The attachment relationship
Attachment. Not just a theory
From the first half of the last century until today a lot has been written about attachment and theory of attachment. The argument is so vast and complex that a simplification is easily reductive compared to its importance in the psychological field.
Let’s start by casting a glimpse into the function and biological origins of this very important system of behaviour.
Why does it exist? What are its declinations?
First of all it is necessary to say that the definition of theory, relating to attachment, is to date the most inaccurate one can say about it.
All those who have dealt with attachment then and deal with it today know very well that its validity is now consolidated by decades of research and evidence.
Starting from the studies of John Bowlby (1958-1982) up to the modern evolutionary psychotherapy, this construct has gained a huge influence in the psychological field. From research to the clinic, from developmental psychology to psychopathology, to social psychology.
Bowlby, a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst, has succeded to stress and demonstrate the importance of environmental influences and intersubjectivity on the development of the mind. His concept of “safe base” has had huge relapses in the clinical field.
Working with minor misfits Bowlby begins to observe the influence of separations from the family on the development and physical and mental health of children.
Coming to the knowledge of the studies of Lorenz (1966) on the imprinting in geese and those of Harlow on Rhesus monkeys (1958) he observed that the phenomenon was universal between different animal species and, most importantly, its independence from the nourishment.
The little one does not develop his relationship with the mother, or who for her, to receive food, but rather warmth, affection and protection.
This statement was in open opposition to what psychoanalysis advocated. Bowlby was one of the many dissidents of classical psychoanalytic doctrine.
Bowlby also demonstrated how attachment is a primary and adaptive need that accompanies the individual throughout the life span. Using his own words “from cradle to grave.”
The little one relates through behavioural patterns based on innate (crying, clinging, drawing attention etc…). These schemes carry out the adaptive function to guarantee the protective proximity of the mother, to activate in her complementary behaviors, making sure that she responds by providing care and comfort.
This has as its purpose the survival of the individual and ultimately that of the species.
In humans, during the first years of life, within the relationship with the mother, the child develops internal representations that will remain almost stable throughout the life span. These are the internal operational models, or MOI. This concept was inspired by cognitive psychology. In particular to the concept of cognitive pattern.
The internal working models
An internal working model, or MOI, is a psychic structure that includes affective, perceptive, motor and cognitive components. A MOI is nothing more than an internal representation of oneself and of each figure of attachment.
It is based on implicit memory systems of interactions with the attachment figure.
What is stored is the response of the attachment figure to the requests for care and comfort. Based on this, the mind regulates the behavior based on expectations of availability or rejection.
These memories are generalized and extended to all future relationships and therefore affect the relational skills also in adulthood.
The style of attachment is evaluated by means of an experimental procedure called “Strange Situation”, conceived by Mary Ainsworth in the Sixties. In This paradigm the child’s system is stressed by episodes of separation from the mother, and by the presence of a stranger. The reactions of the mother-child couple are observed and classified in relation to the moment of detachment, the reunion and during the time that occurs. This procedure can be applied from 12 months. At this moment in fact the relationship of attachment is to be considered consolidated. In other words, the bases of identity are thrown very early.
The Safe child
The child classified as safe (B) at Strange Situation has developed the so-called safe base function. In fact it he’s able to use the attachment figure as a base from which to explore the environment. During the separation protests briskly and proves to feel the need of the mother, but succeeds if necessary to be consulated by the stranger. At the reunion time, he welcomes the mum with a smile, and puts in place attempts to approach. Once reached the contact he maintains it until, after being comforted, go back to play.
The safe children are those who have experienced emotionally available and predictable caregivers. Their parents were ready to respond when the child called, ready to console and encourage, but only intervening when necessary.
They learned to have confidence in the response of the carers to their needs of closeness and warmth. For this reason they welcome the mother in a positive way, they let her consolate them and then return to play.
Baby B has a self-representation as worth loving. She/he feels empowered to express discomfort if he get in trouble.
The representation of the other-one is that of a reliable, kind, helpful and welcoming one. This representations will remain valid from that moment until adulthood.
The insecure/ambivalent child
The child classified as insecure/ambivalent or resistant (C) at the time of separation cries and protests actively. Often the contact with the caregiver is researched even before the separation, since the child seems to live the context of novelty as a source of anxiety.
The moment of the reunion is characterized by a strong resistance to be comforted by the mother and to her hugs.
The child can approach the caregiver, request the contact but simultaneously oppose angrily and in a whyning manner.
Anxious-resistant children are difficult to console. They’re children literally clinging to their parents. They alternate requests for contact with rabid refusal. As if, when they eventually get close to the parent, they were feeling like in the moment of protest at the separation.
The child with C type attachment has probably experienced an unstable and inconsistent attitude in responding to his/her requests for care.
Children with ambivalent attachments have parental figures who sometimes respond positively, while other times they become suddenly and unpredictably unavailable. The child therefore develops the expectation of an adequate response, but the activation of the attachment system persists even after the reunion.
