The Development of Attachment Theory
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Paul Renn
16th February, 2010
Attachment theory was launched by Bowlby in the late 1950s in response to what he saw as questionable ideas about childhood development and a lack of scientific rigour in psychoanalytic thinking in the 1930s and 1940s (Holmes, 1996). Despite the ethological and biological dimensions of attachment theory, the genesis of Bowlby’s work was psychoanalysis and he acknowledged his debt to Freud, Klein and the British object relations school (Bowlby, 1969). A significant influence was Fairbairn (1996), who argued that feelings of security vitally inform the manner by which the infant affectively relates to internalized split off rejecting objects and idealized objects, and who viewed insecurity as stemming primarily from separation anxiety.
On articulating his thinking about psychopathology in general, and aggression in particular, Bowlby (1969, 1979) points out that Freud’s major theoretical formulations consistently centre on trauma and on an understanding of how intrapsychic conflict between sexual and ego instincts and life and death instincts, expressed as the ambivalent conflict between love and hate, comes to be satisfactorily regulated (Freud, 1915, 1923). Following Klein (1940), who was his supervisor during his psychoanalytic training in the 1930s, Bowlby (1960, 1969, 1973) drew a connection between pathological childhood mourning and psychiatric illness in adulthood. He was particularly influenced by Klein’s view that certain mental defences in early childhood are directed against “pining” for the lost object. However, Bowlby (1958, 1960, 1969, 1973) eventually discarded the dual-drive theory of sexuality and aggression, arguing that a biologically based “drive” for attachment was more compelling. In a direct and bold challenge to classical theory, he proposed that it is the particular quality of love and security provided by the mother that helps the child to regulate the basic conflict between love and hate.
As Bowlby developed his theory, he hypothesised that the infant is born with a primary instinctive need to form an emotional bond with the mother. Thus, whereas Klein (1940) regarded aggression as an expression of the death instinct, and anxiety as resulting from its projection, Bowlby (1969, 1979) found this formulation unconvincing, arguing that accounts of aggression that step outside biology are remote from clinical observation and experience. He contended, instead, that aggression and destructiveness are secondary, viewing these responses as the result of a traumatic disturbance in the infant-mother relationship, and as being activated by the actual, or threatened, loss of the attachment bond to the mother.
In essence, then, the dispute that arose between attachment theory and psychoanalysis some 60 years ago focused on what Bowlby (1988) saw as a reluctance in analytic circles to examine the impact of real-life traumatic events in the genesis of pathology. Instead, classical thinking emphasised drive theory, unconscious phantasy and the death instinct.
Black (2001) and Schwartz (2001) postulate that in an historical context, the death instinct, as an explanation of aggression, may be seen in terms of a “detour” waiting for a time when the relational aspects of destructiveness could be thought about more directly. The reaction to Bowlby’s thinking in the 1950s, however, was immediate, negative and hostile, and his work on attachment, separation and loss was, until recently, largely ignored by psychoanalysts (Tyson, 2002).
Happily, there are increasing signs of a rapprochement between attachment theory and psychoanalysis (Carvalho, 2002; Fonagy, 1998, 2001, 2003; Holmes, 1996, 2001; Mitchell, 1998, 2000; Tyson, 2002). This integrative process is being given added impetus by the findings of neurocognitive and neurobiological research (Damascio, 2000; Panksepp, 2001; Schore, 1994, 2001; Siegal, 2001), and by studies into deprivation, trauma, affect regulation, dissociation, and implicit-procedural memory (Bradley, 2003; Herman & van der Kolk, 1987; Knox, 1999, 2001; Liotti, 1992; Perry et al., 1995; Rutter, 1981, 1997; Schacter, 1996; Stern et al., 1998; van der Kolk, 1994; van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995).
