Attachment, Security, Separation and Psychological Differentiation
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Paul Renn
15th April, 2010
Data from developmental studies show that, in the earliest period of development, the primary mechanism for transmitting a sense of security and coherence, or insecurity and disorganization, together with a characteristic style of regulating emotion, is the quality of the infant-caregiver relationship. In this context, Bowlby (1969, 1973) suggests that a parent who seeks care and emotional security from a child, thereby inverting the child-parent relationship, is likely to be psychologically disordered, and thus to generate attachment disorder in the child. For example, in instances in which the mother recruits the child into caring for herself and helping to care for younger siblings, often in a context of relational problems and lack of support from the husband/father, the child, and later the adult, may experience latent yearning for love and care, and dysregulated anger with the parents for not having provided it, as well as anxiety, guilt and shame about expressing such desires (Bowlby, 1979). Commenting on Winnicott’s (1960) theory of emotional development, Bowlby (1979) suggests that a relational matrix of this kind is what generates a False Self organization. Moreover, he argues that the discovery of the True Self entails helping the person to recognize and own their yearning for love and care, and to express the anger felt towards those who earlier failed to provide it: in essence, to mourn the loss (Bowlby 1960.
In a similar way, Balint (1979) argues that a serious discrepancy between the pre-oedipal needs of the infant and the care and nurturance available in early development creates a “deficiency state” in the child, which, in phenomenological terms, is later experienced as a “basic fault” (p. 18). The individual tends to develop tenuous object relations, compensating for the absence of a sense of inner wellbeing and harmony by engaging in self-destructive forms of behaviour in respect of alcohol, illicit drugs or food.
We see, then, that the child’s sense of “felt security” in relation to the main attachment figure vitally affects the degree to which he or she is comfortable with separation, and thus free to explore the environment and elaborate and express his or her emotional states without becoming overly fearful (Sroufe & Waters, 1977). It is the provision by the caregiver of a secure base and safe haven which facilitates the child’s separation and exploration. Implicit in attachment theory, therefore, is the ability to separate while remaining attached. Bowlby’s (1969) work emphasises the ambivalent conflict between emotional connection and separateness, which he construes as attachment and the dance with independence.
From a different developmental perspective, that of ego psychology, Mahler and Furer (1969) found that when the mother is unable to accept the child’s separation and individuation, and, instead, relates to the child in a way that is “too exclusive and too parasitic” (p. 745), the child may experience an extreme separation reaction reminiscent, clinically, of the annihilation dread of adult psychotics. Subsequent research by Mahler and her colleagues (1985) shows that psychological differentiation, conceptualized as a process of separation-individuation, is forestalled when the mother keeps the infant in a dependent position so as to meet her own needs; or, alternatively, ushers the infant precipitously into autonomy. Mahler et al. (1985) found that the unfolding of the infant’s autonomy and mastery of the environment, and the experience of self and other as distinct subjects, requires the mother’s continuing emotional availability to meet the child’s needs to separate and form a unique individual identity.
Similarly, Khan (1979), employing an object relations approach, and following Winnicott (1960, 1974), argues that the mother’s personal conflicts may create a severe problem for the child in becoming physically separated and psychologically differentiated, not least by inhibiting and negating the child’s “aggressive gesture” (p. 15). Because the expression of anger and defiance cannot be tolerated by the caregiver, the child has no option other than to split off his or her rage and hate. The consequent depletion of the child’s self reflects Winnicott’s (1960) observation that not to be seen by the mother at the moment of spontaneous gesture is not to exist.
Khan (1979) emphasises that the mother’s merged style of relating compromises the development of what Winnicott (1958) describes as “the capacity to be alone”; a failure that Khan (1979) sees as exacerbated by the relative absence of a father in the child’s life. He contends that in such a relational context, the mother’s withdrawal from the intense and disturbed attachment with her infant is experienced by the developing child as abandonment and a threat of annihilation. This induces fear, panic and “separation trauma” in the child (p. 13). In adulthood, the person lives with a sense of impending dread; a state of mind that Winnicott (1974) conceptualizes as “fear of a breakdown that has already happened”, but which has not been “remembered” (p. 104). Informed by recent data from trauma and memory research, we may view the individual’s difficulty in consciously recalling and articulating traumatic memories as deriving from the effect of prolonged stress on the brain’s memory systems, particularly on the hippocampus and amygdala, which, in turn, may result in a pervasive state of fear, as found in disorganized attachment (Main & Hesse, 1990; Perry et al., 1995; Schacter, 1996; van der Kolk, 1994; van der Kolk and Fisler, 1995).
