Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Attachment Theory for Infants and Adults


John Bowlby's theory of attachment addresses the importance of the bonds formed between infants and caregivers. It has been thought that these bonds can be comparable to that of the attachments formed in adult relationships. In other words, in both types of relationships, the person wants to be comforted and protected by the partner (or caregiver), and may protest when there is a change and he or she may become unavailable. Bowlby also said that people build up certain expectations of attachment figures which are used to create an internal working model. This model can then guide people in future relationships and play an important role throughout the lifecycle.

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Bowlby's Theory of Attachment for Infants

The theory of attachment was originally developed by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who was attempting to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Bowlby observed that separated infants would go to extraordinary lengths (e.g., crying, clinging, frantically searching) to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish proximity to a missing parent. At the time of Bowlby's initial writings, psychoanalytic writers held that these expressions were manifestations of immature defense mechanisms that were operating to repress emotional pain, but Bowlby noted that such expressions are common to a wide variety of mammalian species, and speculated that these behaviors may serve an evolutionary function.

Drawing on ethological theory, Bowlby postulated that these attachment behaviors, such as crying and searching, were adaptive responses to separation from with a primary attachment figure--someone who provides support, protection, and care. Because human infants, like other mammalian infants, cannot feed or protect themselves, they are dependent upon the care and protection of "older and wiser" adults. Bowlby argued that, over the course of evolutionary history, infants who were able to maintain proximity to an attachment figure via attachment behaviors would be more likely to survive to a reproductive age. According to Bowlby, a motivational system, what he called the attachment behavioral system, was gradually "designed" by natural selection to regulate proximity to an attachment figure.

The attachment behavior system is an important concept in attachment theory because it provides the conceptual linkage between ethological models of human development and modern theories on emotion regulation and personality. According to Bowlby, the attachment system essentially "asks" the following fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive? If the child perceives the answer to this question to be "yes," he or she feels loved, secure, and confident, and, behaviorally, is likely to explore his or her environment, play with others, and be sociable. If, however, the child perceives the answer to this question to be "no," the child experiences anxiety and, behaviorally, is likely to exhibit attachment behaviors ranging from simple visual searching on the low extreme to active following and vocal signaling on the other. These behaviors continue until either the child is able to reestablish a desirable level of physical or psychological proximity to the attachment figure, or until the child "wears down," as may happen in the context of a prolonged separation or loss. In such cases, Bowlby believed that young children experienced profound despair and depression.

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Attachment Theory Applicability for Adults

Although attention has mostly focused on the early relationship between children and their parents, attachment theory is a theory of the lifespan development of close relationships. In contrast to the idea that childhood dependence is ideally replaced by emotional independence in the young adult, Bowlby asserted that healthy human beings continue to rely on attachment relationships in times of danger, vulnerability, or illness. Attachment is defined as an affectional bond to another person, who is irreplaceable by others although there may be more than one such relationship. Attachment relationships are characterized by a need to maintain proximity, distress upon separation, joy upon reunion, and grief at loss. However, what especially characterizes an attachment relationship in comparison to other close relationships is the use of the attachment figure as a secure base from which to explore the world and as a safe haven to flee to in times of distress.

The tendency to form attachment relationships is thought to be biologically "wired in" because of the survival value it represented in human evolution. A hypothesized attachment behavioral system causes children to become attached to caregivers even if the caregiver does not provide the security and comfort sought for. If the caregiver is unreliable or perhaps even maltreating, the child will adjust and modify its attachment behavior in order to obtain whatever approximation to security is possible in that particular relationship. Attachment figures in infancy are normally parents or parent-like figures, but as development progresses, the most important attachment figures become romantic partners or close friends, and in old age sometimes one's own children.

The concept of distinctive patterns of attachment initially arose out of the observational studies by Ainsworth of infant—mother interaction. In an experimental separation and reunion procedure called the Strange Situation, Ainsworth identified three main patterns in children's ability to use the parent as a secure base for exploration. Children labeled B or secure comfortably use the parent as a secure base when exploring the environment. They miss their parent upon separation, seek contact with the parent upon reunion, and can be comforted by the parent and return to exploration. Children labeled A or insecure-avoidant explore the environment without referring back to the parent. They ignore the parent leaving and returning and are not visibly upset; instead, they turn their attention to toys. Children labeled C or insecure-ambivalent are focused on the parent and seem unable to explore. They are very distressed when the parent leaves, but cannot be comforted by the parent upon reunion, instead they appear angry or passive. Later a fourth category D or insecure-disorganized has been added, but children assigned to this category do not show a similar degree of organized response and are always assigned to one of the three ABC categories as well.

Attachment patterns in infancy arise out of parent—child interaction and are regarded as a property of the specific attachment relationship—thus attachment patterns with mother and father can differ. However, Bowlby believed that attachment patterns increasingly become a property of the individual rather than the relationship. This is due to the gradual formation of mental representations of attachment-related interactions—internal working models—which guide the individual in future attachment interactions. In agreement with Bowlby's assertion, most theorists of adult attachment claim that attachment patterns in adulthood consist of generalized thoughts, feelings and expectations regulating the way that a given individual engages in close relationships. Adult attachment patterns are thought to be relatively stable, because new experience is assimilated to the existing working model, and because the patterns give rise to self-perpetuating interactional behaviors. Thus, a person who has experienced warm and sensitive caregiving will have an open and positive attitude towards close relationships in the future, and this will tend to elicit a positive response from others, thus confirming the positively colored working model. Conversely, a person who has experienced repeated rejection will look for cues of further rejection, and the guarded behavior resulting from this expectation can actually serve to elicit the feared rejection and confirm the negatively colored working model.

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Attachment, bonding and relationships

You were born preprogrammed to bond with one very significant person—your primary caregiver, probably your mother. Like all infants, you were a bundle of emotions—intensely experiencing fear, anger, sadness, and joy. The emotional attachment that grew between you and your caregiver was the first interactive relationship of your life, and it depended upon nonverbal communication. The bonding you experienced determined how you would relate to other people throughout your life, because it established the foundation for all verbal and nonverbal communication in your future relationships.

Individuals who experience confusing, frightening, or broken emotional communications during their infancy often grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the feelings of others. This limits their ability to build or maintain successful relationships. Attachment—the relationship between infants and their primary caregivers—is responsible for:
  • shaping the success or failure of future intimate relationships
  • the ability to maintain emotional balance
  • the ability to enjoy being ourselves and to find satisfaction in being with others
  • the ability to rebound from disappointment, discouragement, and misfortune

Scientific study of the brain—and the role attachment plays in shaping it—has given us a new basis for understanding why vast numbers of people have great difficulty communicating with the most important individuals in their work and love lives. Once, we could only use guesswork to try and determine why important relationships never evolved, developed chronic problems, or fell apart. Now, thanks to new insights into brain development, we can understand what it takes to help build and nurture productive and meaningful relationships at home and at work.

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