When Attachment Theory and Existentialism Compete


In this post I will be investigating the relationships between one’s core sense of purpose in life (existentialism) and contrasting that with the most basic needs associated with human bonding (attachment theory).

The question that I am playing around with is: “Are there some people who have a life purpose which is incongruent with maintaining a securely attached relationship.”

Attachment theory is empirically validated by many scientific fields from biology to neurology to psychology – the oversimplified conclusion is that “humans need secure, predictable, vulnerable, emotionally available, attuned, compassionate, supportive, safe, emotionally expressive, inter-regulating relationships to function at their fullest capacity.”

Attachment theory (in humans) began by investigating early childhood development. Researchers were able to substantiate that when the primary caregiver (usually a parent) offered all the wonderful variables above (attunement, emotional availability etc.) the child was more likely to progress through various developmental milestones, to be able to function independently, to be emotionally stable, and to find fulfilling relationships in adulthood.

Later, researchers found that having a securely attached relationship between spouses also yields the some of the same positive benefits.

Existentialism is concerned with finding a life path that intuitively ‘feels’ meaningful and fulfilling. The goal of an existential intervention to help a person in leading a life which is most congruent with their purpose.

Generally speaking, existentialism works very well in conjunction with attachment theory = When I am able to help partners to form a secure bond they are often more able (more regulated, more supported, more emotionally balanced, more confident etc) to engage in behaviors which help them to leading a more fulfilling life.

Then I arrived at a realization … my purpose in life is to be happy.

If ones purpose in life is to be happy then it is very hard to debate the necessity of a secure relationship in achieving fulfillment… secure attachment is the foundation for emotional regulation and it is very hard to ‘feel’ happy when you feel emotionally insecure. This would also translate into many behaviors aimed at nurturing our biological system – If you want to feel happy (feelings are the result of our biology) you must take care your biology.

In my own life journey the single most important and effective variable that impacts my ability to be congruent with my purpose is my secure bond with my partner of almost 20 years (in 2017). But this reality may have blinded me a bit to the reality that not everyone’s highest purpose is happiness.

What about those instances in which secure bonding is actually incongruent with the person’s purpose… I’m not suggesting that a secure attachment is ineffectual with these people – I am saying it is incongruent with their goals pertaining to purpose.

What if you wanted to live a life of Zen, or to be the absolute best – the master of a discipline, or the most notable person in your field, or engaged in behaviors which facilitated growth through discomfort etc.

I have often sought to understand people who live lives a lifestyle which necessitates life choices which will likely inhibit them from maintaining secure attachments.

Some examples would be: Living alone in a cave in an effort to reach transcendence, practicing your discipline every waking minute to be the best at your craft, sacrificing everything that would impeded one from being the most powerful leader, or being in an alternative lifestyle such as having ever changing sexual partners.

Attachment theory is validated… and it is a biological reality. But we are more than just our biology – we are also something metaphysical or spiritual, and there are times when our spiritual aspiration are in conflict with our biological truths.

One of my Favorite shows is “chefs table” on Netflix… and there is a theme to many of the depicted lifestyles… they chose their craft over their relationships (and arguably over their own biological health). And the proof is in the pudding – they are the best of the best. (I am basing this on the assumption that mastery or excellence is a more important purpose to some of the chefs than the pursuit of happiness)

and now we arrive at the conflict between the two above theories from a psychotherapeutic perspective…

From a purely existential lens the goal would be to sacrifice all for the pursuit of mastery if mastery is the the highest purpose. This would arguably lead to complete existential congruence at the expense of happiness.

from an Attachment standpoint the goal would be to achieve whatever level of mastery was possible within the boundaries of a nurturing and secure bond with another human. This would arguably lead to greater happiness at the expense of complete existential congruence.

I have clients who may choose Existentialism over attachment when there is conflict (there usually isn’t by the way)… and it is my job not to project my purpose onto my clients.

This is further complicated by the reality that trauma and a lack of self-awareness can impact someones relationship with purpose and attachment… so we must be very perceptive and flexible in isolating the desires of the core self.






William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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