Bulletin of the Psychoanalytic Research Society, Volume III, Number 1, Spring, 1994

Attachment Themes: Empirical Work, Analytic Implications, and Future Directions

Doris K. Silverman, Ph.D.
New York University

For more than a decade, I have been writing about attachment research. In this brief communication I cannot do justice to the increasing proliferation of attachment studies, the resulting body of substantive data that has been gleaned, the predictive power of initial attachment behavior, or its trans-generational consistency. I shall limit myself initially to a brief presentation of the attachment system (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980, 1988) and the ensuing research. Then I will discuss some of the implications of this work for psychoanalysis, and comment briefly on future directions as I see them emerging.

Bowlby (1988, pp. 26-27) defines attachment as "any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived of as better able to cope with the world. It is most obvious whenever the person is frightened, fatigued or sick, and is assuaged by comforting and caregiving". Whereas the bulk of attachment research has addressed infants' and young children's behavior, with this definition Bowlby is more inclusive: He maintained that attachment is an essential, life-long human need.

The concept of the attachment system has grown out of Bowlby's commitment to a dramatic departure from traditional psychoanalytic theory: His conceptualization of the nature and development of internalized object representations. It was Bowlby's efforts to understand the infant's struggles with separation, loss, grief and mourning that led him to evolve a new systematic motivational paradigm. Distinguishing his theory from Freud's pleasure principle model, Bowlby emphasized the infant's need to feel secure and safe, a state that can be achieved through proximity to the major caregiver (typically the mother). The attachment process is a key feature of the infant's experience and is fostered by such instinctual responses as the infant's crying, clinging and smiling. This ethological "behavioral system" is initially governed by the infant's primitive behavioral patterns that are reinforced by parental responsiveness, which provides the infant with a "goal corrected system" that facilitates proximity and felt safety. The attachment system evolves slowly during the course of the first year.

The social, interactive features of the attachment system are key. As I have written elsewhere (Silverman, 1992, p. 196), "Infants show greater discriminatory capacity for social over nonsocial stimuli (e.g., early recognition of speech sounds). They also have the ability to connect people's faces and voices, to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people, to recognize gender and age differences, and to discriminate tonal and facial expressions. Brain differentiation occurs more readily in response to social stimuli. Diurnal wake-sleep patterns follow social interactions. Social stimuli evoke more interest and are more rapidly learned". The infant's pre-wired capabilities, capacities for social engagements, primitive sensorimotor and cognitive abilities along with "good enough" environmental responsiveness encourage attachments. These early patterns of attachment get internalized as "working models"; the infant's patterns of attachment become habituated, generalized and then internalized as schemas.

Empirical Research

Ainsworth (1979; Ainsworth et al., 1978) was interested in exploring experimentally Bowlby's attachment system. She and her co-workers devised an experimental paradigm-the Strange Situation-which allowed for study of infants' reactions to separations and reunions with mothers. Ainsworth described three major classifications of infants: avoidant (Group A), secure (Group B), and ambivalent-resistant (Group C). Most infants tested belonged to the second category (65-70%); the avoidant group comprised approximately 20-25%, the ambivalent-resistant group less than 10%. Even though the latter two groups were often labeled as "insecurely attached", these were not thought of as pathological attachments. Such attachments were considered characteristic modes of relating which became schematized. However, in their extreme form insecure attachments may signal future emotional difficulties.

While attachment patterns are fairly stable and enduring, they are not rigid. They are responsive to dramatic changes in interactions. A new stable marriage, parental separations or loss can alter the nature of the child's internalized attachment model. They are also culture-specific. In other parts of the world one or the other of these attachment patterns were more prevalent. For example, a large percentage of North German children were labeled avoidant (Parke, Grossman & Tinsley, 1981), while in Japan many infants were classified as resistant (Takahashi, 1986).

