Understanding Addiction Through Attachment Theory

By nature, we are wired to turn to loved ones for care and comfort. Yet, while there is nothing inherently dysfunctional about wanting to be loved, when this nurturance isn’t provided, we tend to try and find alternative methods to self-soothe. It is at this point that addiction and attachment start to interrelate. 

Addictions to substances such as drugs and alcohol, or rituals around food, gambling, and sex can become compensatory mechanisms for substituting the internal balance that a secure attachment typically provides. This isn’t to suggest that someone with a secure attachment style can’t experience addiction. Research in the area, however, sheds light on the prospect of addiction as an attachment disorder. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the relationship between addiction and attachment theory by covering: 

  • The link between addiction and attachment
  • What addiction is
  • The biological and psychological aspects of addiction
  • Addiction as an attachment disorder
  • Whether we can be addicted to a person
  • Treating addiction through connection

Addiction and Attachment Theory

Any substance dependence or addictive disorder is complex – both in regards to how it develops and is maintained. However, one contending view is of addiction as an attachment disorder.  

To be human is to be social. From a very early age, we are innately driven to forge connections with others to meet our needs for closeness and comfort. According to Bowlby’s attachment theory, how our caregivers meet these needs is the determinant of the attachment style we develop.

When a caregiver makes themselves available and sensitive to a child’s needs, then the child develops a secure attachment style. Resultingly, the child is provided with a sense of safety, security, and comfort. Each of these functions as a source of resilience against life’s difficulties.  

In contrast, children with an insecure attachment style might lack such resources. Individuals with caregivers that were inconsistent, rejecting, or neglectful towards their needs may be vulnerable to addictions. This is because they might cope with their feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and discomfort by self-medicating. Of course, not every insecure attacher develops an addiction. Our life experiences are unique and how we respond to them differs from person to person. 

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is defined by a lack of control over taking, doing, or using something to the extent that it becomes harmful to the individual doing so. The DSM-5 (the most widely used and well-known psychodiagnostic manual) describes addiction with a set of eleven criteria, which include taking a substance in larger quantities or for a longer time than intended, struggling to stop, or having intense cravings for that substance.

We commonly associate addiction with drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and gambling. But it can also be linked to pretty much any activity or substance, such as:

  • Connections with others
  • Social media
  • Food
  • Sexual activity
  • Exercise
  • Work
  • Solvents
  • Shopping 
  • And more…

Essentially, a core aspect of addiction is a compulsive nature around a substance or behavior and the level of sacrifices one is willing to make to obtain a psychological or physical “high.” Unfortunately, many people living with addiction may feel like they are unable to control their habits for sustained periods of time without treatment and intervention. 

The Biology of Addiction 

Researchers don’t yet fully understand why some people develop addictions, and others don’t. Still, there is an undeniable neurological component to their formation. When we start to develop an addiction, our pleasure/reward pathway in the brain starts to work against us – forcing us to want more and more. 

Dopamine, a central neurotransmitter in the reward pathway, plays a large role in how we feel pleasure. For this reason, it is strongly associated with addiction processes, as it is released when we take substances, engage in certain activities, or see someone we love. Furthermore, the opioid system plays a big role in our reward pathway, being characteristically responsible for feelings of pain and pleasure in our bodies. Opioids trigger the release of endorphins, which dull the sensation of pain and increase feelings of pleasure. However, the issue is when our brain starts to only associate dopamine and endorphin release with a certain substance or action. 

At this point in the addiction process, when we stop receiving “highs” from things that would normally have brought us pleasure. We start to feel anxious and stressed when we’re not taking the addictive substance or engaging in a specific activity. So we indulge our addiction to keep from feeling bad rather than for its gratifying effects.

Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex in the decision-making center of our brains can be damaged by repeated substance abuse. So, we struggle to recognize the harm that we are doing to ourselves through our addiction. 

But is the development and maintenance of addictions solely down to our neurochemistry?

The Psychological Component of Addiction – Rat Park

Due to the indisputable role of neurological factors in addiction, researchers started to question whether it was the only contributing agent in how addictions are developed and maintained. As a response, in the 1970s, a series of studies were conducted to better understand the process of substance abuse. 

In a very brief summary, Bruce Alexander and colleagues studied how rats would behave in an environment with the choice of having water mixed in with a drug or not. They found that almost all of the rats chose the bottle of water mixed with an addictive substance over the one without. 

When the researchers ran this experiment again, they decided to change up the environment. This time, they created what they called “Rat Park.” Rat Park consisted of the same two water bottles (one with an addictive substance and one without). This time, however, there were toys and other rats that the studied rats could choose to interact with. In the Rat Park version, a very small percentage of rats chose to opt for the drug-infused water. 

In essence, Alexander and colleagues helped clarify that addiction is not just a physical or biological response to a chemical. It’s actually much more complex than that, and our environment plays a big role. 

The findings from this experiment imply that feeling engaged and connected to our environment – and the people within it – are crucial factors in understanding how addiction develops and perpetuates. 

Addiction as Strong Bonding

From the Rat Park experiment, we can determine that what deterred the rats from wanting the drug-infused water was a feeling of connection or involvement with their surroundings. Similarly, when we don’t feel connected to our environment or the people in it, we can feel out of place, misunderstood, and ultimately lonely. 

Professor Peter Cohen, a sociologist who specializes in drug addictions, proposes to change how we use the term addiction and to use the term strong bonding instead – “an emotional process that creates ties that cannot be shed at will.” The stronger the bond, the harder it is to distance oneself from the object of this bond, be it a person, object, substance, food, etc. 

