Love, Attachment, and Parallel Process
Credit: Tim Parkinson. Flickr. License: Creative Commons.

Parallel Process

I’m not a big fan of self-disclosure (well okay, it depends!), but one of the most startling things in my years as a still very much novice therapist is the concept of parallel process. What happens when a client is going through a similar issue a therapist is? Can the therapist help, or will they be too blocked off or triggered to access his or her own empathy?

In the case of some people I have been working with (without going into any personally identifiable details), there has been a theme of loss of relationships in treatment. Separations, false starts, and losses during a time where American industry commercializes the intangible concept of love, however much a social construction, can leave many clients feel at best, left out, or at worst, triggered.

Case in point, as my clients were going through this, after some time of my placing high hope in a potentially budding connection that became a loss, I went through a parallel event this same week.

Going into session the next day to listen to client’s going through similar situations? Not the most easy thing! But more on that in the empathy section.

While rejection of any kind often triggers a strong internal response (even if hidden with a cordial reply on my end…because you know, gotta keep that dignity, self-respect, and all that), I thought about what about this interaction makes it different (hit something deeper?) than say, a friend flaking out, a client not showing up, or a concert to my favorite band being cancelled?

For many of us, why is the level of internal reaction stronger when it comes to romantic rejection versus just a casual shrug or mild irritation?


Of course, it’s all about attachment. One of my very first immersions with the knowledge-base of the field was the famous Ainsworth study where infants are separated from their caregivers, introduced to a stranger with and without their caregiver, and reunited with their caregiver (“The Strange Situation“). While objectively all children experienced “the same event,” each one had a different reaction and meaning-making process of the event.

The securely attached were able to adjust to separation and reunion with minimal distress, the insecurely ambivalent took a longer period to adjust/had greater distress with the caregiver gone (but also ironically later reject the caregiver), and the insecurely avoidant rejected or were indifferent to the caregiver. A fourth type, the disorganized type (Main and Solomon, 1994), was later identified and would be precursor to processes on the schizophrenic-like spectrum (McLeod, 2008).

In other words, our experiences with our primary caregivers “blueprint” the language with which we attach. An infant who had their needs consistently met will trust that their caregiver will provide those needs even when not there, and will develop secure attachment. Insecure avoidant children had their needs consistently neglected or rejected, and will avoid attachment; whereas insecure ambivalent children experience more marked distress and amplified dependency because of the experience of their needs being met inconsistently and unpredictably.


So what does that have to do with adult patterns of love and attachment? While I think many people may fall squarely into one attachment style, I think we have the ability to share traits of one or the other at different points in time and depending on who we interact with.

In dating, the most healthy relationships will predominantly share aspects of secure attachment: both parties can be together (intimacy) and apart (maintain their own identities) in a very balanced way without experiencing undue distress.

Unhealthy relationships will have elements of insecure avoidance (e.g., emotional unavailability, disconnection) or insecure ambivalence (e.g., codependence, “neediness,” and validation-seeking).

In what psychodynamic therapists call “re-finding,” we often end up re-enacting early relational objects  through our future relationships, sometimes through perception (what Freud called transference), sometimes through the nature of the dynamics (secure vs. insecure).

The Empathy Process

I think one of the important lessons I’ve learned with clients and life in general is that at the base of all love is empathy. Most people desire to be “seen,” or more accurately, “feel felt,” and feel accepted. I can’t count how many times it seems a client values an accurate reflection over a concrete suggestion or technique.

In exploring love and attachment, I think many of the reasons social workers go into the field is because of their (positive and negative experiences) with love and attachment.

Social workers can use their positive experiences with love and attachment to create secure, curative, therapeutic alliances with clients.

Used adaptively (versus left unresolved..which can be harmful to both worker and client), our negative experiences with love and attachment can allow us to access the empathy that allows us to truly “accompany” and (in an unspoken way) be on a similar journey with the client.


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Haggerty, J. (2006). Psychodynamic Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 14, 2015, from

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). “Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation”. M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.


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