Researchers have written about the need for more subtle classifications within the broad categories mentioned above. A new category, unstable-avoidant (sometimes labeled disorganized; see Main, Kaplan & Cassidy, 1985; Spieker & Booth, 1988) is currently under scrutiny. This group refers to infants and young children though of as being at risk for pathology

Relevance for Psychoanalysis

Bowlby's theory of attachment offers challenges to a psychoanalytic understanding of object relational representations. Bowlby presented a model of such internalizations which evolve from conscious and unconscious baby-caregiver interactions based on infants' biological-social psychological needs for proximity and safety. Traditional Freudian theory, by contrast, describes such representations as occurring either through narcissistic, oedipal or early merged identifications. Neither of these views specifically address the non-libidinal attachment system (although Freud originally dealt with the idea of attachment through his recognition of the infant's anaclitic needs and how sexuality leans on such needs; see Silverman, 1991). Bowlby's views suggest considerations of non-libidinal object relational internalizations. The secure attachment system may underlie Freud's concept of the unobjectionable positive transference. It may be a silent partner when erotic transferences dominate. Insecure (and especially avoidant) attachments may assume important foreground expression when predominantly hateful transferences prevail. Insecure attachments may also be a relevant ingredient of Winnicott's "holding environment", thereby producing theoretical underpinnings for the reduced role of insight in some patients.

Whereas all psychoanalytic theories have a significant genetic component, the ability to predict health or pathology from early experiences is often asserted rather than demonstrated empirically. Longitudinal studies have rarely been able to document causal relationships (see Silverman, 1986). Attachment research is ground-breaking in this regard. For example, it has been demonstrated that early secure infant-mother attachments provide children with greater social and adaptational skills. Ambivalent and avoidant attachments often flag potential future difficulties for children. Early disorganized attachments appear to be especially pertinent predictors of later childhood maladaptation. Lyons-Ruth et al. (1991) report on a number of studies which demonstrate that maternal and family risk factors (child maltreatment, parental stress, multi-problem families, and especially mothers' depressive symptoms) consistently produce children with disorganized attachment relationships. Such children are often hostile and combative, and are considered "problem children" during their school years.

Lyons-Ruth (1992) and Sameroff and Emde (1989) stress the significance of mother-child interactions which organize affect regulation for the infant. Affect regulation may underlie a variety of competencies that are internalized by the infant. For Lyons-Ruth, disruption in the "attachment-exploration balance" may interfere with a variety of cognitive and social skills. The child focuses on distressing attachment relationship rather than engaging in innovative exploration of the environment. This view has implications for the construct of "deficit" (and its implication of lack of specific mental structures), which I believe has significant conceptual limitations. A more useful approach might be the consideration of the child's internalization of dysfunctional attachments. The maladaptive attachment pattern may be experienced as stressful and disruptive, and becomes the conscious-unconscious focus for the child. Instead of the concept of deficit, such a view emphasizes the child's orchestration of his/her particular needs, and these may be different from the organizing principles of more securely attached infants. This view of pathology addresses what is demonstrable in the child or adult rather than what is missing or lacking and needs to be built in.

Future Directions

1) Research is beginning to emerge on the psycho-biological aspects of attachment (Hofer, 1984; Kramer, 1992). Experimental work on infrahumans demonstrates the importance of the mother's proximity for regulating a host of physiological variables in her offspring. Furthermore, environmental stressors existing for mothers alter the nature of the animals' attachment and their subsequent response after separation (Hofer, 1984).

2) Initial research on the nature of the child's attachment employed primarily middle-class subjects. The subject population is now being enlarged.

3) Longitudinal research that examines various pathways to children's health or pathology is ongoing. Lyons-Ruth (1992) demonstrated the importance of depressive symptoms in mothers of infants who formed disorganized attachments. The disorganizing attachment is maintained and therefore disruptive of later behavior even when mothers no longer manifest depressive behavior.

4) Predictions from attachment patterns during the first year to subsequent behavior are consistently demonstrated. Such predictive patterns have been confirmed through latency. Researchers are now extending their studies to include older groups (e.g., adolescents; see Kobak & Sceery, 1988).

5) Adult patterns of attachment are also under study. Main et al. (1985) have demonstrated trans-generational patterns of attachment. Mothers' and fathers' attachment patterns with their parents are replicated in their attachment relationships with their children.

6) The relationships between adult attachment styles and romantic relationships are now being assessed experimentally. This research is an out- go growth of Bowlby's views on the capacity for adult love. He maintained that there is an intimate relationship between being viewed as supportive and protective and being able to anticipate similar responses from others when one is in need. Hazan and Shaver (1987) are in the forefront of this work, but other investigators (e.g., Batholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Feeney & Noller, 1990) are also pursuing and refining these ideas.


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