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Attachment, security, separation and psychological difference

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 disorganisation, 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 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).

Felt security 

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 well-being 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. Thus free to explore the environment, 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 an 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.

Developing the 'self'

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).

Illustration of man comforting woman

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 disorganised 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 and 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.

Illustration of woman holding shieldSelf-regulation and self-restraint 

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 (ADHD).

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 an 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.

Other family relationships 

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 a 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).


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Written by Paul Renn

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples counselling and also supervise counsellors and psychotherapists. I also work as a life coach.… Read more

Written by Paul Renn

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