The Link Between Addiction and Attachment Styles

There are many theories about why people become addicts. One such theory is that addiction is related to the person’s attachment style. Attachment can be thought of as how secure or insecure a person feels in their relationships. It is developed during infancy and is related to the level of security they felt as a baby.

Attachment theory was originally developed by a British pediatrician and child psychotherapist, John Bowlby, in the 1960’s. The theory has become influential internationally in the field of developmental psychology and informs many types of psychotherapy. Attachment theory holds that it is the relationship between infant and primary care giver that is crucial to the development of secure attachment and the later development of the ability to form secure and healthy interpersonal relationships.

If the infant is not given an adequate sense of security, they develop insecure attachment which can lead to multiple problems in later life. These problems may take the form of mental health difficulties, such as depression or anxiety. Difficulties may also manifest in the form of substance abuse.

Addiction, for those who have insecure attachment may be seen as a dysfunctional way of compensating for feelings of insecurity. These feelings of insecurity make it difficult to form meaningful and healthy relationships. The substance is a replacement for secure relationships.

The substance is predictable, unlike the care givers of the past. In this sense, the relationship with substances is an attempt to replace the lack of safety and security as an infant. The addict is looking for a solution ‘out there’ to make up for the lack ‘in there’.

Gabor Maté in his book ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction’ (2008) contributes to the debate on addiction being largely the result of trauma and adversity in childhood. Maté suggests that childhood trauma and adversity leads to inadequate neurological development, particularly the system of self-soothing, where the ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins are released. In Mates theory, substances are a replacement for these chemicals, and are taken with the hope of alleviating pain.

Many recovering addicts will attest to this theory, having a history of trauma or abuse, neglect and inconsistent care-giving when they were children. However, a common view in society is that people who suffer from addiction have made a choice to become addicted, or have some kind of moral failing. A history of childhood adversity is often not taken into account by treatment services.

To be effective, treatment need to focus on the inner deficit, the lack of a sense of security and the feelings of inner pain. Compassion and understanding are required in order to fully assist the addict to heal from their inner pain. Treatment may require longer term counselling, with a focus on repairing the hurts from the past.

If treatment does take into account the patient’s inner pain and insecure attachment, it will enable the patient to feel a sense of security that was not found as an infant. This will then enable people to go on to form secure and healthy interpersonal relationships in recovery.


Nina Bradshaw is a professionally qualified social worker and therapist in the UK, where she has thirteen years of experience in the mental health field. She is also in recovery from addiction which gives her a unique perspective on the area of mental health and substance misuse.

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