The findings of these various disciplines point to the central role of the infant-mother attachment relationship in the transmission and regulation of emotions, and to the saliency of this intersubjective process to both brain development and cognitive mastery of experience (Trevarthen, 2001). Indeed, as Cozolino (2002, 2006) and Siegal (2001) document, neurobiological research suggests that the brain retains plasticity throughout the lifespan and may continue to develop in response to emotional relationships and environmental challenges. Such changes are manifested in internal working models of attachment, reflecting the attainment of “earned security” (Hesse, 1999).
Black, D.M. (2001). Mapping A Detour: Why Did Freud Speak Of A Death Drive? British Journal of Psychotherapy, 18 (2), 185-198.
Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Child’s Tie to His Mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39: 350-371.
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.
Bowlby, J. (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London: Routledge.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. London: Pimlico.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. Bristol: Arrowsmith.
Bradley, S.J. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Development of Psychopathology. New York: The Guilford Press.
Carvalho, R. (2002). Psychic Retreats Revisited: Binding Primitive Destructiveness, or Securing the Object? A Matter of Emphasis? British Journal of Psychotherapy, 19 (2), 153-171.
Cozolino, L.J. (2002). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain. Norton: New York.
Cozolino, L.J. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. Norton: New York.
Damascio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. London: Vintage.
Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1996). Psychological Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge.
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. (2001). Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. New York: Other Press.
Fonagy, P. (2003). Attachment to Ideas: The status of attachment theory in psychoanalytic thought. Unpublished autumn lecture given at the Centre for the Advancement of Psychoanalytic Studies, 14th November.
Freud, S. (1915). Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. Standard Edition 14. London: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition 19. London: Hogarth Press.
Herman, J. L. and van der Kolk, B. A. (1987). Traumatic antecedents of borderline personality disorder. In Psychological trauma, ed. B. A. van der Kolk, 111-126. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Hesse, E.(1999) The Adult Attachment Interview. Handbook of attachment: Theory, research and clinical applications, J. Cassidy and P.R. Shaver (Eds.). New York: Guilford Press.
Holmes, J. (1996). Attachment, Intimacy, Autonomy: Using attachment theory in adult psychotherapy. New York: Jason Aronson.
Holmes, J. (2001). The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. Hove; Brunner-Routledge.
Klein, M. (1940). Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States. In Contributions to Psychoanalysis 1921-1945. London: Hogarth Press.
Knox, J. (1999). The relevance of attachment theory to a contemporary Jungian view of the internal world: internal working models, implicit memory and internal objects. In Journal of Analytical Psychology, 44 (4), 511-530.
Knox, J. (2001). Memories, fantasies, archetypes: an exploration of some connections between cognitive science and analytical science. In Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46 (4), 613-635.
Liotti, G. (1992). Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment in the Etiology of the Dissociative Disorders. In Dissociation. 4:196-204.
Mitchell, S.A. (1998). Attachment Theory and the Psychoanalytic Tradition: Reflections on Human Relationality. In British Journal of Psychotherapy, 15 (2), 177-193.
Mitchell, S.A. (2000). Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
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.
Rutter, M. (1981). Maternal deprivation reassessed (2nd ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Rutter, M. (1997). Clinical implications of attachment concepts. Retrospective and prospective. In Attachment psychopathology, L. Atkinson and K. J. Zucker (eds.) 17-46. New York: The Guilford Press.
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.
Schwartz, J. (2001). Commentary On David Black: Beyond The Death Drive Detour – How Can We Deepen Our Understanding Of Cruelty, Malice, Hatred, Envy And Violence? British Journal of Psychotherapy, 18 (2), 199-204.
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.
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.
Tyson, P. (2002). The Challenges of Psychoanalytic Developmental Theory. In Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50 (1): 19-52.
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.
Related articles from our experts
Jo BakerMarch 1st, 2018
Annabelle Hird, MBACPMarch 1st, 2018
Bernadette Reith MNCS(Acc) MFETC(dip)March 4th, 2018
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist & Author (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,FRSA,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
Keeley Townsend BA (Hons), Ad.Dip.CP with Distinction, MNCS (Acc)December 14th, 2009
Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.