Understanding Attachment

Attachment theory was created by British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby who was invited by the World Health Organization to study the effects of war on children. 

The prevalent thought of the psychoanalytic community at John Bowlby’s time was that children’s behavioral problems were a consequence of their own imagination. Therapists at that time worked with children, trying to change their fantasies. When John Bowlby came with the idea that children’s problems were based on facts and not on fantasies, he was rejected by the scientific community. 

John Bowlby’s conceptualization of children’s problems was bold and revolutionary. He described children’s problems as the result of the nature of their connection with their caregivers. When children could not feel attach to their caregivers, they either protested the lack of engagement or they retrieved and became distant.

The effect of the war on children did not match what the science of the time explained. There were several instances that contradicted the psychoanalytic model. One of them happened in London as a result of the bombings. Some children were taken from their parents to the countryside to prevent them from being emotionally traumatized by the war. For everyone’s surprise, the children who stayed in London with their parents fared better than those who were taken from their parents to be in the countryside. This example showed that the worst thing that can happen to a child is not the challenges of life but not feeling connected to their loved ones. Children may be shielded from external problems if they feel connected to their attachment figures.

John Bowlby postulated that attachment is not something important to children only. All of us in any age have a need to be connected to an important other. We long to be connected to someone and isolation causes serious psychological and physiological consequences. He said, “All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” (Bowlby 1988: 62). Feeling connected to someone helps us face world’s challenges and be less distressed in case we encounter problems. Our attachment figure becomes a safe haven that shields us against adversities. The world is less menacing when we feel attached to a loved one.

John Bowlby’s attachment theory shows that the worst problem in life is disconnection. Being lonely, either in a relationship or out of it is our biggest dilemma. Connection is a biological and psychological need that makes us stronger to face the challenges of life. Without it we feel insecure and every small problem because a big challenge. 

Because attachment theory centralized in this human need for connection, Bowlby’s wife suggested that he named it the theory of love. Bowlby, on the other hand was reluctant to do so because such terminology would trigger even more opposition from the scientific community. However, Bowlby had just broken the code of love and had discovered how we human beings are so dependent on another one to thrive in the world. Love is our biggest need and it makes us stronger. Depending on someone else makes us more independent and resilient. 

Something very simple about human attachment was noticed in the rhythm of going out and coming back to the attachment figure. Children have a need for exploration. They want to know the world, but they are all the time attentive to the caretaker. They need to be certain of their connection to the wiser and stronger one to feel safe to explore. In other words, the more connected they feel to an attachment figure, the more curiosity they have to explore. If they do not feel connected, they do not feel safe to explore and they become preoccupied with the connection to the attachment figure. 

I have noticed this phenomenon with my clients. When they do not feel connected to their partners, they have difficulty focusing on their work and their daily activities. They want to fix the connection to their loved one first so they can feel safe to tackle their mundane things. They become so obsessed with their relationship that they have difficulty concentrating on anything else. They are not present wherever they are because their minds are with their loved one who they fear they are losing. This also explains why children who do not feel confident about their relationship with their caretakers have difficulty concentrating at school. They feel very anxious which prevent them from focusing on listening to the teacher explain something or figuring out a math problem. 

Psychologist and professor Everett Waters created a wonderful video in what he shows a child in a park with his mother. The child wonders away in the park in a circle where he explores the park and comes back to the mother to check on the connection with her and to feel safe to go back to exploration. This going out and coming back happens in a short time. As adults we also go out to the world to work or to do our daily activities and we come back to our attachment figure. When we go out, we carry the mental image of our loved one with us. We know we are loved, and that certainty of the connection helps us to tackle the challenges of the day. If we do not feel certain of that connection, we feel insecure and unprotected. Therefore, the stronger the connection to that loved one, the braver we feel venturing out in the world.

Dr. Edward Tronick devised an experiment named The Still Face Experiment in which a baby and their mother interact with each other. We can see a dance between the two of them. Even though, the child still does not talk, the mother is able to respond to the child’s cues. She is responsive, and she engages with the child. At some point, she stops responding and she has a still face. The child rapidly picks up on that and becomes distraught. The child does everything she can to get the mother’s responsiveness back. At some point, that child becomes very disturbed and starts crying. The mother reengages with the child who becomes calmer again and resumes interaction with the mother.

The still experiment shows that we human beings need more than someone’s physical presence. We need their interaction and engagement with us. The worst thing that can happen to someone is not having the attachment figure’s responsiveness. The silence treatment is the worst possible punishment someone can give to another. Not engaging with a loved one causes a great deal of distress. As the baby in the Still Face Experiment becomes so aroused when not able to engage with the mother, we also as adults feel very distraught when our loved one is unresponsive. We need to feel the connection to our attachment figure. Being there but not accessible or fully engaged in the relationship makes us feel insecure and stressed.

When we do not feel our loved one’s emotional engagement with us, we tend to protest. We complain, criticize and demand the engagement which may cause the attachment figure to pull away even further or respond with defensiveness. This creates a cycle of pursuing, attacking – withdrawing, defending. When couples enter this cycle, they may need professional help to fix their inability to engage with each other. Many adults who were not able to engage with their parents in their childhood may take that difficulty to their relationship with their partners. They either do not know how to be emotionally present to their partner or they attack their partner when they feel their partner’s lack of engagement. As therapists we help couples to get out of this cycle before they end up losing each other. We help them to be responsive in a productive way. We support them in showing a clear message to the other that says, “I’m here for you, you may count on me, I have your back. You are not alone.”

We hope that in our series of podcasts we can help couples in distress, who feel disconnected to each other, to find the way back to connection. How they can reassure each other that they are attuned to them. This certainty of the connection is vital to a secure and meaningful relationship. 

Claudio Silva, LMFT

Tricia Kim Walsh, LMFT







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