Can complex adaptive systems theory contribute to understanding attachment injuries in adult relationships? A qualitative approach
Doctor of Philosophy
DisciplinePsychology : Clinical
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Researchers have discovered that the world is composed of panarchies of complex adaptive systems. This approach acknowledges the existence of non-linear relationships and emerging patterns among nested systems. Systems exist on varying interacting scales including at the level of the individual, among groups, societies and ecologies. Complexity theorists have identified a four-phased process, the adaptive cycle, which can help us understand how complex adaptive systems change. The adaptive cycle typically involves the system shifting from initial growth, to increased structure and efficiency at the cost of resilience, followed by shock, release, and reorganization. This process has been identified in various types of systems and across disciplines, but complexity theory has not informed understanding of couple dynamics or the processing of attachment injuries. Attachment injuries are critical moments in close relationships that can influence how we view ourselves, others, and the world. In Study 1, 15 community members spoke about their lived experience with attachment injuries. In Study 2, eight participants familiar with complexity theory shared their views on the connections between complexity and couple relationships. The two groups recruited reflect an effort to explore attachment and complexity from two unique angles. The studies were conducted in parallel, rather than sequentially. A qualitative approach was identified as most appropriate since this intersection in research has not been explored. Data analysis was iterative, conceptually- and data-driven, and informed by thematic analysis, in order to identify emerging themes. Study 1 themes were: (a) context of injury, (b) impact of injury, (c) impact on and role of beliefs, (d) attachment processes, and (e) release and reorganization. Study 2 themes included: (a) uncertainty, and (b) perceived positives of adopting a complexity lens. Conceptualizing relationships and attachment as complex systems, directions for future research, and considerations for psychologists, are discussed.