This because the child is coping with the eventuality (several times experienced) of a sudden loss of support or a new unpredictable separation or unavailability of caring.
These are children in which the attachment system seems to be excessively activated and having trouble to deactivating it.
Any separation from the parents is poorly tolerated. They are dependent children with poor autonomy.
They seem to require a continuous search for the presence of the other, since they have not internalized a security feeling.
Typically, parents use the threat them of abandonment as a mean of coercion. This translates into an imbalance between attachment/exploration tendencies.
The exploration behavior is often hindered also by the tendency of the mother to interfere with the autonomous exploratory activities of the son. As if the mother could not consider him an independent individual, capable of initiative.
With no need to explain it, the reasons why the mother show this kind of attitude relate directly to her history of attachment.
So every hug from his/her mother carries some degree of limitation to autonomy, which generates anger.
The internal working models have been formed starting from episodes in which the caregiver responds positively to the requests of care, and from others in which these requests are not answered.
For a developing cognitive system, it is difficult to abstract coherent elements to build a unitary strategy for social interactions.
This is easier for safe children. Even for insecure-avoiding children. Instead, the child C develops twofolded self and other’s representation. A positive and a negative one.
Therefore it is never entirely sure to be lovable and that in a moment of distress can expect the support of the other. Also the parental tendency not to think of him/her as a center of an autonomous initiative, but as an “object” to control, might creates further future problems.
For example might lead to the idea of relationships as a mean of mutual control.
In adulthood the relationships of these kind of children will be characterized by insecurity on one’s kindness and one’s availability, by anxiety and fear of abandonment and by controlling attitudes.
The insecure/avoiding child
The child classified as insecure/avoiding (A) learned not to use the parent as a safe base. The child does not refer to the adult when it is frightened or uncomfortable.
At the time of separation from the mother, he/she does not protest or show signs of anxiety or any concern. When the mother return in the room he/she seems quite indifferent. He/she may welcome the mum but without such emphasis and keeping the attention on the games and the environment.
He/she tends to avoid visual and physical contact, showing the so-called “forced autonomy”. If the parent tries to take the child it in the arms, the child stiffens or does not engage in an emotional interaction.
This behavior is typical of children who have experienced a mother who is not welcoming the child’s physical contact requests. Studies has observed that children with insecure-avoiding attachment have predominantly parental figures who do not respond to their demands, refuse to help them or get angry when their children physically approach them.
This experience of lack of tuning is constantly repeated. To the point that the child learns to renounce the help and support from the caregiver. The child A has learned that the most effective strategy to maintain the relationship with the parent is to suppress the manifestation of their psychological needs and to disguise emotions. They show early and excessive autonomy.
The MOI of the avoiding attachment contains the expectation of rejection, if any sign of emotional needs are expressed.
Not least, they dismiss emotions related to attachment and self-vulnerability. This implies the construction of a representation of oneself as not worthy of care and protection from the other and as not so lovable.
The representation of the other is of someone refusing, unreliable and cold.
Despite the negative representations, this pattern allows the child a degree of coherence in the choice of behavioral strategy. For these children the most adaptive choice is the avoidance of relational contact and an imbalance towards excessive autonomy.
In adulthood these individuals will live relationships in which they repeat the emotional control and distance they have learned in childhood.
The insecure/disorganized child
The child classified as insecure/disorganized (D) exhibits a behavior that is clearly paradoxical and may seem lacking of purpose.
At all stages of the procedure it is possible to observe simultaneous and contradictory behavioral sequences, incomplete or interrupted. There are often stereotypes, facial expressions of confusion and fear or concern towards the caregiver.
The most singular observations of disorganized children concentrate at the moment of the meeting with the attachment figure.
The children run towards the mother with the face turned on the opposite side. They actively avoid the look. Or they change direction at the last moment. Other times they remain as petrified and disoriented.
When the Moi is disorganized, the child fails to organize a coherent approach because it is in a peculiar condition.
The separation activated the search system of proximity and protection, but the figure from which the child seeks support and consolation is the one that frightens him/her.
This puts him/her in an unsolvable conflict and a sort of impasse.
Why the attachment figure can be frightening is attributable to several reasons. The mother could reflect the presence of unprocessed traum with facial expressions showing, fear, or sudden outbursts of anger or alienation.
When this happens while you handling a newborn or a toddler, this little brain is not able to properly process the information.
The human brain is in fact biologically programmed to recognize the emotional signals of care (acceptance, rejection, or both).
First of all from the expression of the face, from the tone of the voice, from the nonverbal behavior. What is not prepared to process are the confused signals resulting from the trauma and predatory aggression by the conspecific.
Numerous research has shown that disorganized attachment is also present in the context of inadequate parental care (physical or emotional neglect) and in cases of child abuse. The child and the parent alternately cover the roles of victim, executioner and savior in a so-called “dramatic triangle”.
The disorganized MOI contains multiple and irreconcilable representations.
