Attachment in Recovery


One of the most basic human traits is the ability to attach to others. Ingrained in our DNA from birth, attachment crosses all cultural lines and is an innate trait of survival. We can’t survive alone! What happens when someone grows up in a traumatic or neglectful environment, causing disruptions in the way that person attaches to others?

There are four basic attachment styles defined in psychological teaching. These include:

  • Anxious – Avoidant
  • Ambivalent
  • Disorganized
  • Secure

It is estimated that about 75% of people exhibit a secure attachment style. The person has the ability to form bonds with others, has an awareness of which people they bond well with, and has some sense of loyalty to those relationships. They want to experience relationships and have a sense of ‘spectrum’ in relationships – some are closer, some are more distant. When they experience conflicts in relationships, they are able to work through the tension and feel generally durable, even acknowledging that some relationships don’t ultimately work out.

The remaining 25% of the population falls into one of the other three attachment styles. Each of these involves a few core elements leading to breakdowns of relationships.

Anxious – Avoidant

A person who experiences regular tension and fear around relationships would be categorized as being ‘anxious-avoidant.’ This person wants to have relationships but struggles with fear of abandonment and potential loss. They are constantly appraising if they are measuring up adequately to the desires of others.

This tenuous state of connecting with people can be exhausting to others, as the anxious-avoidant person often requires a lot of reassurance about the status of the relationship. The other party will often distance from the relationship for unclear reasons, but the likely cause seems connected to the relationship being too emotionally draining. People of this attachment style struggle heavily with lack of trust in others.


The person with an ambivalent attachment style is constantly changing their mind about what they want out of relationships. They struggle with finding a stable romantic partner, because they are constantly questioning if a person is ‘right’ for them. They may struggle with an unclear concept of themselves and seem to be always searching for a stable identity. In a way, they are externally and internally ambivalent.

Just as with the above anxious-avoidant style, the ambivalent person wears away loved ones, if they aren’t breaking those bonds first. Constantly considering ending relationships can become threatening to others. The person somewhat ‘takes everyone hostage.’ If those other people don’t measure up to the standards of the ambivalent person, the relationship may end.

More severe cases of ambivalent attachment can lead to personality disorders such as narcissism. As the person is constantly questioning relational goals and connections, they often neglect the views of others. This leads to the person having difficulty expressing empathy or supporting others. Eventually, the loved ones realize that the ambivalent person is essentially the centerpiece of the family unit.


The most chaotic attachment dysfunction is that of the disorganized style. This person likely grew up with a severe amount of childhood abuse which could be physical, emotional or sexual in nature. Core trust issues are often impaired and the grown-up relationships tend to be volatile, dramatic and often highly hurtful.

A common personality disorder to develop from a disorganized attachment style is a borderline personality disorder. This condition is marked by high emotional reactivity, black or white relationships, patterns of self-harm and risk-taking, and constant fears of abandonment.

Once again, a person with a disorganized attachment style often burns through loving relationships.

Connections to Addiction and Recovery

Because addictive disorders often are lonely, isolative diseases, attachment disorders can contribute to addiction. As people become more detached from others with less stable supports, they become quite lonely and constantly at risk for relapse. On the contrary, stable attachments seem to be highly predictive of long-term recovery. Relationships seem to be the key ingredient. Examples of such relationships could include stable recovery relationships such as a sponsor or therapist, in addition to loving friendships and romantic partners.

Spend some time pondering how you attach to others. If you notice continual patterns of relationships that break down, we need to work through these on a deeper level. Psychotherapy can help resolve attachment problems and move you closer to a secure attachment style if you aren’t already there. This seems to happen not heavily by the content of the psychotherapy, but more through the bond that develops. Through a caring clinical relationship, you can experience something new upon which to build. Everything we know about long-term recovery connects to this significant concept – Relationships ARE Recovery!

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Psychotherapy including Partitioning Trust.