In this article I will give an overview of the basics of attachment theory as pertaining to early life experiences. When we are born, we are helpless and defenseless and utterly dependent on our primary carers (who I will refer to as mother, regardless of who it was in reality). From birth we are learning about relationship, in relationship. We are dependent on our relationship with our carers and we adapt to survive the form these relationships take and our experience of them. In this way our attachment styles are survival adaptations to the kind of relationships we first encounter. Coming into the type of long term depth therapy I offer on Maui, is an opportunity for a safe and empathic relationship, in which a secure attachment can be created as new neural patterns are formed.
Attachment theory developed from the clinical and theoretical work of John Bowlby, a British Psychoanalyst. From 1939 on, Bowlby began presenting and evolving his observationally based theories of the primacy of the formative relationship (or lack of) between mother and infant. From his observations working with delinquent and hospitalized children Bowlby proposed the idea that attachment behaviour was a biological and evolutionary survival strategy. Controversial in his day, Bowlby, like his contemporary Donald Winnicott, was at the forefront of the movement towards seeing people’s psychology as embedded in relationships rather than seeing them as isolated energy systems. This understanding, that we are relational beings, is central to my approach to therapy.
Bowlby’s work on attachment theory was taken forward in the 1960s by his colleague Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian Psychologist, who through her research, verified much of what Bowlby had posited. It was Ainsworth who demonstrated what she termed “secure” and “insecure” attachment. Insecure attachment was later clarified as two distinct styles, ‘avoidant’ and ‘ambivalent,’ with a subsequent third of ‘disorganized’ added in the 1980s through the work of Ainsworth’s student, Mary Main.
Through her in situ observations, Ainsworth developed four attachment scales to classify a mother’s relationship with her baby: the frequency of the mother’s sensitivity to her infant’s communications; the degree of rejection/acceptance of the baby she demonstrates; was she in sync with the baby’s desires and rhythms or was her tendency to interfere, following her own schedule and her own pace when feeding, handling, or playing? And finally, her availability to the baby, and how frequently did she ignore her? . From the dynamics of these four relational patterns, an infant will develop their own secure or insecure attachment relational style.
In securely attached children the mother is attuned, attentive, accepting and in sync with her infant more often than not. As a consequence, they cried less, instead using gesture, facial expression and vocalizations to elicit her attention and express needs. As they grew older, they seemed to have developed capacity for self-regulation and confidence in their own ability to secure their needs.
Avoidant children’s mothers were seen to be significantly more rejecting. These mothers also showed far less emotional expression, and Main suggested, appeared to be rigidly holding in their anger and frustration. They also displayed less affection when they handled their babies, and they were more likely to use rough physical interventions. The way they spoke to or about their infants was equally gruff, mocking or sarcastic. Main also sensed an aversion in many of the mothers to physical contact. Overall the mother did not reliably or sensitively respond to the infant’s signals, to the point of ignoring them and appearing indifferent to the infant’s distress. Behavioral avoidance is an adaptation to this kind of formative relationship. As a coping strategy, the child limits or stops activating their attachment system withdrawing from trust and openness to intimacy.
The mothers of ambivalent children proved invariably unpredictable. Their behaviours ranged from parsimonious to detached, from chaotic to merely incompetent. But common to all was trouble responding to her infant’s attachment needs in a loving, attuned, and consistent way. This uncertainty of security appears to create an over activation of the attachment circuitry, and clingy, insecure, anxious children. As their needs are uncertain to be met, anxious children develop manipulative strategies attempting to secure them. They may try acting cute or seductive, or distressed, evoking guilt for the lack of attention. This interrelation toolkit will be developed from those modeled and seen succeeding in the family.
Disorganized attachment is a consequence of carers who demonstrate an extreme and frightening lack of attunement. These carers who are an active source of fear to their infants, may also themselves become paralyzed with fear. The child is then caught in the existential dilemma of wanting to escape from the person they turn to for safety. This leads to an attachment strategy of freeze and collapse. It has also been observed that when the mother experiences unresolved loss there is a clear association with disorganized attachment in their infant, primarily when the mother had also experienced an unresolved trauma in their life prior to the loss. Disorganized attachment in infancy and early childhood is recognized as a powerful predictor for serious psychopathology and maladjustment in children. Children with disorganized attachment are more vulnerable to stress, have problems with regulation and control of negative emotions, and display oppositional, hostile, aggressive behaviours.
Earning Secure Attachment
Because we now know that our brains are plastic, meaning they change according to how we use them, we know that the insecure attachment styles can change. We know it is possible to develop an ‘earned security’, the relationship with a relational based therapist is an excellent place to achieve this, this is because the therapist, in accepting and empathising, remaining present and regulated with the client offers a new and secure experience of relationship. At the same time this new model of relationship is meeting the unmet needs of recognition, acknowledgement and unconditional acceptance that we all share as babies. Attachment theory is not meant as a diagnostic framework, rather as a model for understanding how the deepest models of relationship patterning are formed, what they look like and how to change them. You can learn more about insecure attachment in adults here.