Addiction, Relationships, and Attachment
A friend of mine sent me an article a few days ago about the origins of addiction. The author cites research suggesting that addiction is not so much defined by changes in the brain, but is an attempt to adapt to our social environment. He concludes that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
While I do believe that addiction is a brain disease, I completely agree that recovery from addiction is based on interpersonal relationships. Moreover, addiction has been defined by other authors as an attachment disorder; the “drug of choice” becomes a substitute for and an obstacle to developing healthy relationships.
What is secure attachment?
The concept of attachment refers to a quality of our interpersonal relationships. Securely attached individuals are typically able to develop trusting relationships, set appropriate boundaries, rely on others to share their emotions and feel comfortable with their own self-worth. Attachment needs have biological origins, and the capacity to develop secure attachment occurs in early childhood, based on the child’s relationship with a primary caregiver.
Insecure attachment, on the other hand, includes negative perceptions of self and others, that prevent people from developing intimate relationships. This difficulty makes individuals more vulnerable to use substances or behaviors to meet their attachment needs.
Attachment issues pave the way for addiction
People who experience neglect, rejection or abuse early on will likely develop an insecure attachment. The lack of physical and emotional closeness will impact them in at least three ways:
- Biologically: Lack of early secure attachment and physical proximity impacts the child’s brain development. Specifically, it affects the processes that allow us to regulate affect and cope with emotions.
- Psychologically: Lack of available and supportive attachment figures undermines our sense of security and self-worth. These individuals will either avoid or feel anxious about interpersonal relationships.
- Socially: Children would have a hard time making a healthy separation from their parents, leaving them overly attached or emotionally distant from them. These patterns are typically replicated in adulthood.
These individuals will experience difficulties developing secure interpersonal experiences later in life. This makes them more likely to become attached to addictive substances or behaviors, over which they believe they have more control. The “drug of choice” is usually perceived as a “solution” to their impaired ability to cope with emotions and negative self-concept, and with the demands of interpersonal relationships.
Addiction intensifies attachment issues
As an addicted person continues to rely on substances or behaviors to cope with reality, his or her ability to develop healthy relationships is further undermined. Again, this occurs in at least three ways:
- Biologically: The changes in brain chemistry triggered by addiction, even when it does not involve substances, make it more difficult to experience the neurological benefits from relationships.
- Psychologically: Addiction triggers and intensify feelings of shame and hopelessness, which will result in either higher avoidance from or unhealthy dependence on others.
- Socially: Addiction tends to lead to emotional or physical isolation, which will deepen the difficulty to deal with relational dynamics like interpersonal conflict or developing intimacy.
Addictive behaviors can be considered misguided attempts at self-repair. They are intended to compensate for missing or damaging relationships, and for feelings of insecurity and negative self-concept.
Relationships are essential for recovery
Helping addicts develop a capacity for healthy attachments must be at the core of addiction treatment. Relationships not only help the recovering addict learn new coping skills and find support from others, but provide an alternative way to regulate affect and deal with emotions.
Many people in recovery must first detach from addictive substances and behaviors in order to develop the capacity to build and sustain healthy relationships. Substituting addictive behaviors with secure interdependent relationships is at the core of many recovery approaches.
Understanding addiction as an attachment disorder is not an attempt to reduce the complex dynamics of addiction to interpersonal issues. However, recovery ought to include the experience of a supportive community and a sense of belonging. This will help individuals recover the capacity to develop healthy attachments which, in turn, will offer them a new way to regulate emotions, cope with stress and let go of shame.