Attachment in Therapy

Firstly lets define attachment – by attachment I mean love, not a romantic love but a type of love that is innate. It’s a deep care and affection for our therapist, your therapist will probably feel similar feelings within the therapeutic frame. Attachment is simply a reflection of a persons need to be safe from danger. The therapeutic relationship is unique and intimate, it’s the only relationship we have outside of childhood which is one sided, by this I mean the therapist listens to you and you have your needs met without having to reciprocate to your therapist. Falling in love with your therapist and seeing them as a parent is a normal part of therapy.

As a relational therapist who specialises in childhood trauma I see a client forming an emotional attachment as ‘the work’ of therapy. The impact of childhood trauma can be wide and vast but most commonly I work with people who did not form a secure attachment in childhood or people who experienced a secure attachment to a primary care giver but also feared this person. The impact of this is a double bind whereby the child’s innate and primitive desire to seek connection, closeness and comfort from their primary caregiver also then are terrified of this connection. The fear can be for a multitude of reasons including the primary care giver acting in a threatening manner, exploiting the child, causing physical or emotional harm to the child. To protect themselves and the enormous internal pain and unbearable disappointment or punishment they disown their needs for attachment or comfort. If you don’t have needs nobody can then let you down (or reject you).

Attachment will massively influence the therapy such as what a client may or may not disclose, relating to the therapist as though they are someone else (i.e. a mother or father), thinking of the therapist outside of session, a sense of safety, premature ending of the relationship, dependence. It will fluctuate over time and will often replicate attachment patterns in other relationships outside of therapy. This is why it becomes the ‘work’ in therapy because it is a place to work from which can change relational patterns with those outside of therapy.

For clients who have experienced sexual abuse the therapeutic relationship can feel particularly traumatic because their experience in childhood was that adults groom them or used them for their own needs. So the genuineness of the therapist is questioned (will they use me too?) but this conflicts with logical thought because logically the person knows their therapist won’t, so shame emerges (perhaps even judgement for having the thought in the first place). But the historical trauma is stored firmly internally (in the amygdala) therefore it is the bodies way of protecting itself from further trauma.

If we are wounded in an unsafe relationship then the wounds can only be healed within the context of relational safety. I can never force anyone to feel safe with me but I can do my best to be consistent, empathetic and attuned to the person I am with. To provide a compassionate position and positive regard. I hope these help provide a foundation for the person I see to feel safe to be able to explore their inner world with me. The focus is not on what ‘happened’ but to learn to feel safe again.

In adulthood relationships this can lead to immense shame – both wanting an emotional connection with a significant other but also fearing it then acting on this by pushing them away. The work of therapy therefore is to work through and experience this attachment wound but by hopefully providing an unconditional environment, and reparative experience through the experience of being seen and cared for, loved by the therapist. The presence of a caring other, who is attuned, attentive and interested in the person is in itself regulating – just in the same way a parent would be in childhood which teaches the child on a subconscious level how to regulate their emotions. Therapy can also feel both desired and also incredibly distressing – because of this push and pull experience described above. There is an internal battle to get close to someone knowing logically that they want to be with that person (the therapist) but also fearing being vulnerable as the therapist ultimately is in a place of power and could reject them.

Having strong feelings towards your therapist can feel embarrassing, it can make you feel that there is something wrong with you and there is often an intense fear that raising this with your therapist could risk the ending of therapy – thoughts emerge that your therapist will see you. Often people feel that they are weird, strange, a freak or just that there is something inherently wrong with them – how could someone fall in love with their therapist? But I hope you can be brave and talk about this with your therapist so they can help you with this so you can grow and heal.