Addiction as an Attachment Disorder

Experts in the field of addiction have proposed that addiction and attachment are strongly associated. This applies specifically to the fact that addiction can arise from relational problems. This connection can be illustrated by highlighting the criteria of addiction that parallel insecure attachment, such as:

  • Dedicating more time to reach, use, or recover from use (e.g., searching for dates, time spent on them, and obsessing about them in the aftermath)
  • Increasing uptake as time goes by (e.g., trying to extend the length and frequency of dates, as well as partners)
  • Reducing or sacrificing other social activities (e.g., spending less time with family and friends)
  • Withdrawal (e.g., emotion dysregulation after a breakup or rejection)
  • Unable to cut down or control use (e.g. needing to spend all available time with a partner despite it creating issues within the relationship)
  • Continued use despite negative consequences (e.g. refusing to leave a toxic relationship)

How Does Addiction Relate to Attachment Styles?

#1. Addictions May Be Rooted in Childhood Abuse

The link between attachment and addiction can be further understood through the fact that over 80% of people with drug addiction have been found to have experienced some level of abuse or neglect in their childhoods. This effect may be even more prevalent in people with a disorganized attachment style, as they are more likely to have a history of early mistreatment in childhood.

#2. Addictions Harm Interpersonal Relationships

Furthermore, addiction studies have shown that people who battle with dependency also struggle immensely with maintaining healthy relationships. Let’s face it – an addiction to drugs or other substances has probably never positively impacted a relationship. Substance dependence creates conflict, trust issues, and hurt feelings for either one partner or both. Yet, to feel like we belong is an innate human need. Seeing as the misuse of substances can buffer against feelings of inadequacy or ineptitude in social settings (including relationships), a negative cycle is created – thus further damaging a relationship. 

#3. Addictions May Provide a False Sense of Regulation

People who struggle with emotion regulation are more likely to use substances as a crutch in relationships. Those of us with an insecure attachment style may not have been given the opportunity to learn healthy emotion regulation strategies from our caregivers as they may have been misattuned to our needs or else emotionally unavailable to us. Therefore, insecure attachers may be more likely to resort to substances as a means to manage intense emotions. 

Can You Be Addicted to a Person?

As we outlined earlier, it is possible to become addicted to many different substances, actions, and even relationships

Attachment is an emotional bond that we develop to feel safe and secure as infants. Our caregiver’s presence had a calming effect on us. If they were attentive and attuned, we felt content and fulfilled. Our attachment needs change as we develop, so our attachment figures tend to change along with our needs. However, while it is normal to depend on our loved ones (including romantic partners) as adults, what we need to consider is whether we do so in a healthy, appropriate manner. 

There is a distinction between relying on an attachment figure and being addicted to them. The difference being the effect that this level of dependency has. For example, we might depend on insulin if we have diabetes. Yet, this dependence probably wouldn’t be considered an addiction, even though it may resemble a couple of its aspects. In a similar vein, a newborn is entirely dependent on the adults around them, as they need them for survival on every level. 

However, it would not be appropriate for someone who does not have diabetes to take drugs for the condition, or for an adult who does not have any outstanding limitations to their survival to depend on someone in the same way as a newborn baby. 

Addiction as Infatuation – Limerence

One of the ways we can become addicted to a person is through limerence. Limerence is the term used to describe when we can’t stop obsessively thinking about someone, typically involving the following experiences:

  • Being constantly reminded of someone by things that aren’t directly associated with them
  • Thinking of this person continuously, as if we can’t get them off our mind
  • Feeling insecure about how this individual feels about us – usually because our feelings aren’t reciprocated
  • Showing symptoms of depression because of feelings of insecurity
  • Feeling like we’re constantly on an emotional rollercoaster, with stark ups and downs
  • Lacking in emotion regulation
  • Ecstasy or euphoria when this person reciprocates some level of attention, no matter how minimal

It’s okay if you can relate to some of these to an extent. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve experienced limerence. However, limerence is not just a strong crush on someone; it’s a romantic obsession. Essentially, limerence can be considered a love addiction as it can drive inappropriate behaviors and even unhealthy relationships. 

People who experience limerence are commonly those who have experienced neglect, rejection, or trauma in their childhood. Moreover, it is more prevalent among people with insecure attachment, especially the anxious attachment style. This is because the anxious attachment style is characterized by clingy behaviors, rumination, and excessive worry about a partner. So, if an anxious attacher is strongly triggered, they may respond with limerance behaviors – or in other words, a love addiction.

Treating Addiction By Creating Connections

“… the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” 

– Johann Hari 

When considering addiction from an attachment perspective, it seems as though the recovery process is twofold. First, the individual’s attachment wounds must be attended to. Second, the dependency on the substance, behavior, or person must be resolved. This twofold approach is important because if someone suffering from an addiction can establish healthy, stable relationships – and by doing so, create a more stable support base – they are more effectively protecting themselves from relapse. 

Therefore, when treating addiction from an attachment perspective, we must focus on methods of strengthening our relationships, such as group therapy, support groups, or couples counseling. Each of these are crucial techniques for treating addiction as they essentially help people feel seen and understood. 

Additionally, if we consider addiction from a relationship viewpoint, we can understand how someone could develop a toxic relationship with a substance or behavior and consequently struggle to let the relationship go – even though it is harmful to them.  

Final Words

The most important thing to remember is that you should not walk this walk alone. If you are battling addiction or supporting someone going through it, it is imperative that you find the appropriate support for your needs. Treating addiction requires professional attention, and the right therapist or doctor can make a strong positive difference in your life. Reaching out to family and friends for support is an excellent start and an adaptive way of coping. These people can create a sense of safety and stability in the process.

As a final remark, all of the information in this article does in no way replace professional help. As always, we recommend that you speak to your doctor or mental health professional before making any decisions in regard to your health.

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