresponsive attachment figure to pay more attention, and provide protection and support (whether the unresponsiveness is real or perceived). 

But let’s get one thing straight. At Fulshear, we don’t believe that you’re manipulative or attention-seeking. We believe you’re hurting and trying to get your needs met in the best way you know how.

Hyper-activation: Specific Behaviors

  • Excessive calling, texting, emailing, social media
  • Keeping score of how long it takes someone to get back to you
  • Sexually seductive or provocative behavior
  • Threatening to leave
  • Acting too busy for others
  • Trying to make others jealous
  • Excessive attention on outer appearance
  • Needing reassurance to make decisions
  • Suicidal threats
  • Relationship "hopping"
  • Social substance use 

Ultimately, these behaviors often result in deep shame, placing you in an endless cycle of negative emotions and looking for an escape.

Hyper-activation: Causes

If these activation strategies seem familiar, the common causes might also remind you of your own experiences:

  • Unpredictable or unreliable primary caregiver
  • Caregiving that was experienced as out-of-sync with needs or requests for help
  • Overly soothed
  • Caregiving that prevented your development of self-regulation skills
  • Messages from attachment figures that you are weak, stupid, or helpless
  • Abuse

Deactivation Strategies*

A deactivation strategy is used when you want to avoid the world. You see attachments and connection as unavailable, unresponsive, and especially unsafe. But your biological need to attach and connect are still there, making life extremely confusing.

Deactivation: Specific Behaviors

  • Fantasizing about sexual partners
  • Excessive use of alcohol
  • Drug use
  • Self-harm
  • Living in a fantasy world of books, movies, or video games
  • Surface level therapy sessions
  • Denial
  • Negative reaction to emotional connection
  • Failure to repair relationships
  • A pattern of "holding it all together" and then experiencing emotional explosions
  • Feeling shameful
  • Having a sense of superiority ("I'm stronger because I don't need anyone.")
  • Rebuffs the idea of being in need of others' help, whether emotionally, financially, or in other ways
  • Seems to lack empathy
  • Compulsive self-reliance

While you might be able to trick yourself into believing that you can do without connection with others, the need is still there, and won’t go away until it’s appropriately met.

Deactivation: Causes

If you find yourself using deactivation strategies, you've probably experienced some of the following in the past:

  • “Consistent inattention, rejection, or angry responses from an attachment figure.” (Mikulincer and Shaver, pg. 40)
  • Threats or punishment for proximity-seeking behaviors.
  • Violent or abusive behaviors by attachment figures.
  • Explicit or implicit demands for greater self-reliance.
  • Inhibition of expressions of need, or of expressions of vulnerability. (Mikulincer and Shaver, pg. 40)

Do You Need Help With Adult Attachment?

Fulshear Treatment to Transition is a single-gender treatment center for young adult women. We understand that you don’t just need better coping skills to get through life, but that you need help adjusting how you view the world--your internal working model.

Fulshear’s focus on adult attachment will help you find the lasting change you’ve been looking for. You can understand, challenge, and change your internal working model.

Get in touch with us to schedule a tour at Fulshear and learn more about how our Adult Attachment Model™ can help you. You can find the help you’ve been looking for, and the change you find can be lasting.

Nikki Garza, LCSW, executive director at Fulshear Treatment to Transition
Kevin Randall, LMFT, is the clinical director at Fulshear Treatment to Transition

About the authors

The Adult Attachment Model was adapted & developed by Nikki Garza, Fulshear’s executive director, and Kevin Randall, Fulshear’s executive clinical director.

Nikki has a master’s degree in social work from Brigham Young University and has worked in residential treatment for over a decade. She is trained in a variety of mental health techniques, including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Mindfulness, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), healing attachment, working with eating disorders, and family system approaches.

Kevin earned his master’s in marriage and family therapy from the University of Nebraska. He has worked with clients in outpatient therapy, residential treatment, and as they transition from treatment back home. Kevin is experienced in a diverse range of issues, including personality disorders, mood disorders, trauma, eating disorders, and family relationships.

Both Nikki and Kevin are passionate about working with young adults and helping them view their struggles from an attachment lens. Through this lens, young adults will find permanent solutions to the challenges holding them back.

Learn More

Learn more about how our Adult Attachment Model™ can help you. Come tour Fulshear and see how we use the Attachment Model to identify optimal “targets” for intervention & treatment.

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