Over the last thirty years Attachment Theory has slowly but surely come to dominate how we understand an individual’s relationship to others and to the world at large. It also helps us describe the internal mental world of the individual. Attachment ideas have transformed models of therapy and the way clinicians view mental health issues.
In a Nutshell
- they provide a safe haven during periods of upset and distress, where we can turn to for solace, protection and reassurance and
- they act as a secure base from which we can explore and perform with confidence and competence, as a building block for acting effectively in the world.
Moreover, these vital functions of attachment figures are needed throughout our lifespan – from the cradle to the grave, as Bowlby put it.
In more recent times, this notion has been altered slightly. Increasingly, attachment theorists don’t talk so much about the physical proximity of an attachment figure, but of the ability of an individual to mentally conjure up a symbolic connection to a safe and secure attachment figure. This may result in actual connection with that attachment figure (we might ring, text, drop by, maybe even get a hug) or it may involve maintaining a mental representation of that connection (especially if actual connection is not available). If we reflect upon our thoughts and feelings when we are upset or under stress, we can see how important this mental conjuring is.
Poignant examples are the reports we hear of dying soldiers over the ages calling for their mothers (See Letter to the Editor)
Dying soldiers’ last words both called out for ‘Mom’
Letter to the Editor
May 11 — To the Editor:
The following is something my father, Robert M. O……., wrote about his memories in WWII. I thought it was appropriate for Mother’s Day.
“I have two vivid memories, among many others, which forever impress me about the stupidity, banality, futility and anguish of war. One is about a very young soldier named Jones who died in my arms after a mortar barrage on us on top of “Goon” Mountain in France. He looked so calm slouching there when I went to him … his only words were, “Mom, mom,” then he died.
“A few months later some of us were taking out snipers on top of a ridge, in the woods, in Germany. A German soldier rose in front of me with his rifle pointed. … I shot him, he fell. I went forward to see what I had done. … At the time, our own men below, thinking we on the ridge were Germans, began to fire on us with rifles and machine guns. … I dropped to the ground and came face to face with the German. … I then noticed he was wounded badly in the stomach … and he was very young. … We stared at each other, bullets flying over our heads, suddenly brought together in a strange way. … He uttered these words over and over … “Mutter, mutter.”
Our ability to successfully imagine this connectedness and to seek it out, is determined by our history of actual engagement with attachment figures throughout our lives, but especially in early childhood.
Our ability to do this determines our mental health and wellbeing and satisfaction level of our relationships.
When people can make a successful mental connection to an attachment figure, attachment theory calls this “secure attachment”. Securely attached individuals are able to access attachment figures for soothing through attuned empathy and reassurance. This can be done in actual proximity with their attachment figure, or in one’s mind. The latter is what Wallin (2007) calls “symbolic proximity”.
Securely attached people have an automatic expectation that important others will be generally available and responsive to them. They are comfortable to seek this out proactively. Securely attached people have an implicit belief that they and what they produce is valuable and worthy. They believe it is their right to assert their needs and thoughts with others (while taking the other into account). These people readily make symbolic connection with soothing and reassuring attachment figures if they are not there or available to them.
This capacity for symbolic proximity to a soothing attachment figure is a crucial ingredient for managing emotions when we are stressed or depressed. It is also related to our ability to think clearly through emotions. By conjuring up a sense of reassuring connection to our attachment figures, our emotions can be calmed adequately to allow us to cognitively re-appraise the thoughts and beliefs that accompany our feelings. (The research also shows that our ability to think clearly through our feelings is fostered in secure attachment environments – either in childhood, in later attachment relationships, or in psychotherapy).
Not surprisingly, the research shows that individuals with secure attachment are mentally healthier and report greater levels of satisfaction in their relationships at home and at work.
There are many people who do not seek the proximity of an attachment figure when they have anxious or depressive feelings and thoughts. They find the proximity of an attachment figure to be no use in soothing or reassuring them (sometimes, the opposite feeling occurs). These people are more likely to be self-reliant when they are upset or stressed and will tend to manage their feelings and thoughts on their own. These people have an insecure avoidant attachment style.
There are others who seek out physical proximity and gain it but never feel quite soothed or reassured by the connection. For these people proximity and responsiveness by attachment figures is never quite enough. When their attachment figure is not present or available they will try to hold a rather idealised images of their attachment figure in their mind, but will struggle with a dismaying sense of being on their own with their experience. These people have an insecure ambivalent/preoccupied attachment style.
The research shows that both of these insecure attachment styles are highly correlated with poor mental health, unsatisfying relationships, and even poor physical health outcomes.
This capacity for symbolic attachment, and these beliefs about one’s self and one’s attachment figure, cannot be taught didactically – like a teacher to a student. It can only be developed through relationship experiences. Self-talk, positive thinking, cognitive scripting – on their own – cannot achieve this.
Individuals can only develop this capacity through experiencing being attuned to, having their thoughts and emotions empathised with and validated, and being soothed and reassured by a robust and reliable attachment figure. This is not a do-it-yourself project.
The good news is that it can happen at any stage over your life span. One can start to experience this in their infancy, later childhood, through key mentors, in their couple relationship, or in psychotherapy.
One of the leaders of research in Attachment Theory, Mary Main (2002), calls this “earned security”. She once studied what happens when people who have a secure attachment style get married to people who have an insecure attachment style. She found a sample of couples that had this combination of attachment styles and studied what happened over five years. She found that a significant number of those people who were initially assigned with an “insecure” attachment category now joined their partner in the “secure” attachment category. This gives a whole new meaning to the term “marrying up”.
The answer is simple, but getting there is difficult. We have to have continual and reliable contact with an attachment figure that:- 1) attunes to their thoughts and feeling, 2) implicitly and explicitly empathises with and validates these thoughts and feelings, and who 3) differentiates their own thoughts and feelings so they feel robust and reliable to us while this conversation is happening. Donald Winnicott – a famous British Psychiatrist – called this a “holding environment”. What he meant by this is that we need to experience being held both in touch and symbolically. When we feel understood and reassured by a strong and reliable attachment figure we feel “held” at a symbolic level.
The problem is that everyone wants to do this and most people believe they are already doing this for their loved ones. But most people are usually unaware of how and when this breaks down in their interactions with their loved ones.
In adult couple relationships, in particular, this capacity to provide a “holding environment” for each other can breakdown regularly when both people have their hurt feelings activated at the same time. The same can happen in parent-child relationships even though we all accept the premise that parents should be managing their emotions and reactions when the child is not.
This is the crucial role of the therapist. They can tell when this breaks down and coach attachment figures to be more effective in providing a “holding environment”. Sometimes attachment relationships are way too fragile for this to happen reliably. When this is the case, the therapist needs to be the provisional attachment figure and provide these experiences before people can start doing it in their own relationships.
This doesn’t always take as long as you might think. People often only require this for a short number of counselling sessions – just long enough to help them think clearly through their feelings about an issue they are having, or to learn how to better access the relationships they have around them.