A self-image as acceptable and the other as available: In fact it does not receive explicit signs of unavailability and refusal.
A representation of himself as dangerous and the parent as the victim .
A representation of himself as helpless victim and of the parent as the predator .
Since the parent expresses fear when the child approaches, this supports a self-representation as dangerous and the parent as a helpless victim.
Another possible elaboration is that of the image of oneself and the other as defenseless victims of an external, invisible and inexplicable threat.
It is often the case that the attachment figure takes comfort from the child’s affective closeness. This has the effect of structuring in him/her a self-image as the almighty savior of a vulnerable parent.
These representations of oneself as persecutor and the other as victim manifest themselves through punitive behaviors or of concern to the parent, exceeding in sometimes inappropriate care. These strategies (controlling-punitive or controlling-caring) represent defenses against fragmentation.
The only possible way to interpret the signals issued by the parent. Through them the child reaches an apparent level of mental and behavioural coherence. We are talking about those children who reproach and punish their parents, or those who take care of them as adults.
In adulthood these individuals with disorganized attachment will live problematic relationships and pose important challenges to clinicians.
What is the attachment in adulthood?
The evaluation of the attachment in adulthood is at the center of several strands of research in psychopathology and clinical psychology, but also in psychotherapy. Through a structured interview, conceived by Mary Main, the adult attachment interview, it is possible to evaluate the adult’s mental status with respect to its own history of attachment. This not only opens up new ways of understanding the person’s functioning in interpersonal contexts, but addresses the clinical therapeutic strategies for the best outcome of the therapy.
Moreover, many studies have shown that the attachment of an adult subject can faithfully predict that of the children.
This is the phenomenon of intergenerational transmission of attachment.
Adult individuals should have internalized the history of their primary relationships in a coherent and articulated vision within episodic memory and autobiographical memory. This usually happens because of cognitive maturation, which allows more complex elaborations than those of an immature system.
It is also possible that over the years the person has experienced relationships with a corrective value compared to MOI formed in parental history. The analysis focuses on the logical and formal characteristics of the answers given to the interview and their narrative coherence. These are all indicators of a successful elaboration, even in the case of non-positive family histories.
- Secure and autonomous attachment.
Subjects are classified as autonomous or safe (F-Free category) when they exhibit consistent exposure to the areas under investigation. Their answers are in fact clear, relevant and reasonably succinct. During the interview they appear free to explore their own thoughts and feelings related to the experiences of attachment, and they show aware of the effects these experiences have had on their current state of mind. Both adults who have had experiences of support and care on the part of parental figures, and those who have had a difficult past, though presentedand reprocessed in a coherent manner, can be regarded as safe.
- Dismissing attachment.
The common element of the subjects that are considered to be dismissing (Ds-dismissing category) is represented by a particular organization of thought that allows them to keep the attachment relatively deactivated and disconnected from the experience of current lifetime. This characteristic is expressed, during the interview, through the active attempt to dismiss or diminish the emotional and affective side of their experiences of attachment. Subjects whose descriptions of parents appear highly positive (idealization of parental figures) are classified in this category, without such descriptions being supported by specific episodes of their childhood (which can instead put them in open contradiction with their statements). Those who express a strong devaluation in relation to the importance of attachment relationships are also classified as dismissing. They minimize in particular the influence of negative experiences or fail to remember specific episodes (especially negative ones) of their past.
The subjects are classified involved (category E-Entangled or worried) if they show a confused, passive or angry involvement with the figures of attachment, from which it is possible to see the presence of entangle in family relationships, that still continue in their current mental state. Their interviews are characterized by a continuous intrusion of the past in their mental processes, within a speech strongly imbued with emotional elements, sensations and emotions that the subject seems to fail to articulate in a framework of logical and coherent thinking. During the interview, in particular, these subjects seem to pay excessive attention to the memories connected with the attachment, with a consequent tendency to lose the central point of the question or the context of the speech and to produce irrelevant details . The speech appears to be difficult to follow, contains many violations of the maxims of coherence (H.P. Grice, 1975), in particular with regard to the length of the responses (maximum quantity), their relevance (maximum of the report) and their clarity (maximum of the way). The numerous and detailed episodes that are re-evoked are also not accompanied by a more general semantic type evaluation.
The subjects assigned to this category are characterized by the presence of a mourning or an unsolved trauma in relation to which the mental state of the subject appears disorganized or disoriented. This category does not represent a real form of mental organization overall with respect to attachment, but overlaps the previous ones. The clues that can lead to this classification are represented for example by the conviction of the subject that the missing person is still alive or by an attitude of disbelief with respect to his disappearance, confusion between himself and the missing person, or disorientation and confusion over the temporal aspects of events.
As had been anticipated initially, it is not possible, nor would it be correct, to exhaust the theme of attachment in a few hundred words. Here the historically most famous part of this sector of psychology has been presented. Without purpose of exhaustiveness and completeness, we have referred to its central constructs.