Attachment theory Part Two
Posted by Simon Parke, 13 July 2018, 9.13am
We’re thinking about attachment theory, pioneered by John Bowlby.
This is Part Two, which assumes knowledge of Part One, which I posted recently.
We opened the subject up and looked briefly at secure, anxious, avoidant and disorganised attachment.
Secure attachment is gift; the other three are not. Anxious attachment, for instance, forms where the world is so unsettled, or the parent so preoccupied or vulnerable, that the infant must cling very tight to survive.
This child does not explore very much. Maybe the carer does not want them exploring; or perhaps they’d just get up and leave if the infant did not hang on. It’s an anxious space to inhabit when small and the experience long-remembered.
We also pondered avoidant attachment, where the message is that the caretaker is dangerous and needs to be avoided; or appears to value most highly a child who is minimal trouble and independent.
And there are times when, in anger and desperation, the parent wants the infant to just disappear or die. Perhaps the child is shaken, thrust down or thrown across the room. In that case, the infant will do best not to be attached at all.
As we seek our place in all this, we remember that attachment theory is not some binary, all-or-nothing labelling. Like all truth, it has many shades.
Sometimes, for instance, a child is securely attached to one parent and not to the other. Different attachments may form with different parents.
But it is the primary carer who will have the most real-life influence; and the most particular power.
So how will this affect our lives?
From our first attachment experiences, with our neural pathways still forming, we develop a mental idea of what to expect from someone we are close to and depend on.
As a vulnerable child, meeting our primary carer’s desires is crucial for our survival; all else is secondary and we must do what is necessary.
And even when, in adult life, it ceases to be about survival, and we appear to have more power and more choices, the neural pathways remain and the programme is still there in our brain, a secret but formidable influencer.
It is why we don’t always make the best choices in relationships, perhaps repeatedly choosing people who harm us or make us feel insecure.
Many of us stick to a flawed survival plan that we somehow feel safe with. We stick to what we know, because it feels familiar and protects us from dangerous error.
Or so we imagine…
Somewhere inside there is often the longing for parents to change:
‘This Christmas will be better!’
There is the longing that they might see us for who we truly are and understand us. Never say never but this rarely occurs, because parents rarely change with age.
Adults may then seek some sort of redemption in their partners or in their children, looking for acceptance or value from them instead…which can be quite a weight for them to carry.
If they don’t find it there, they may opt for the self-medication of alcohol, pills, work, random sex or join some tribe or other - political, social or religious.
What is apparent is that our attachment wounds – the scar tissue from the past - are the stuff of our healing, and a journey we’ll be on for the rest of our life.
My issues won’t be solved by a weekend away or with the purchase of a book – though every little helps.
And our attachments are crucial, they’re worth the time, because they affect how we deal with other traumas in our lives.
How I deal with rejection, for instance, may not have changed very much since I was nine months old.
The attachment wounds are the fundamental trauma, which, for good or ill, cradles and colours the others.
Initially, most people are looking for symptom relief rather than healing; though slow healing is possible, if there is the will for it.
Healing is the kind and patient recovery of the self we had to abandon as a child, and even as I write that line, something inside me sighs.
It is re-parenting ourselves– or parenting ourselves for the first time.
In Part Three, we’ll look at some healing paths.