John Bowlby and Attachment Theory
John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who carried out most of his research on the attachments formed in human relationships and is known as the “father” of attachment theory. In his belief, the formation of attachments with other people is vital for a human being and if these are not made the person may not be able to function properly (Bowlby, 2005).
Bowlby argues that the capacity for attachment is innate and its formation is dependent on early experiences, beginning in infancy, with significant others, such as the mother. Accordingly an individual’s inability to trust or to form close long-standing relationships may occur due to the primary caregiver’s absence or inability to form a secure and reliable bond with them as a child (Elliot and Reis, 2003).
The primary carer is usually the mother. Though parents, other members of the family and close friends act as attachment figures, adult attachments were found mostly directing toward romantic partners (Hazan and Zeifman, 1994). Bowlby argued that in order for a child to be able to form close relationships with others when grown up, the carer must be able to provide a ‘secure base’ (McLeod, 2009). He supported the view that the formation of secure attachments was vital in the first five years of life in order for the child to develop emotionally, socially and intellectually (Aldbridge and Rigby, 2004).
Parental loss and attachment
Experiences of parental loss may cause emotional disturbances and harm an individual’s ability to form close relationships in the future (Furukawa et al., 1999). Although Bowlby (2005) stressed the importance of the parents being kept alone with their child right after it is born in order to form a strong attachment, a review of the studies conducted (Goldberg, 1983) showed that there is no great or long-lasting impact of early contact on attachment.
Others have argued that it is the quality of the time spent which is of great importance rather than the quantity (Fox, 1977; Ainsworth, 1974). Therefore mothers’ responsiveness and physical contact were suggested to be most vital for the attachments with their children (Anisfeld et. al., 1990).
Nevertheless there has not been much doubt concerning the importance of the formation of attachments between a child and its primary carer.
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Researchers such as Ainsworth (1978) and Main, (1991) as cited in McLeod (2009), aimed to develop a more meaningful understanding of attachment theory as well as how this theory could be used within therapy. Ainsworth (1978), as did Bowlby, held the belief that the child’s personality and character will be mostly shaped by the primary carer. Ainsworth stated that infant behaviour could be explained by that of their parent. Additionally, in studies carried out to explore attachment, Ainsworth used the ‘strange situation’ technique. This involved observing infants while their mother would leave the room twice and then return.
According to Fraley and Spieker (2003) this procedure splits up attachment into three forms. First, the secure form of attachment is when a baby searches for comfort or protection by the mother, therefore receiving care constantly. Here the mother is mostly regarded as providing love and affection. Second, the avoidant form of attachment is when a baby has the tendency to avoid the mother. Thus, the mother is regarded as rejecting the attachment behaviour of the infant. Finally, resistant attachment is when an infant usually stays close to the mother showing an unbalance regarding the care provided by the mother to her child.
Main (1991) carried out research exploring adult attachment patterns by developing the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) thus finding strong correlations with the attachment types of their parents. For counselling one of the most important aspects of this research was the finding which supported the view that individuals who developed secure attachments, functioning well in their lives, had the ability to speak rationally and collaboratively about their past. Main, (1991) as cited in McLeod (2006, p.109) has argued that these individuals were able to do this because they could ‘step back from the situation and reflect on what they were saying’. This was known as meta-cognitive monitoring. Therefore effective therapy takes place when an individual is capable of reflecting on their experiences (Fonagy, 1999, cited in McLeod).
Attachment theory has been applicable within approaches dealing with emotionally-important relationships or active attachment behaviour including parenting, family counselling, grief counselling (loss), abusive adult relationships and child abuse (Pistole and Watkins, 1995; Bartholomew and Thompson, 1995). Bartholomew and Thompson (1995) argue that attachment theory cannot provide an integrative framework for the whole field of counselling but can help inform some features of counselling.
Although the ideas of attachment have not contributed to the development of a therapy, the theory has influenced psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy in several ways. For instance, therapists make use of this theory in order to develop more awareness concerning their clients’ relationship patterns as well as the underlying dynamics of their emotional difficulties.
Pistole (1989) argues that attachment theory could be used to produce therapeutic change in a client as well as more productive functioning. There has also been evidence supporting the view that the attachment type of the client as well as that of the therapist has an effect on the way in which the therapeutic process is shaped (Rubino et al., 2000). Researchers such as Johnson and Greenberg (1992), Alexander (1993) and Dutton et al. (1994) as cited in Bartholomew and Thompson, (1995) have used attachment theory in an attempt to better understand couples’ therapy, the long term impact of child abuse as well as abusive marital relationships.
Therefore attachment theory and the conducted research in this area has shown to have an impact on counsellors’ sensitivity enabling them to become more sensitive regarding how their clients tell their stories.
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