Early Close Relationship as a Predictor of Addiction

Healthy relationships as the antidote to addiction.

Posted Apr 16, 2019

One view of addiction contends that it is an attachment disorder. Evidence indicates that insecure close relationships serve as a risk factor for addiction (Fairbairn et al., 2018). Individuals who have difficulty in establishing healthy attachments are more inclined to substitute drugs and alcohol for their deficiency in intimacy (Flores 2004).  This explains why lonely people are more vulnerable to abuse drugs (Mate, 2010). These individuals may be self-medicating their feelings of emptiness and internal discomfort.

The essence of being human is social, not individual. We are driven innately from birth for close human attachment and comfort. Healthy relationships provide a sense of comfort, safety, and security. And the quality of people’s close relationships in early childhood can serve as sources of resilience. Establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships plays a vital role in overall well-being. We tend to experience joy when reunited with loved ones, and often feel sad in their absence.

Furthermore, the mental habits acquired in childhood are later played out in adult relations. People tend to treat new partners the way they related to past attachment figures. In other words, through the power of projective identification, individuals’ interpersonal interactions begin to conform to their internal expectations and experiences (Bowlby, 1973). For instance, insecure adults have a tendency to perceive ambiguous events in interpersonal situations (e.g., partner momentarily seems inattentive) as indicators of rejection that quickly trigger automatic defensive reactions (e.g., anger, withdrawal). In short, the quality of early parental attachments continues to play a role from the cradle to the grave.

Unfortunately for some, the capacity to relate to others is disrupted early in life. These early developmental failures leave these individuals with vulnerabilities to addiction as misguided attempts at emotional-regulation. Similar to attachment relationships, drugs of abuse function as an external means of regulating negative emotions. In short, to the degree that individuals are deprived to establish long-lasting gratifying relationships, they are emotionally deficient and vulnerable to addiction as compensatory behavior for their deficiency (Flores 2004).  The substance use becomes habitual because it can only relieve feelings of inadequacy temporarily and the person returns to feelings of emptiness.

For example, insecure attachment among college students was associated both with alcohol consumption in order to cope with stress. Among the older population, problem drinkers are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation (Fairbairn et al., 2018). Attachment anxiety also contributes to an eating disorder and impulsive food intake. Eating and weight-related concerns are defensive methods of directing attention to external problems and goals and to compensate for feelings of helplessness, insignificance, and vulnerability. In one study (Faisandier et al., 2011), those with sexual addiction reported more discomfort with closeness than non-sex addicts, suggesting that sex addiction might be a manifestation of avoidant attachment.   

Substance abuse, in turn, exerts a destructive effect on close relationships. Managing relationships becomes increasingly difficult, leading to an increased reliance on substances. Thus, the vulnerable individual’s attachment to addictive drugs serves both as an obstacle and as a substitute for interpersonal relationships.

In sum, attachment theory holds the view that addiction is both a solution and a consequence of a person’s impaired ability in developing close relationships.  That is, addictive behaviors are driven by the addicts’ inability to draw prolonged satisfaction from interpersonal relationships. As a result, they seek gratification (drugs, alcohol, food, sex, work) outside the realm of interpersonal relationships.

Consequently, until substance abusers abandon their dysfunction attachment styles (e.g., insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent) and develop the capacity for healthy interpersonal emotion regulation (secure attachment and mutuality), they will forever remain vulnerable to substitute one’s obsessive addiction (e.g., alcohol, drugs, sex, work, etc.) for another.   

References

Bowlby J. Attachment and loss: Separation. New York, NY: Basic books; 1973.

Fairbairn CE, Briley DA, Kang D, Fraley RC, Hankin BL, Ariss T (2018),  A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Associations between Substance Use and Interpersonal Attachment Security Psychol Bull;144(5):532-555.

Flores PT (2004), Addiction as an Attachment Disorder. NY: Jason Aronson.

Mate, Gabor (2010)  In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books