Levy, K.N., Kivity, Y., Johnson, B.N., & Gooch, C.V. (2018). Adult attachment as a predictor and moderator of psychotherapy outcome: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Online first publication, DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22685.
Adult attachment refers to characteristic ways people manage their emotions and relationship styles. Securely attached individuals adaptively and flexibly experience emotions and they are able to give and receive love and support to others. Insecure attachment can be sub-categorized as avoidant or anxious attachment. Those who are anxiously attached tend to up-regulate their feelings so that they may feel easily overwhelmed, and they tend to be preoccupied with relationship loss. Those with avoidant attachment styles tend to down-regulate their emotions so that they have difficulty experiencing or expressing feelings, and they might dismiss the importance of relationships as a means of protecting themselves. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, argued that psychotherapy had the potential to serve as a secure base from which individuals might explore themselves and relationships. He also described the therapist as a temporary attachment figure with which the patient might develop an emotional bond to promote change and for a corrective experience. In this meta-analysis, Levy and colleagues looked at whether attachment dimensions can change in psychotherapy and whether they can predict improvement in patient symptoms pre- to post-therapy. (A note on meta analysis. It is a method of systematically reviewing a research literature, combining the effect sizes in that literature, and summarizing these effects. Because meta analyses usually contain many studies, their results are much more reliable than the results of any single study, and so they provide the most solid basis for making practice recommendations). In this meta analysis, Levy and colleagues included 36 studies, totaling 3,158 clients. Higher client attachment security (or lower attachment insecurity) at the start of therapy was associated with better outcomes by post-treatment (r = 0.17, p < 0.001, 95% CI = [0.13, 0.22], k = 32). Also, greater improvement in attachment security (change in attachment security from pre- to post-treatment) predicted better outcomes (r = 0.16, p < 0.001, 95% CI = [0.07, 0.25], k = 15). When looked at separately, higher levels of either attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance were associated with poorer outcomes, and change in either type of attachment insecurity was associated with better outcomes. These effects appeared to be consistent regardless of the type of therapy (non-interpersonal vs interpersonal therapies).
Although attachment insecurity is associated with poorer outcomes, change in attachment insecurity is possible with psychotherapy and this change is associated with better symptom outcomes. Therapists should expect longer and more challenging treatment with patients who are anxiously attached. Anxiously attached individuals may appear engaged early in therapy, but they are quick to anger, feel rejected, and become overwhelmed. Such individuals may benefit from help to contain their emotional experiences by repeating the treatment frame and increasing structure. They may also benefit from interpersonally-oriented therapy focused on reducing their preoccupation with relationship loss. Avoidantly attached individuals may appear aloof, but they may be easily overwhelmed by demands for closeness. Therapists may have to carefully balance the amount of interpersonal space or demands in treatment with these clients so that they remain in therapy.