Personality disorder and attachment

Personality Disorder and Attachment

The behavioural features associated with personality disorder and attachment

Theories of personality highlight that early experiences linked to parental care giving and trauma all can play a role in Personality Disorder. Attachment theory helps to understand how these impact on adult personality.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is described as a unique emotional bond between carer and child that involves an exchange of comfort, care and pleasure. The attachment system has ‘its own internal motivation distinct form feeding and sex and of no less importance to survival’ (Bowlby (1988)). This system is used to promote survival of young children by ensuring that they maintain proximity to the caregiver, especially when there is threat. When there is some kind of threat, children will show specific behaviours to try and establish contact with an attachment figure – which include crying, clinging, or being quiet. How the attachment figure responds will impact on how the child’s attachment develops.

Over time children will internalise their attachment experiences with their caregivers and develop an ‘internal working model’ of how they view themselves, others and the world. These internal working models then impact on how the child interacts with others, and in turn how others interact with them. Therefore they form the basis of their personality. The hypothesis is that, unless there is intervention at an earlier age, we take similar attachment styles through into our adulthood.

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) developed the dimensional model of attachment, based on the idea that as young children we learn internal positive or negative representations of ourselves and others. The mixture of how someone views themselves and others will effect the attachment style that they have. They identified the four types of attachment as:

  • Secure (positive view of self and others)
  • Dismissive (positive view of self, negative of others)
  • Anxious/ Preoccupied (negative view of self, positive view of others)
  • Fearful/ Avoidant (negative view of self and others).
the dimensional model personality and attachment issues
the dimensional model personality and attachment issues

Can our attachment style be change?

Crittenden (2005) suggests that attachment experiences can impact on our neurobiology significantly in the first two years of life. However, attachments are ‘plastic’ and are open to change if people experience life events that are inconsistent with the initial attachment that is developed.

  • After the age of six attachment will be affected by social and environmental factors more, such as forming reciprocal relationships, as we move away from being reliant on our caregivers. 
  • It is from the age of seven that we start to make our own cognitive evaluation of others (moving from concrete beliefs to using the environment to decide on what we think).  
  • In puberty, sexuality and developing intimate relationships offers another significant point when attachments can be changed.

Therefore, significant positive relationships at any of these times can help to ‘mend’ insecure attachments.  The brain remains ‘plastic’ and therefore such changes can also help to change the neurobiology of this.  

Attachment and Personality Disorder

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