The set goal of attachment must be seen as an ongoing human need rather than a childlike dependency that we outgrow as we grow up. As John Bowlby put it in 1980:
“Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler, but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age.”
But what makes secure attachments possible in early childhood and, for that matter, across the entire lifespan? Our formative relationships determine and shape our behavior in a varieties of ways and human attachments can be dynamic and not static. For this reason they depend on the atmosphere and communication styles of the objects in our environment. Long-term abuse and fear can have profound effects on a child, and an otherwise securely attached adult individual can display symptoms of disorganized attachment, like those effected by war, from long-term abuse and trauma. In addition, individuals who are manipulated and severely abused by their spouses or care-givers can likewise display symptoms of dysfunctional attachment even after the early formative years are over. The four categories that psychoanalysis has uncovered to describe different types of attachment in psychoanalysis are:
Secure babies appear to have equal access to their impulses to explore when they feel safe and to seek solace in connection when they do not. Ainsworth had concluded that it was the infants’ responses to reunion, rather than separation, that revealed the most about attachment security or insecurity. Secure infants, however distressed by separation, were almost immediately reassured by reconnecting with their mother and readily resumed play. This kind of flexibility and resilience seemed to be the legacy of interaction with a sensitive mother who was responsive to her baby’s signals and communications. Generally, mothers of secure infants had been quick to pick them up when they cried and had held them with tenderness and care – but only for as long as the infants wised to be held. These mothers seemed to smoothly mesh their own rhythms with those of their babies, rather than imposing their own pace or agenda. In a fashion that was apparently “good enough” (in Winnicott’s idiom), the behavior of these mothers tended to reflect sensitivity rather than misstatement, acceptance rather than rejection, cooperation rather than control, and emotional availability rather than remoteness (Ainsworth et. Al. 1978).
Avoidant babies can seem to be peculiarly blasé given that the Strange Situation procedure exposes them to an intrinsically alarming environment. Incessantly exploring while remaining conspicuously unmoved by mother’s departure or return, their apparent lack of distress can easily be misconstrued as calm. In fact, their heart rates during the separation episodes are as elevated as those of their visibly distressed but secure peers, while the rise in their level of cortical (the body’s principal stress hormone) pre- to post-procedure is significantly greater than that of secure infants (Sroufe & Waters, 1977b; Spangler & Grossmann, 1993).
Ainsworth came to believe that the superficial indifference of the avoidant baby – as well as the virtual absence of attachment behavior – reflected a defensive accommodation akin to the detachment Bowlby had observed in two-and three-year-olds who had suffered protracted separation from their parents. It was as if these avoidant babies, like the older children traumatized by separation and loss, had concluded that their overtures for comfort and care would be of no use – and so, in a sense, they had given up.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ainsworth discovered that the mothers of babies judged avoidant had actively rebuffed their bids for connection (Ainsworth et al. 1978), while other researchers would later observe mothers like these withdrawing when their infants appeared to be sad (Grossman & Grossman, 1991). Inhibition of emotional expression, aversion to physical contact and brusqueness when it occurred were all signature of the mothering that seemed to produce avoidant infants who regularly went limp, when held, rather than cuddling or clinging (Main & Weston, 1982).
Ainsworth’s research identified two kinds of ambivalent infants: those who were angry and those who were passive. Both were too preoccupied with mother’s whereabouts to explore freely and both reacted to her departures with overwhelming distress – so much so that the separation episodes frequently had to be interrupted. Upon reunion, those infants categorized as angry oscillated between active overtures for connection to mother and expressions of rejection ranging from leaning away from mother’s embrace to full-blown tantrums. By contrast, the infants classified as passive appeared capable only of faint or even implicit bids for solace, as if too overcome by their helplessness and misery to approach mother directly. Unhappily, the reunions seemed neither to ameliorate the ambivalent infants’ distress nor to terminate their preoccupation with mother’s weherabouts. It was as if, even in her presence, these infants were seeking mother who wasn’t there.
Ainsworth found, in fact, that the ambivalent babies were the offspring of mothers who were, at best, unpredictably and occasionally available. And while these mothers were neither verbally nor physically rejecting, as the mothers of avoidant infants had been, their responsiveness to their infants’ signals was just as insensitive. Finally, the mothers of ambivalent babies seemed, subtly or not so subtly, to discourage their autonomy perhaps partly explaining the inhibitions of exploration that characterized these babies (Ainsworth et al., 1978).
