The Development of Attachment Theory

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).


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Written by Paul Renn

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and south west 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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