Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Developmental Personality Styles: An Attachment Theory Conceptualization of Personality Disorders. (Practice & Theory)

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Developmental Personality Styles: An Attachment Theory Conceptualization of Personality Disorders. (Practice & Theory)

Article excerpt

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994), a personality disorder is characterized by pervasive and inflexible patterns of inner experience and distorted perceptions that deviate significantly from behaviors most frequently found in most social or cultural groups. Characteristic features of personality disorders usually emerge during adolescence or early adulthood, tend to remain stable over time, and often lead to serious distress or impairment for the individual (APA, 1994, p. 630).

Over the years, etiological understandings of personality disorders have evolved from an almost exclusive focus on the internal characteristics of the person to a greater emphasis on developmental influences (Millon, 1994). Central to many developmental approaches is the idea that formative experiences with primary caregivers and significant others not only provide the foundation for a person's basic sense of self but also influence the way he or she subsequently navigates various life span developmental challenges and issues (Kegan, 1982; Mahoney, 1991).

From a developmental perspective, one of the most important developmental challenges is constructing an integrated personal identity balanced with a capacity to maintain healthy connections with one's social world (Mahoney, 1991). In the case of most personality disorders, however, interpersonal problems are often a defining feature of the disorder. As Widiger and Frances (1985) pointed out:

   An interpersonal nosology is particularly relevant to personality
   disorders. Each personality disorder has a characteristic and dysfunctional
   interpersonal style that is often a central feature of the disorder. There
   is also some empirical support for the hypothesis that a personality
   disorder is essentially a disorder of interpersonal relatedness. (p. 620)

Recently, attachment theory has become an important conceptual framework for understanding the more or less adaptive and maladaptive ways individuals may negotiate various life span developmental challenges (Guidano, 1991; Lopez, 1995; Lyddon, 1995). Although attachment theory has been shown to be a viable conceptual framework from which to understand many concerns that clients bring to counseling, the counseling literature has not highlighted how attachment concepts may be especially relevant to understanding the core dimensions and unique symptom structure of personality disorders.

The purpose of this article is to conceptualize personality disorders in terms of attachment theory. Toward this end, Bowlby's (1969) theory of attachment and his interpretation of cognitive working models of self and others are first discussed as a precursor to recent developments in the adult attachment literature. Second, using Bartholomew's (1990) model of adult attachment, each of the major types of personality disorders is (a) conceptualized as a developmental personality style (Ivey, 1991; Ivey & Ivey, 1998) and (b) reviewed in terms of the typical antecedent childhood attachment experiences, working models of self and others, and "feedforward" (Mahoney, 1991) cognitions associated with the personality style. Finally, several guidelines are offered for applying attachment theory to counseling those with problematic developmental personality styles.


The origins of attachment theory are associated with the extensive writings and research of John Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980). Bowlby was initially trained in the psychoanalytic method but eventually became concerned with the extent to which his colleagues and teachers were preoccupied with children's fantasy life to the exclusion of what he perceived were significant real-life events and environmental influences (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). For example, he found that either prolonged experiences of mother-child separation or deprivation of maternal care was more common among adolescents who had a history of stealing than among adolescents who did not. …

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