Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, mental health researcher and writer, wrote in The Guardian on 10th January this year:
“…Attachment theory traces its roots to the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who in the 1950s combined evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis into a brave new paradigm. Aghast at his profession’s lack of academic rigour, Bowlby turned to the burgeoning science of animal behaviour. Experiments with infant monkeys (some so plainly cruel that no ethical board would permit them today) had challenged the then prevailing notion that infants see their mothers chiefly as a source of food.
Bowlby realised that “the mother-infant bond is not purely generated by the drive to latch onto the breast, but it’s also motivated by this idea of comfort”, says Jeremy Holmes, a British professor of psychological therapies (now part-retired) and co-author of the book Attachment in Therapeutic Practice (2018).
The search for comfort, or security, Bowlby argued, is an inborn need: we’ve evolved to seek attachment to “older, wiser” caregivers to protect us from danger during the long spell of helplessness known as childhood. The attachment figure, usually one or both parents, becomes a secure base from which to explore the world, and a safe haven to return to for comfort. According to Holmes, Bowlby saw in attachment theory “the beginning of a science of intimate relationships” and the promise that “if we could study parents and children, and the way they relate to each other, we can begin to understand what happens in the consulting room” between client and therapist.
Research on attachment theory suggests that early interactions with caregivers can dramatically affect your beliefs about yourself, your expectations of others, and the way you process information, cope with stress and regulate your emotions as an adult. For example, children of sensitive mothers – the cooing, soothing type – develop secure attachment, learn to accept and express negative feelings, lean on others for help, and trust their own ability to deal with stress.
By contrast, children of unresponsive or insensitive caregivers form insecure attachment. They become anxious and easily distressed by the smallest sign of separation from their attachment figure. Harsh or dismissive mothers produce avoidant infants, who suppress their emotions and deal with stress alone. Finally, children with abusive caregivers become disorganised: they switch between avoidant and anxious coping, engage in odd behaviours and…often self-harm.
Anxious, avoidant and disorganised attachment styles develop as responses to inadequate caregiving: a case of “making the best of a bad situation”. But the repeated interactions with deficient early attachment figures can become neurally encoded and then subconsciously activated later in life, especially in stressful and intimate situations. That’s how your childhood attachment patterns can solidify into a corrosive part of your personality, distorting how you see and experience the world, and how you interact with other people.
The psychologist Mario Mikulincer of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel is one of the pioneers of modern attachment theory, studying precisely such cascading effects. In a number of experiments spanning two decades, he has found that, as adults, anxious people have low self-esteem and are easily overwhelmed by negative emotions. They also tend to exaggerate threats and doubt their ability to deal with them. Driven by a desperate need for safety, such people seek to “merge” with their partners and they can become suspicious, jealous or angry towards them, often without objective cause.
If the anxious among us crave connection, avoidant people strive for distance and control. They detach from strong emotions (both positive and negative), withdraw from conflicts and avoid intimacy. Their self-reliance means that they see themselves as strong and independent, but this positive image comes at the expense of maintaining a negative view of others. As a result, their close relationships remain superficial, cool and unsatisfying. And while being emotionally numb can help avoidant people weather ordinary challenges, research shows that, in the midst of a crisis, their defences can crumble and leave them extremely vulnerable.
It isn’t hard to see how such attachment patterns can undermine mental health. Both anxious and avoidant coping have been linked to a heightened risk of anxiety, depression, loneliness, eating and conduct disorders, alcohol dependence, substance abuse and hostility. The way to treat these problems, say attachment theorists, is in and through a new relationship. On this view, the good therapist becomes a temporary attachment figure, assuming the functions of a nurturing mother, repairing lost trust, restoring security, and instilling two of the key skills engendered by a normal childhood: the regulation of emotions and a healthy intimacy…”