Khan (1979) views the persistence of a pathogenic form of child-mother interaction as constituting cumulative trauma. In line with Stoller (1986), and Stubrin (1994), he contends that the mother’s inability to facilitate the child’s separation and psychological differentiation results in self-alienation and identity diffusion, particularly in instances in which the father is weak, powerless or absent. These respective authors view such relational dynamics as linked to a form of adult psychopathology in which dissociated hatred and hostility are acted out in sexually perverse ways. Litowitz (2002), too, contends that non-sexual defensive motivation may take on a sexualized nature when the individual’s sense of self is endangered and under threat. Fonagy (1998), in responding to the work of the Boston Change Process Study Group (Stern et al., 1998), argues that the capacity to be alone, as articulated by Winnicott (1958), is a central aspect of change in therapeutic work with adults.
These perspectives, then, emphasise that a degree of aggression and defiance is necessary for the child to attain an optimal sense of separateness and differentiation, and thus to engage in autonomous exploration as an agentic self. As Benjamin (1992) and Ogden (1986) observe, without difference there can be no subjective perspective. Defiance and rebellion against parental authority tend to re-emerge in adolescence during what Blos (1962) terms “the second individuation process” (p. 77). The role of the father in helping the child to separate from a disturbed dyadic relationship with the mother is also stressed by these authors. This vital aspect of the child’s relational experience is highlighted by Campbell (1999), and by Fonagy & Target (1999), who argue that the perspective of the father as a third object may provide the child with a second chance to develop a secure psychological self.
More fundamentally, Panksepp (2001) suggests that children deprived of opportunities for rough and tumble games, a robust form of playful interaction typical of the child-father relationship, may exhibit slower neuronal maturation of the frontal lobes, a developmental delay associated with emotional and behavioural problems, particularly attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Panksepp (2001) emphasises that the frontal lobe areas of the brain integrate basic emotional processes with the ability for cognitive reflection. He is at one with Schore (1994, 2001), Siegal (2001), and Trevarthen (2001) in viewing this developmental process as promoting the gradual emergence of the capacity for self-regulation and self-restraint, together with the ability to communicate effectively and to share emotional experience with others in the intersubjective realm.
Despite the importance of fathers to the child’s overall development, all too often a father figure is either largely absent or emotionally unavailable. This situation is made manifestly worse by the excessive hours worked by many men, and by the high rate of separation and divorce in contemporary Western society. When the child’s attachment to both parents is severely disturbed, a developmental pathway leading to serious psychopathology is the likely outcome, unless a buffering or protective effect is afforded by a secure attachment to at least one member of the child’s family, for example, an aunt or grandparent (Holmes, 2001). Fonagy et al., (1997) contend that a meaningful attachment relationship provides the intersubjective basis for the development of the capacity to mentalize and, thereby, to reflect on and resolve traumatic and abusive experience. In such instances, the child who has been subjected to persistent parental maltreatment may be diverted from a developmental pathway that, otherwise, might culminate in borderline personality disorder and other forms of psychopathology (Bradley 2003).
Balint, M. (1979). The Basic Fault. London: Routledge.
Benjamin, J. (1992). Recognition and Destruction: An Outline of Intersubjectivity. In Like Subjects, Love Objects: essays on recognition and sexual difference, Ch. 1, 27-48. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Blos, P. (1962). The Second Individuation Process of Adolescence. In On Adolesence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, 77-101. London: Free Association Press.
Bowlby, J. (1960). Grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood. In Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 15: 9-52.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. London: Pimlico.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 2: Separation: Anger and Anxiety. London: Pimlico.
Bradley, S.J. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Development of Psychopathology. New York: The Guilford Press.
Campbell, D. (1999). The Role of the Father in a Pre-Suicide State. In Psychoanalytic Understanding of Violence and Suicide, ed. R.S. Perelberg, 75-86. London: Routledge.