Some of the infants displayed unsuspectingly surprise behavior. A portion of the infants displayed responses in the parent’s presence that were inexplicable, contradictory, or bizarre. Upon reunion, for example, they backed toward mother, froze in place, collapsed to the floor, or appeared to fall into a dazed, trance-like state. Sighting mother, one infant covered his mouth with his hand – a gesture Darwin saw in primates and interpreted as a stifled scream (Hesse, 1999). Disorganized attachment probably resisted detection for so long because behaviors like these (often lasting no more than 10 to 30 seconds) only punctuated, so to speak, the flow of the infants Strange Situation behavior as a whole (Main & Solomon, 1990). For the same reason each infant classified as disorganized was also given an alternative classification the best described his overall conduct in the Strange Situation as secure, avoidant, or ambivalent.
Main has hypothesized that disorganized attachment results when the attachment figure is simultaneously experienced not only as the safe haven but also as the source of danger, that is, when the child – pre-programmed to turn to the parent in moments of alarm – is caught between contradictory impulses to approach and avoid. It is an untenable position from which the child’s dependency on the parent affords no escape. Little wonder, then, that the result of such a terrifying “biological paradox” is disorganization and/or disorientation.
Main proposed that infant disorganization is the outcome not only of interactions with parents whose anger or abuse is self-evidently frightening, but also of interactions in which the child experiences the parent as frightened. In particular, disorganization may result when the parent’s fear seems to arise in response to the child and when the parent either reacts with physical withdrawal or retreats into a trance-like state. Summing up, Main suggests that disorganized attachment can be understood to emerge from the child’s interactions with parents who are frightening, frightened, or dissociated. In contrast to the organized strategies of secure, avoidant, and ambivalent infants, disorganized attachment should be seen to reflect a collapse of strategy on the part of an infant who experiences “fright without solutions” (Main & Hesse, 1992).
Measuring Attachment: The Strange Situation
In differentiating between security and the varieties of insecurity, Ainswoth discovered that in the attachment relationships it was the quality of communication between infant and caregiver that was of paramount importance. As Ainsworth came to understand that differing patterns of communication by the mothers’ in the Strange Situation only reflected the infants’ developed communication style to loss and separation. Infants, like adults, must adapt to the character of their caregivers. In the home the mothers of secure infants had been observed to be sensitive and responsive to their signals, their behavior strikingly contingent upon their baby’s – a finding that Mary Main would interpret as “early attunement” (Main, 1995, p. 417). Thus, it made sense that secure infants would communicate their feelings and needs directly -as if assuming that such communication would evoke an attuned response. Children who are abused and intimidated through fear and various other forms of maltreatment may not be as forth coming with feelings. These children may withdrawl when parents become angry or abusive. This response is an adaptive strategy to sidestep communication and to both keep from engaging mother’s anger and avoid further rejection.
Likewise, when an individual enters into an intimate relationship with a therapist, or even a lover, friend or boss, we attach to these objects. When we attach to these objects, we identify with them and develop intimate ways of communicating with them. This communication is usually a consistent flow of back and forth in the style and manner the individuals themselves are accustomed to. Thus, it is the psychopath or sociopath who, astutely aware of individual’s feelings, can manipulate individuals through overt or covert aggressive acts. Real life relationships and events, like the way a parent treats a child, are a key important factor in determining human development not just during early childhood but across the life span. Thus, how we are treated by those that matter to us most on a day-to-day basis will shape our behavior and our behavior holds clues to what has happened to us in our past.
Subnote: John Bowlby’s initial work began with children following separation after war; children whose parents had died or were lost. Both him and his colleague Mary Ainsworth made independent contributions that proved absolutely critical to the evolution of the attachment concept. Their work helped shaped what we know about attachment theory in psychoanalysis today. The “Strange Situation” was an experiment conducted in a structured laboratory which assessed 26 twelve month old babies. The assessment lasted roughly 20 minutes, mothers and their infants were introduced to a pleasant, toy-filled room. What followed in a series of three-minute episodes included opportunities for the infant to explore, in the mother’s presence, two separations from the mother, two reunions, and the infant’s exposure to a stranger (always a trained baby watcher). The expectation was that the disquieting combination of an unfamiliar setting, separation, and a stranger would trigger the predictable, biologically based manifestation of the attachment behavioral system. Mary Ainsworth predicted that using the mother as a secure base, the infants who had been judged secure in the home would play in her presence, experiences distress at her departure, and be sufficiently reassured by her return to make continued playful exploration possible. Ainsoworth also expected that infants judged insecure in the home, would be highly upset during the episodes of separation.
Wallin, David J. Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York. Guilford Press (2007)