Attachment and Substance Use Disorders-Theoretical Models, Empirical Evidence, and Implications for Treatment

Front Psychiatry. 2019 Oct 15;10:727. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00727. eCollection 2019.


Introduction: The article reviews attachment-oriented research in individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs). Based on attachment theory, substance abuse can be understood as "self-medication," as an attempt to compensate for lacking attachment strategies. Attachment theory suggests a developmental pathway from insecure attachment to SUD and, on the other hand, a negative impact of substance abuse on attachment security. Earlier reviews have indicated a general link but have been inconclusive with regard to other aspects. In the light of a growing body of research, this review is looking for evidence for the general link, for its direction, for differences due to different patterns of attachment, different substances and severities, comorbid psychiatric disorders, and age groups. Methods: Using medical and psychological databases, 34 cross-sectional studies, three longitudinal studies, and a systematic meta-analysis were identified. Methodological problems such as poor assessment of SUD and the use of different measures of attachment limit comparability. Results: All cross-sectional studies in the review confirm a link between insecure attachment and SUD. Results of longitudinal studies show insecure attachment to be a risk factor for SUD, while continued substance abuse impairs the ability to form close relationships. With regard to specific patterns of attachment, results mainly point toward very insecure patterns. They indicate different patterns of attachment in different groups of substance abusers, suggesting different developmental pathways. Fearful-avoidant attachment was frequent in heroin addicts, while alcohol abusers displayed more heterogeneous patterns. Comorbid mental disorders and severity of SUD seem to be important factors, but data are still inconclusive. The link between insecure attachment and SUD seems to be stronger in adolescence compared to adulthood. Discussion: The last decades have seen a substantial growth in studies on attachment and SUDs. Despite methodological problems, the general link between insecure attachment and SUD today is well established. Attachment theory might contribute to the understanding and treatment of SUDs in a significant way. But to do so, a lot of open questions have to be answered. We will need more carefully designed longitudinal studies, more studies connecting psychological data with brain processes, and more clinical trials.

Keywords: Attachment; addiction; attachment theory; patterns of attachment; substance abuse; substance use disorders.

Publication types

  • Review