Fonagy, P., Target, M., Steele, M., Steele, H., Leigh, T., Levinson, A. and Kennedy, R. (1997). Morality, Disruptive Behaviour, Borderline Personality Disorder, Crime, and Their Relationships to Security of Attachment. In Attachment and Psychopathology, eds. L. Atkinson and K. J. Zucker, 223-274. New York: Guilford Press.
Fonagy, P. (1998). Moments of Change in Psychoanalytic Theory: Discussion of a New Theory of Psychic Change. Infant Mental Health Journal, 19 (3): 346-353.
Fonagy, P. and Target, M. (1999). Towards Understanding Violence: the use of the body and the role of the father. In Psychoanalytic Understanding of Violence and Suicide, ed. R.S. Perelberg, 53-72. London: Routledge.
Holmes, J. (2001). The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. Hove; Brunner-Routledge.
Khan, M. (1979). Alienation in Perversions. London: Karnac Books.
Litowitz, B.E. (2002). Sexuality and Textuality. In Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50 (1): 171-198.
Mahler, M. S. and Furer, M. (1967). On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation: Infantile Psychosis. In Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 15: 740-753.
Mahler, M. S., Pine, F. and Bergman, A. (1985). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. London: Karnac Books.
Main, M. and Hesse, E. (1990). Parents’ unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behaviour the linking mechanism? In Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research and intervention, eds. M. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, and E. M. Cummings, 161–182. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ogden, T. H. (1986). The Matrix of the Mind: Object Relations and the Psychoanalytic Dialogue. New Jersey: Jason Aronson.
Panksepp, J. (2001). The Long-Term Psychobiological Consequences of Infant Emotions: Prescriptions for the Twenty-First Century. In Infant Mental Health Journal, ed. A.N. Schore, Vol. 22, 132-173.
Perry, B.D., Pollard, R.A., Blakely, T.L., Baker, W.L. and Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain. How “states” become “traits”. In Infant Mental Health Journal, 16, 271-291.
Schacter, D.L. (1996). Searching for Memory: the brain, the mind, and the past. New York: Basic Books.
Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.
Schore, A.N. (2001). The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health. In Infant Mental Health Journal, ed. A.N. Schore, Vol. 22, 201-269.
Siegal, A., Roeling, T.A.P., Gregg, T.R. and Kruk, M.R. (1999). Neuropharmacology of brain-stimulation-evoked aggression. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 23, 359-389.
Siegel, D.J. (2001). Toward an Interpersonal Neurology of the Developing Mind: Attachment Relationships, “Mindsight” and Neural Integration. In Infant Mental Health Journal, ed. A.N. Schore, Vol. 22, 67-94.
Sroufe, L.A. and Waters, E. (1977). Attachment as an organizational construct. In Child Development, 48, 1184-1199.
Stern, D.N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.
Stern, D.N., Sander, L.W., Nahum, J.P., Harrison, A.M., Lyons-Ruth, K., Morgan, A.C., Bruschweiler-Stern, N., and Tronick, E.Z. (1998). The Process of Therapeutic Change Involving Implicit Knowledge: Some Implications of Developmental Observations for Adult Psychotherapy. Infant Mental Health Journal. Vol.19 (3), 300-308.
Stoller, R. J. (1986). Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. London: Karnac Books.
Stubrin, J.P. (1994). Sexualities and Homosexualities, trans. E. Reneboldi. London: Karnac Books.
Trevarthen, C. (2001). Intrinsic Motives For Companionship In Understanding: Their Origin, Development, And Significance For Infant Mental Health. In Infant Mental Health Journal, ed. A.N. Schore, Vol 22, 95-131.
van der Kolk, B.A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of post-traumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1, 253-265.
van der Kolk, B.A., and Fisler, R. (1995). Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 8, No 4, 505-521.
Winniccott, D.W. (1958). The Capacity to be Alone. In International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39: 416-420.
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self. In Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. London: The Hogarth Press.
Winnicott, D.W. (1974). Fear of Breakdown. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 1: 103-107.
Related articles from our experts
Adriana Gordon - London Private Counselling (PGDip, Reg MBACP)December 9th, 2017
Julie Easterbrook FdSc, MBACPDecember 5th, 2017
Chloe Goddard McLoughlin (Reg BACP, BA, Ad Dip, Dip) Counsellor/PsychotherapistDecember 13th, 2017
Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
Keeley Townsend BA (Hons), Ad.Dip.CP with Distinction, MNCS (Acc)December 14th, 2009
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.